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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Alamy Stock Photo
Middle East

Funeral of Hamas leader in Beirut as Blinken heads for Middle East amid wider conflict fears

Tensions have surged with Lebanon, where a strike in Beirut on Tuesday, widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel, killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri.


US SECRETARY OF State Antony Blinken will head to the Middle East today as fears mount that Israel’s assault on Gaza will cause conflict to spread across the region, following deadly blasts in Iran, Iraq and the killing of a Hamas leader in Lebanon.

A US official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the trip – Blinken’s fourth to the region since the start of Israel’s offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Tensions have surged with Israel’s northern neighbour Lebanon, where a strike in Beirut on Tuesday, widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel, killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri, who was buried today.

Aruri was killed in the south Beirut stronghold of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which has traded tit-for-tat fire across the border with Israel for months, while both sides have avoided full-scale war.

Hezbollah has vowed that the killing of Aruri and six other Hamas operatives on its home turf will not go unpunished, labelling it “a serious assault on Lebanon… and a dangerous development”.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Beirut today for Aruri’s funeral.

Draped in Palestinian and Hamas flags, Aruri’s coffin and those of two of his comrades were first taken to a Beirut mosque for prayers before being carried to the Palestine Martyrs Cemetery where top Palestinian officials killed by Israel over the last five decades are buried.

The funeral was attended by Palestinian officials, including top Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk, as well as representatives of some Lebanese political groups.

featureimage Hamas members carry the coffin of Saleh Aruri AP AP

“The enemy is running away from its failures and defeats (in Gaza) to Lebanon,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a speech aired during the funeral.

He added that the killing of Arouri in Beirut “is a proof of (Israel’s) bloody mentality”.

In addition, Iraq has accused the US-led coalition of an air strike in Baghdad today that killed a senior commander and another member of a pro-Iranian faction.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel against all-out conflict, after Israeli army chief Herzi Halevi, in a visit to the Lebanese border, said troops were “in very high readiness”.

Nasrallah said that “for now, we are fighting on the frontline following meticulous calculations” but warned that, “if the enemy thinks of waging a war on Lebanon, we will fight without restraint, without rules, without limits and without restrictions”.

The Lebanese Shiite Muslim group said today that another four of its fighters were killed overnight, raising its death toll to 129 since the outbreak of border hostilities.

Mossad chief David Barnea warned yesterday that the Israeli spy agency “is committed to settling the score with the murderers” who carried out the Hamas attack.

Anyone who “participated directly or indirectly in the slaughter of October 7, his blood shall be upon his own head,” Barnea said.

Gaza assaults

The 7 October attack resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Gaza militants also took around 250 hostages, 129 of whom remain in the Palestinian territory according to Israel.

In response, Israel launched a relentless bombardment and ground invasion that has reduced swathes of Gaza to rubble and claimed at least 22,313 lives, according to the health ministry.

The United Nations estimates 1.9 million Gazans are displaced, and the World Health Organization has warned of the risk of famine and disease, with only a minimal amount of aid entering the territory.

The Israeli military, in its campaign to destroy the Islamist militant group, has reported more strikes in and around Gaza City, now a largely devastated urban combat zone, and Khan Yunis, the biggest urban centre in the besieged territory’s south.

The Gaza health ministry reported “dozens of martyrs and more than 100 wounded in the continued barbaric aerial and artillery bombardment of citizens’ homes in the Gaza Strip”.

palestinians-walk-past-the-building-destroyed-in-the-israeli-bombardment-of-the-gaza-strip-in-gaza-city-on-wednesday-jan-3-2024-ap-photomohammed-hajjar Palestinians walk past the building destroyed in the Israeli bombardment of Gaza City Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Fires sparked by bombing raged in Gaza’s central Deir al-Balah area and the Al-Maghazi refugee camp.

“People were safe in their homes, the house was full of children,” resident Ibrahim al-Ghimri told AFP. ”There were around 30 people. All of a sudden their houses fell on them… What have these children done?”

As the Israel-Hamas conflict has raged, another regional flashpoint has seen Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels fire at merchant vessels in the Red Sea, disrupting a key global shipping lane, in attacks the rebels say are in solidarity with Hamas.

The United States and 11 of its allies jointly warned the Huthis of unspecified consequences unless they immediately halt the attacks.

US President Joe Biden’s administration described the statement – joined notably by Britain, Germany and Japan – as a final warning as he weighs possible military strikes if attacks persist.

“I would not anticipate another warning,” a senior US official said, calling the message “very clear”.

On Sunday, the US military said it had sunk three Huthi boats following attacks on a container ship of Danish shipping giant Maersk. The rebels said 10 of their fighters were killed.

‘Escalation in no one’s interest’

Regional tensions rose further after twin bomb blasts in Iran yesterday killed 84 people, according to a revised death toll, near the grave of Revolutionary Guards general Qasem Soleimani, who died in a 2020 US strike in Baghdad.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “evil and criminal enemies of the Iranian nation” and said: “This disaster will have a harsh response, God willing.”

While some Iranian officials pointed blame at Tehran’s long-time arch foes the United States and Israel, Washington rejected suggestions of either nation’s involvement and an Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the idea of US involvement “ridiculous” and said Washington had “no reason to believe that Israel was involved” either.

Miller echoed the fears of many across the Middle East about an expansion of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

“It is in no one’s interest – not in the interest of any country in the region, not in the interest of any country in the world – to see this conflict escalated any further than it already is,” Miller said. 

- © AFP 2024 and with additional reporting from Press Association