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Battles rage in Rafah as US warns Israel over Lebanon, martyrs’ toll 37,718

Battles rage in Rafah as US warns Israel over Lebanon, martyrs’ toll 37,718
June 26, 2024 Web Desk

GAZA, Palestine (AFP) - Fighting raged Wednesday between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in Gaza's southern city of Rafah, witnesses said, as fears grow of a wider regional war drawing in Lebanese Hamas ally Hezbollah.

The Health Ministry said that at least 37,718 people have been martyred during more than eight months of war between Israel and Palestinian militants. The toll includes at least 60 deaths over the past 24 hours, a ministry statement said, adding that 86,377 people had been wounded in the Gaza Strip since the war began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7.

Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip however appeared to ease days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the "intense phase" of the war was nearing its end, and as his defence minister visited Washington for crisis talks.

As the war in Gaza nears its 10th month, Israel's top ally the United States warned it of the risk of a major conflict against Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon following an escalation in cross-border fire.

"Another war between Israel and Hezbollah could easily become a regional war, with terrible consequences for the Middle East," US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his visiting Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant.

"Diplomacy is by far the best way to prevent more escalation," Austin said. Top Israeli officials including Netanyahu have suggested they are open to a diplomatic resolution of the border tensions, though Gallant said Israel should be ready for "every possible scenario".

Israel's military said last week plans for an offensive in Lebanon were "approved and validated", prompting fresh threats from Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah. In Beirut on Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that any "miscalculation" could trigger all-out war and urged "extreme restraint".

On the ground in Rafah, on Gaza's border with Egypt, witnesses reported clashes during the night, and the Israeli military said its air force struck a rocket launch site.

Mohammad al-Mughayyir, an official with the civil defence agency in Hamas-run Gaza, told AFP that rescuers had recovered the bodies of "15 martyrs from various areas in Rafah city in the past few hours".

Aid group 'outraged'

The civil defence agency and hospital medics said at least four people, including three children, were killed in a strike early on Wednesday targeting a house in Beit Lahia, in the north.

Aside from that strike, agency spokesman Mahmud Basal told AFP, "there have been almost no attacks" and "the rest of the areas in the Gaza Strip are calm compared to yesterday".

An air raid on Tuesday killed Fadi al-Wadiya, an employee of medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who the Israeli military said was a "significant operative" for Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group which has fought alongside Hamas.

MSF said on social media platform X that it was "outraged" by Wadiya's killing in a strike in Gaza City. "The attack killed Fadi, along with five other people including three children while he was cycling to work near the MSF clinic where he was providing care," the charity said. The military said the slain man had "developed and advanced the terrorist organisation's rocket array".