Three children among 10 civilians killed as Israel launches extensive strikes on Lebanon

Military confirms wave of bombardment hours after deadly attacks on northern Israeli city of Safed

A damaged building after what security sources said was an Israeli strike in Nabatieh, southern Lebanon. Reuters
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Israel's military launched heavy air strikes on Lebanon on Wednesday, hours after a missile attack killed a woman and her son and wounded others in the northern Israeli city of Safed.

The Israeli strikes, which hit deeper inside Lebanon than most previous attacks, killed at least nine people, including four children.

In one of the strikes in Al Sawana, a mother was killed along with her two children, the Risala Scout Association, a local rescue team, told The National.

In the evening, an apparent Israeli drone attack on a building in a residential area in the city of Nabatieh killed seven people from the same family, including women and at least two children, according to local media. A young boy was rescued from the rubble in the morning.

It was one of the most violent days on the front since the outbreak of the Gaza war.

Israeli fighter jets “began an extensive wave of attacks in Lebanese territory” on Wednesday afternoon, the military said on X. It gave no further details.

The Israeli army's chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, praised the strikes, which he said had hit the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, in a meeting with mayors and local authorities in northern Israel.

“These are very great achievements in hitting Hezbollah in Lebanon, but we continue to act. This is not the point to stop. There is still a long way to go and we will walk it together,” he said.

Strikes were reported in towns and villages across southern Lebanon including Aadchit, 15km from the border, Chehabiyah, 25km from the border, and Bouslaiya, Kfar Dunin, Al Sawana and Souneh.

Loud sounds like jet planes were also heard over the capital, Beirut.

A man identified as Hezbollah member Hassan Ali Najem was killed in his house in Aadchit, while nine others were wounded in an Israeli strike. Unverified footage showed a large plume of smoke and destroyed buildings in the village.

A mother and her two children, reported to be two and 13 years old, were killed when the building where they were staying was hit by an Israeli strike in Al Sawana.

Cross-border fire between Hezbollah and Israeli forces since the start of the Gaza war has killed at least 238 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters, but also about 30 civilians.

“The recent rise in civilian killings in south Lebanon is extremely worrying. Since last week, civilians have been killed in at least four separate Israeli strikes, bringing the civilian death toll to over 30 in Lebanon,” Ramzi Kais, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National.

“This follows reports by Human Rights Watch and others that Israel has conducted unlawful strikes in the country, including through apparent indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilians,” he added.

In November, Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into “an apparent war crime” after three schoolgirls and their grandmother were killed in an Israeli air strike.

At least nine Israeli soldiers and seven civilians have been killed since October 8.

Israel's military confirmed that one of its soldiers, Staff Sgt Omer Sarah Benjo, 20, was killed in the attack on Safed on Wednesday. It said a reservist was seriously wounded, and several other soldiers were moderately or lightly injured.

Hezbollah has yet to claim responsibility for the rocket barrage on Safed.

Escalating strikes

Israeli air strikes have primarily hit villages closer to the border than the targets hit on Wednesday.

The Israeli military has struck Beirut in central Lebanon once, in a drone strike that assassinated Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Arouri in a suburb of the capital in January.

On Saturday, several people were killed in an Israeli drone strike on the town of Jadra, 60km north of the border, the second-deepest attack into Lebanese territory since October 8.

Hezbollah has sought to respond to escalating Israeli strikes with proportional retaliatory attacks.

"The aggression that took place today on southern Lebanon, as a result of which a number of civilians and children were martyred, cannot pass without a response at all," said the chairman of the Executive Council of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hashem Safi Al Din, in response to Wednesday's strikes.

"There will undoubtedly be a response, and this response will be at the required and appropriate level," he added.

On Tuesday, the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said it would continue to respond with proportionate attacks, but insisted there would be no ceasefire on the border until there was a ceasefire in Gaza.

“If the Zionist enemy carries out any action, we will return to the same equations and rules and our responses will be proportionate,” he said in a televised address.

The National follows the latest escalations between Israel and Lebanon

The National follows the latest escalations between Israel and Lebanon

Northern Israel on high alert

The strike on Safed and the Israeli attacks into Lebanon have left citizens in northern Israel on high alert and communities anxious in expectation of further bloodshed.

Rapid Response Force (RRF) teams of armed locals have been set up in case of an attack or emergency.

In the town of Kfar Vradim, just 9km from the Lebanese border and 20km from Safed, the local RFF leader Sivan Yechieli told The National: “We are ready to deal with any infiltration.”

Mr Yechieli blamed Iran, which supports Hezbollah, for the attacks from Lebanon.

“Why on Earth is this happening?” said the former town mayor and software executive. “The only answers for that is because Iran, Iran is financing and keeping more than a fully armed division on our northern border.

“The real issue people miss a lot is that there is no dispute between Israel and Lebanon, there's no reason for war between us. Israel is not a threat to Lebanon, Lebanon is not a threat to Israel.”

“As difficult as today is for us, Safed has been hit before and our people are prepared for this,” Brig Gen Ilan Lavi, former chief of staff for Israel’s northern command, told The National: “They will not leave Safed and will not be forced out by Hezbollah or Iran.”

He added that whether Israel reacted with a “limited response” such as air strikes or whether it would be necessary for a full-scale “boots-on-the-ground operation” to remove Hezbollah was a question for the future.

Far-right Israeli politicians had called for escalation after the attack on Safed.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir described the attack as “a declaration of war”, calling for a change in how Israel manages the balance of forces on the Lebanese border.

“This is not just a barrage [of rockets], it is war,” the far-right politician wrote on X.

“Either there will be all-out war and Hezbollah will be moved away, and it will bear responsibility for the results in Beirut and Lebanon, or we won’t let them raise the bar and exact a severe response, and they will be moved away from the border,” Yuli Edelstein, head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, told army radio.

Avigdor Liberman, a member of the Israeli opposition, had pushed for a stronger response after the strike in Safed. “The red line has turned into a white flag – the war cabinet surrendered to Hezbollah and lost the north,” he posted on X.

Former senior Israeli army intelligence officer Lt Col Sarit Zehavi accused Hezbollah's Mr Nasrallah of provoking a war in the north.

“He wants to create a situation that there is war and that will meet his interests because he wants to take over Lebanon. If Hezbollah succeed in dragging Israel into war then nobody will blame him, as he will be seen as the protector of Lebanon,” he told The National.

The officer, founder of Alma Research Centre that focuses on northern Israeli security, added that the “ping-pong” of strikes followed by counter strikes was “intensifying until it deteriorates into war”.

“Everything is paralysed,” she said. “Sixty thousand people have left and there is no life next to the border, it just doesn't exist any more.”

The leader of Hezbollah, Mr Nasrallah, responded to repeated Israeli threats of war by threatening to displace millions of Israelis from the north of the country if all-out war did break out.

“All options are on the table. Our eyes are on Gaza as we fight on the border,” he said in a televised address.

“If you widen [the front], we will widen. If you intensify, we will intensify,” he warned Israel.

“You will have to find a place to shelter two million people from the north,” he said.

On the Israeli side of the border, a mother of two in Kfar Vradim told The National that while the situation did not feel as dangerous at the October 7 attacks, she was ready to leave at any moment.

“I have a suitcase packed ready for us to go,” she said.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 12:26 PM