Israel launches deadly Gaza strikes as Mideast tensions rise

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES, Jan 5 — Israeli bombing killed dozens of people in besieged Gaza Thursday, the health ministry of the Hamas-run Palestinian territory said, with regional tensions surging over the almost three-month-old war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was headed back to the Middle East for his fourth trip to the region since the Hamas attack of October 7 triggered the bloodiest ever Gaza war.

Blinken is to hold what threaten to be tough talks with Israeli leaders on “immediate measures to increase substantially humanitarian assistance to Gaza”, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

“We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy. There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead,” Miller said.

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

The army said it had killed Hamas fighters in the Khan Yunis area, struck “terrorist infrastructure” and hit militants attempting to “place an explosive device near soldiers”.

The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza reported 125 killed in the past 24 hours.

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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?”

With the war approaching its fourth month, the United States insisted Israel could achieve its military goals but cast doubt on its hopes of eliminating Hamas entirely.

“We believe that it is absolutely an attainable goal for the Israeli military forces to... defeat Hamas’s abilities to conduct attacks inside Israel,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

“Are you going to eliminate the ideology? No. And are you likely going to erase the group from existence? Probably not,” he added.

Israel’s war against Hamas threatened to spill over into a wider regional conflict after a strike in Lebanon, widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel, killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri, who was buried on Thursday, mourned by large crowds.

Aruri was killed on Tuesday 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.

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, on a visit to the Lebanese border, said troops were “in very high readiness”.

The Shiah Muslim militant group said on Thursday another four of its fighters were killed overnight, raising its losses to 129 since the outbreak of border hostilities.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on social media that his country preferred “a political solution” to the border clashes, but said “the window of time for this is short”.

The Israeli government has been pushing for Hezbollah to withdraw from the border area.

‘Hit in their sleep’

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.

The militants also took around 250 hostages, 132 of whom remain in captivity, according to Israel.

That last figure includes three people who had previously been posted as missing, military spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters Thursday.

In response, Israel launched a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that has reduced swathes of Gaza to rubble and claimed at least 22,438 lives, according to the health ministry.

Conditions for Gaza’s civilians are precarious, with the United Nations estimating 1.9 million are displaced and the World Health Organization warning of the risk of famine and disease.

The UN’s human rights chief, Volker Turk, said he was “very disturbed” by the comments of two Israeli cabinet ministers who separately called for Palestinians to leave Gaza, raising fears of mass expulsions.

“International law prohibits forcible transfer of protected persons within, or deportation from, occupied territory,” Turk said on X.

There has been no indication that the Israeli government as a whole supports such a policy.

Several displaced Palestinians living in tents in Gaza’s south were killed in a strike, said bereaved residents who were mourning the dead 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 air strikes hit them in their sleep”.

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

Final warning for Houthis

A further regional flashpoint threatened to erupt with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels repeatedly attacking merchant vessels in the Red Sea, disrupting a key global shipping lane, in a campaign the rebels say is in solidarity with the Palestinians.

The United States, which sank three Houthi boats on Sunday, joined with 11 of its allies in warning the rebels of unspecified consequences unless they immediately halt the attacks.

A senior US official suggested it was a final warning, saying “I would not anticipate another”.

Regional tensions were further inflamed after twin bomb blasts in Iran on Wednesday killed 84 people, near the grave of Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a targeted US drone strike in Baghdad four years ago.

As Iran marked a day of national mourning Thursday, the Islamic State jihadist group said it carried out the double-tap suicide bombings.

In a statement on Telegram, the group said two of its members “activated their explosives vests” near the grave of Soleimani, who oversaw Iranian support for military campaigns against IS in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.

Majority-Shiah Iran has suffered deadly attacks by the Sunni Muslim extremist group in the past, although officials routinely accuse the country’s arch foe Israel and the United States of orchestrating the violence. — AFP

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