Israel steps up military attacks on Lebanon despite US-mediated talks

Hamas official Hadi Mustafa reportedly killed in a drone strike on a car near the city of Tyre

Firefighters douse a burning car after it was hit in a reported Israeli drone attack in south Lebanon. AFP
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The killing of a Hamas official in a drone strike on Wednesday in Lebanon is sparking fears in Beirut of a new Israeli offensive that could take the countries closer to outright war.

Hadi Mustafa, who Israel claims was a "significant operative," was killed in a strike on his car near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Israel said he was involved in directing Hamas cells, as well as “advancing attacks against Israelis and Jews in several countries abroad”.

Israel claimed that Mustafa worked under the direction of Samir Fendi, a senior Hamas official who was killed on January 2 alongside Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Arouri in an Israeli attack on Beirut's southern suburbs.

A Hamas source denied that Mustafa was a top official.

Mustafa was from the Rashidieh refugee camp close to Tyre, one of the 12 refugee camps for Palestinians in Lebanon, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.

A Syrian man who was riding his motorbike nearby was also killed in the strike, the NNA reported. Another two people were injured.

The strike, about 2km from Tyre, is the closest Israeli attack to the city since the war in Gaza began on October 7.

It comes after Israeli warplanes struck deep into Lebanon for a second consecutive day on Tuesday, hitting a facility belonging to Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley. The latest strikes on the Bekaa were the third time Israel has hit the province since the outbreak of hostilities on the Lebanon-Israel border on October 8.

A Lebanese official close to Hezbollah said the increasing scope of Israel's attacks appeared to reflect increasingly outspoken Israeli threats against Lebanon in recent days.

The official said the sharp rise in attacks were in line with comments by far-right Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who called for escalation after Hezbollah launched more than 100 rockets on the occupied Golan Heights and northern Israeli on Tuesday.

“What are you waiting for? More than 100 missiles on the State of Israel and you sit quietly?” Mr Ben-Gvir said in a post on X directed at Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. “Let’s start reacting, attacking.”

Mr Ben-Gvir is an ultra-nationalist who frequently urges Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to act more forcefully against Hezbollah.

US envoy Amos Hochstein was recently in Beirut in a bid to find a ceasefire on the Lebanon-Israel border and find an agreement on contested border points. Among the Israeli demands are that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters north of the Litani River, a demand the Iran-backed group has rejected.

"The increase in the intensity of the Israeli raids is a clear military response to the faltering political settlement, and there is a fear that they will escalate, which will lead to things getting worse," the Lebanese official added.

Hezbollah has vowed not to stop the fighting until a cease-fire is reached in Gaza.

Hamas, which carried out an unprecedented attack into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, also has a political and military presence in Lebanon, largely based out of camps where Palestinian refugees have lived for decades.

Hamas's deputy leader in the Gaza Strip, Khalil Al Hayya, met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon in Beirut on Tuesday. It was the most high profile public meeting between Mr Nasrallah and Hamas officials since the assassination of Mr Al Arouri on January 2, and a sign of ongoing collaboration between the two groups against Israel.

Hezbollah has been engaged in near-daily cross-border exchanges with Israel since October 8.

One of its motives, it says, is to relieve the pressure on its ally Hamas in Gaza, where more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in more than five months of war.

The conflict in south Lebanon, which has largely been contained to border areas, has gradually increased in its intensity and scope.

Updated: March 14, 2024, 3:35 AM