Vehicles leave an area engulfed by smoke from fires after rockets launched from southern Lebanon hit areas in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on July 4, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Hezbollah said it launched more than 200 rockets and explosive drones at Israeli military positions on Thursday as tensions have soared amid the almost nine-months-old war raging in Gaza.

The Iran-backed militant group said its latest attack, which followed the launch of over 100 rockets the previous day, came in response to Israel’s killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in south Lebanon.

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Israel did not report any deaths in its northern border area, where most communities have been evacuated, but quickly said it had responded with strikes on targets in southern Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah, an ally of Palestinian militant group Hamas, have exchanged near daily cross-border fire since the Gaza war erupted on October 7, stoking fears the clashes could escalate into all-out war.

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UN chief Antonio Guterres is “very worried about the escalation of the exchange of fire”, his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday, warning of the risk to the wider Middle East “if we were to find ourselves in a full-fledged conflict”.

Hezbollah and Hamas are part of an Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the United States, a regional alliance that also includes Yemen’s Huthi rebels and militant groups in Iraq and Syria.

The Israeli military said Thursday its forces were “striking launch posts in southern Lebanon” after “numerous projectiles and suspicious aerial targets crossed from Lebanon into Israeli territory”.

It said that most were intercepted by air defence systems but that “fires broke out in a number of areas in northern Israel” following the attacks.

This picture taken from northern Israel shows smoke billowing during an Israeli bombardment that targeted the southern Lebanese village of Khiyam on July 3, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Israel on Wednesday killed a senior Hezbollah commander, Mohammed Naameh Nasser, near the Lebanese coastal town of Tyre.

A source close to the group described him as the “Hezbollah commander responsible for one of three sectors in south Lebanon”. Another border sector chief was killed in an Israeli strike last month.

Hezbollah said that “as part of the response to the... assassination carried out by the enemy” it had fired “more than 200 rockets” and “a squadron of explosive drones” at Israeli bases.

Air raid sirens blared across northern Israel in the morning, and an AFP correspondent witnessed rockets crossing the frontier that were intercepted.

Heavy battles rock Gaza

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza including 42 the army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 38,011 people, also mostly civilians, according to figures from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

The Israel-Hezbollah border clashes have killed at least 496 people in Lebanon, most of them fighters but also including 95 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on their side of the UN-patrolled border.

The Gaza war at the heart of the regional tensions has meanwhile raged on, and gun battles, air strikes and artillery shelling rocked Gaza City for an eight day on Thursday.

Israeli troops over the past day had “destroyed tunnel routes in the area and eliminated dozens of terrorists in close-quarters combat with tank fire, and in aerial strikes,” said the military.

Gaza’s civil defence agency said at least five people were killed in a strike that hit a Gaza City school.

Fears of renewed heavy fighting have also surged in Gaza’s southern areas near Khan Yunis and Rafah after the military on Monday issued a sweeping evacuation order that the UN said impacted 250,000 people.

Witnesses reported air strikes and intense artillery shelling in western Rafah on Thursday.

Efforts towards truce

Israel has faced an international outcry over the soaring civilian death toll, punishing siege and mass destruction in Gaza.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for Gaza, Sigrid Kaag, this week again called for an end to the “maelstrom of human misery”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted Israel will destroy Hamas and bring home the remaining hostages.

US President Joe Biden, under growing domestic pressure over Washington’s support for Israel, in late May outlined a roadmap for a six-week ceasefire and exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

There has been little progress since, but Hamas said Wednesday it was communicating with officials in Qatar and Egypt as well as Turkey with an eye to ending the conflict.

Hamas said its Qatar-based political chief Ismail Haniyeh had “made contact with the mediator brothers in Qatar and Egypt about the ideas that the movement is discussing with them with the aim of reaching an agreement”.

Netanyahu’s office and the Mossad intelligence service said “Israel is evaluating the (Hamas) remarks and will convey its reply to the mediators”.

The main stumbling block so far has centred on Hamas’s demand for a permanent end to the fighting - a demand Netanyahu and his right-wing nationalist government allies strongly reject.