By Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM/CAIRO, Jan 6 (Reuters) – Heavy fire from Lebanon targeted northern Israel on Saturday, the Israeli military said, adding it had responded by striking a “terrorist cell” that took part in the attack, as top U.S. and European diplomats sought to stop spillover from the Gaza war.
Shortly after rocket sirens sounded across northern Israel, the military said that “approximately 40 launches from Lebanon toward the area of Meron in northern Israel were identified”.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.
Powerful Lebanese armed group Hezbollah said it hit a key Israeli observation post early on Saturday with 62 rockets as a “preliminary response” to the killing of Hamas’ deputy chief earlier this week.
Tensions have been high since Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed by a drone on Tuesday in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the stronghold of Hamas’ Iranian-backed Lebanese ally Hezbollah, in an attack widely attributed to sworn foe Israel.
The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said on Friday Lebanon would be “exposed” to more Israeli operations if his group did not respond to the killing.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the European Union’s senior diplomat Josep Borrell began a new diplomatic push on Friday to stop the spillover from the three-month-old Gaza war into Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Red Sea shipping lanes.
Israel and Hezbollah often trade fire across the border, the West Bank is boiling with emotion and the Iran-aligned Houthis seem determined to continue attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes until Israel halts its bombardment of Gaza.
Israel’s onslaught began after Hamas militants from Gaza attacked Israel on Oct. 7, with 1,200 people killed and 240 taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.
The offensive, aimed at wiping out the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, has killed 22,600 people, according to Palestinian health officials, and devastated the densely populated enclave of 2.3 million people.
There has been no let up in the conflict despite several trips to the region by Blinken and other senior diplomats.
The official Palestinian WAFA news agency reported on Saturday that 18 Palestinians were killed by an Israeli attack on a house east of Khan Younis in Gaza.
And in the West Bank village of Beit Rima, the Palestinian health ministry said a 17-year-old was shot dead by Israeli forces and four other people were injured.
Israel, which says it has killed 8,000 militants since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, has announced a more targeted approach as it faces global pressure to limit huge civilian casualties.
Israel has listed 175 soldiers as killed in action since its offensive began.
Blinken is due to visit the West Bank during his week-long tour starting on Friday in Turkey, which has offered to mediate. He will also hold talks in Israel, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, is backed by Iran. Other Iranian-backed militants have hit U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and struck Israel from Lebanon in what they call revenge for Israel’s attempt to Hamas.
The traumatised residents of Gaza, most of whose population have been displaced by the bombardment, are facing a devastating humanitarian crisis, with food, medicine and fuel in low supply.