JERUSALEM — Two civilians were killed in northern Israel on Sunday after an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon hit their home in a town near the border, raising new concerns of a second front erupting against the backdrop of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
The deadly strike came on the 100th day of a conflict between Israel and Hamas that has killed nearly 24,000 Palestinians, devastated vast swaths of Gaza, driven around 85% of its 2.3 million residents from their homes and pushed a quarter of the population into starvation.
The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack into southern Israel in which terrorists killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostages, around half of whom are still in captivity.
Tensions have soared across the region, with Israel trading fire almost daily with Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorist group, Iran-backed militias attacking U.S. targets in Syria and Iraq, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels targeting international shipping, drawing a wave of U.S. airstrikes last week.
Sunday’s missile strike came a day after the Israeli army said it killed three terrorists who had crossed into Israel from Lebanon and attempted to carry out an attack.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that his group won’t stop until a cease-fire is in place for Gaza.
“We are continuing, and our front is inflicting losses on the enemy and putting pressure on displaced people,” Nasrallah said in a speech, referring to the tens of thousands of Israelis who have fled northern border areas.
The unprecedented level of death and destruction in Gaza has led South Africa to lodge allegations of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Israel adamantly denies the accusations and has vowed to press ahead with its offensive even if the court in The Hague issues an interim order for it to stop.
“No one will stop us, not The Hague, not the axis of evil and not anyone else,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday evening, referring to Iran and its allied militias.
Israel has also vowed to return the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza as its leaders have faced mounting protests from their families, including a 24-hour rally in Tel Aviv that began Saturday evening and drew tens of thousands of supporters.
Israeli forces have only managed to rescue one hostage, while more than 100 were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for 240 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Hamas says no more hostages will be released until Israel ends its offensive.
FEARS OF A SECOND FRONT
Israel and Hezbollah have been careful not to allow their back-and-forth fighting to erupt into full-blown war on a second front.
But they have come close on several occasions — most recently in the aftermath of an airstrike that killed a top Hamas official in Beirut on Jan. 2. Hamas and Hezbollah have both blamed Israel for the strike. The latest attacks on Israel, including the deaths of two civilians on Sunday, raised the likelihood of new Israeli reprisals.
The missile hit a home in the town of Yuval in northern Israel, killing a man in his 40s and his mother, who was in her 70s, Israeli rescuers said.
Although Yuval is one of more than 40 towns along the northern border evacuated by the government in October, Israeli media reported that the family stayed in the area because they work in agriculture.
More than 115,000 Israelis have evacuated from northern Israel due to the ongoing tensions. In Israel, 12 soldiers and seven civilians have died from rocket launches from Lebanon, and more than 170 were injured. Hezbollah has reported at least 150 fighters and 20 civilians have been killed in the near-daily exchanges of fire.
The deadly strike came hours after the army said it killed three terrorists who entered a disputed Israeli-controlled enclave in the Golan Heights.
A group called Islamic Glory Brigades claimed responsibility for the infiltration. The Associated Press could not independently verify the statement, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese branches of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad all said the group was not affiliated with them.
Since October, over 2,000 rockets and 350 drones have been launched from Lebanon, according to Israel.
Tensions have also spread to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian health officials say nearly 350 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids and other violent confrontations throughout the war.
On Sunday, the Israeli army said troops opened fire after a Palestinian car breached a military roadblock in the southern West Bank and an attacker fired at soldiers. Palestinian health officials said two Palestinians were killed.
US SHIELDS ISRAEL FROM CALLS FOR TRUCE
Israel has also been under growing international pressure to end the war in Gaza, but has so far been shielded by U.S. diplomatic and military support. Israel argues that any cease-fire would hand victory to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and is bent on Israel’s destruction.
Thousands took to the streets of Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Milan and Dublin on Saturday to demand an end to the war. Protesters converging on the White House held aloft signs criticizing President Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Israel.
In recent weeks, Israel has scaled back operations in northern Gaza, the initial target of the offensive, where weeks of airstrikes and ground operations left entire neighborhoods in ruins. Netanyahu said there are no immediate plans to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to return to their homes there, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue during a visit to the region last week.
Israel has meanwhile launched major operations against the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza.
“No one is able to move,” said Rami Abu Matouq, who lives in the Maghzai camp. “Warplanes, snipers and gunfire are everywhere.” He said several buildings have been hit by airstrikes and shelling over the past two days but that no one can reach them to try to rescue any survivors.
ISRAEL EYES EXPANDING OFFENSIVE
Netanyahu said Israel would eventually need to push further south and take control of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which Israeli officials say is still used by Hamas to smuggle in arms.
Egypt, which in recent years has fortified the border, demolished tunnels and established a buffer zone, insists it has full control of the border and says any such operation would have to be considered in light of agreements reached with Israel and the United States.
The area in and around the border town of Rafah is also packed with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled from other parts of Gaza and are crowded into overflowing U.N.-run shelters and tent camps.
The Gaza Health Ministry said Sunday that hospitals had received 125 bodies in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll to 23,968. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants but says around two-thirds of the dead are women and minors. It says over 60,000 people have been wounded.
Fewer than half of the territory’s 36 hospitals are still partially functional, according to the U.N. humanitarian office. It says the widespread fighting and Israeli restrictions have made it increasingly difficult to deliver food, water and other desperately needed aid. U.S. pressure on Israel to facilitate deliveries has met with little success.
Israel says Hamas is responsible for the high civilian casualties, saying its fighters make use of civilian buildings and launch attacks from densely populated urban areas.
The military says 188 soldiers have been killed and 1,099 wounded since the start of the ground offensive.