Mideast tensions rise further after Iran deadly bombing

Published: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 2:54 PM

Dozens of people killed as Israel launches Gaza strikes; some Iranian officials blame US and Israel for the twin blasts


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People gather near tents used as temporary shelter as smoke rises during an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday. — AFP
People gather near tents used as temporary shelter as smoke rises during an Israeli strike on Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday. — AFP

Israeli bombing killed dozens of people overnight in Gaza, the health ministry of the Hamas-run Palestinian territory said Thursday, as regional tensions have surged over the almost three-months-old war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to head to the Middle East, a US official said on condition of anonymity, the top diplomat's fourth trip to the region since the Hamas attack of October 7 triggered the bloodiest ever Gaza war.

The Israeli military, in its campaign to destroy the Islamist militant group, has reported more strikes in and around Gaza City, now a largely devastated urban combat zone, and Khan Yunis, the biggest urban centre in the besieged territory's south.

The Gaza health ministry reported "dozens of martyrs and more than 100 wounded in the continued barbaric aerial and artillery bombardment of citizens' homes in the Gaza Strip".

Fires sparked by bombing raged in Gaza's central Deir Al Balah area and the Al-Maghazi refugee camp.

"People were safe in their homes, the house was full of children," resident Ibrahim al-Ghimri told AFP. "There were around 30 people. All of a sudden their houses fell on them... What have these children done?"

Tensions have also surged with Israel's northern neighbour Lebanon, where a strike in Beirut on Tuesday, widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel, killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Aruri, who was set to be buried Thursday.

Aruri was killed in the south Beirut stronghold of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which has traded tit-for-tat fire across the border with Israel for months, while both sides have avoided full-scale war.

Hezbollah has vowed that the killing of Aruri and six other Hamas operatives on its home turf will not go unpunished, labelling it "a serious assault on Lebanon... and a dangerous development".

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel against all-out conflict, after Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi, in a visit to the Lebanese border, said troops were "in very high readiness".

Nasrallah said that "for now, we are fighting on the frontline following meticulous calculations" but warned that, "if the enemy thinks of waging a war on Lebanon, we will fight without restraint, without rules, without limits and without restrictions".

The Lebanese Shiite Muslim group said Thursday another four of its fighters were killed overnight, raising its death toll to 129 since the outbreak of border hostilities.

Mossad chief David Barnea warned on Wednesday that the Israeli spy agency "is committed to settling the score with the murderers" who carried out the Hamas attack.

Anyone who "participated directly or indirectly in the slaughter of October 7, his blood shall be upon his own head," Barnea said.

The October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Gaza militants also took around 250 hostages, 129 of whom remain in the Palestinian territory according to Israel.

In response, Israel launched a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that has reduced swathes of Gaza to rubble and claimed at least 22,313 lives, according to the health ministry.

The United Nations estimates 1.9 million Gazans are displaced, and the World Health Organization has warned of the risk of famine and disease, with only a minimal amount of aid entering the territory.

A strike in Gaza's south killed displaced Palestinians living in tents, said bereaved residents who were mourning the dead, wrapped in shrouds at a hospital in Khan Yunis.

Baha Abu Hatab said his nephews were killed.

They had been living in "a tent to protect them from the cold weather, but Israeli airstrikes hit them in their sleep", he added.

"Why?" he asked. "Because they threaten Israel and the United States?"

As the Israel-Hamas war has raged, another regional flashpoint has seen Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels fire at merchant vessels in the Red Sea, disrupting a key global shipping lane, in attacks the rebels say are in solidarity with Hamas.

The United States and 11 of its allies jointly warned the Houthis of unspecified consequences unless they immediately halt the attacks.

US President Joe Biden's administration described the statement -- joined notably by Britain, Germany and Japan — as a final warning as he weighs possible military strikes if attacks persist.

"I would not anticipate another warning," a senior US official said, calling the message "very clear".

On Sunday, the US military said it had sunk three Houthi boats following attacks on a container ship of Danish shipping giant Maersk. The rebels said 10 of their fighters were killed.

Regional tensions rose further after twin bomb blasts in Iran on Wednesday killed 84 people, according to a revised death toll, near the grave of Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani, who died in a 2020 US strike in Baghdad.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed "evil and criminal enemies of the Iranian nation" and said: "This disaster will have a harsh response, God willing."

While some Iranian officials pointed blame at Tehran's long-time arch foes the United States and Israel, Washington rejected suggestions of either nation's involvement and an Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the idea of US involvement "ridiculous" and said Washington had "no reason to believe that Israel was involved" either.

Miller echoed the fears of many across the Middle East about an expansion of the Israel-Hamas war.

"It is in no one's interest -- not in the interest of any country in the region, not in the interest of any country in the world -- to see this conflict escalated any further than it already is," Miller said.

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