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Hezbollah, Israel trade heavy cross-border fire as Blinken seeks to prevent regional escalation

By BASSEM MROUE, SAMY MAGDY and NAJIB JOBAIN
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah traded fire Saturday in one of the heaviest days of cross-border fighting in recent weeks, a day after the militia’s leader urged retaliation for the targeted killing, presumably by Israel, of a top Hamas leader in Lebanon’s capital.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that if his group didn’t strike back for the killing Tuesday of Saleh Arouri, Hamas’ deputy political leader, all of Lebanon would be vulnerable to Israeli attacks.

With the risk of regional escalation, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off an urgent Middle East diplomatic tour, his fourth since the Israel-Hamas war erupted three months ago.

“It is absolutely necessary to avoid Lebanon being dragged into a regional conflict,” the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in Beirut during his own Middle East tour.

Hezbollah said it launched 62 rockets toward an Israeli air surveillance base on Mount Meron and scored direct hits in its “initial response” to Arouri’s killing. It said rockets also struck two army posts near the border. The Israeli military said about 40 rockets were fired toward Meron and that a base was targeted. The army’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the rockets caused no casualties in Israel.

Hagari said the military struck the Hezbollah squads that fired the rockets and also attacked Hezbollah military sites. Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed Saturday, raising the toll since the fighting began to 150.

Israeli airstrikes on southern Lebanon hit the outskirts of Kouthariyeh al-Siyad, a village about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the border, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said, adding that there were casualties. Such strikes deeper inside Lebanon have been rare since the border fighting started nearly three months ago. NNA also said Israeli forces shelled border areas including the town of Khiam.

Separately, the armed wing of the Islamic Group in Lebanon, the country’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and a close ally of Hamas, said it fired two volleys of rockets toward the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona on Friday night. Two of the group’s members were killed in the strike that killed Arouri.

The war in Gaza was triggered by a deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages.

In recent weeks, Israel has been scaling back its military assault in northern Gaza and pressing its offensive in the territory’s south, where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians are being squeezed into smaller areas in a humanitarian disaster while being pounded by Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video statement reiterated that “the war must not be stopped” until the objectives of eliminating Hamas, getting Israel’s hostages returned and ensuring that Gaza won’t be a threat to Israel are met.

On Saturday, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said 122 Palestinians had been killed over the past 24 hours, bringing the total since the start of the war to 22,722. The count does not differentiate between combatants and civilians. The ministry has said two-thirds of those killed have been women or children. The overall wounded rose to 58,166, the ministry said.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in the central city of Deir al-Balah received at least 46 bodies overnight, according to hospital records seen by The Associated Press. Many were men who apparently had been shot. The dead also included five members of a family who were killed in an airstrike.

The latest Israeli-dropped leaflets urged Palestinians in some areas near the hospital to evacuate, citing “dangerous fighting.”

In the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive, the European Hospital received the bodies of 18 people killed in an overnight airstrike on a house, said Saleh al-Hamms, head of the hospital’s nursing department. Citing witnesses, he said more than three dozen people had been sheltering in the house, including some who had been displaced.

Israel has held Hamas responsible for civilian casualties, saying the group embeds itself within Gaza’s civilian infrastructure. Still, international criticism of Israel’s conduct has grown because of the rising civilian death toll. The United States has urged Israel to do more to prevent harm to civilians, even as it sends weapons and munitions while shielding its close ally against international censure.

The U.S. also has pressed Israel to let much more aid into Gaza. Two U.S. senators who visited Egypt’s Rafah border crossing described lines of hundreds of trucks that have been waiting for weeks to enter.

Blinken began his latest Mideast trip in Turkey, which the Biden administration believes can exert influence, particularly on Iran and its proxies, to tamp down fears of a regional conflagration.

Those fears have spiked in recent days with incidents in the Red Sea, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. On Saturday, a drone launched from an area of Yemen controlled by the Houthi militant group was shot down by the U.S. destroyer Laboon near multiple commercial vessels in the Red Sea, the U.S. Central Command said in a statement, adding there were no casualties or damage reported.

In talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Blinken sought support for nascent plans for post-war Gaza that could include monetary or in-kind contributions to reconstruction efforts and some form of participation in a proposed multinational force that could operate in or adjacent to the territory.

Blinken then traveled to Turkish rival and fellow NATO ally Greece to meet Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has been supportive of U.S. efforts to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading.

Other stops include Jordan, followed by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Sunday and Monday. Blinken will visit Israel and the West Bank next week before wrapping up the trip in Egypt.

The EU’s foreign policy chief also will visit Saudi Arabia on Sunday. He said he aims to jump-start a European-Arab initiative to revive a peace process that would result in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

___

Magdy reported from Cairo and Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Istanbul, Julia Frankel in Jerusalem, Abby Sewell in Beirut and Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this report.

___ Find more of AP’s coverage at: https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war

Article Topic Follows: ap-national-news

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