A cloud of smoke erupts during the Israeli bombardment in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on October 19. Photo: SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

QIRYAT SHEMONA, Israel – Iranian proxies across the Middle East carried out a series of attacks on U.S. forces and Israel on Thursday evening. Regional and Western intelligence officials fear this represents a widespread escalation of the ongoing confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has claimed thousands of lives.

Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy and close Hamas ally, has carried out small, almost daily attacks on Israel’s northern border, seen by Israeli officials as an attempt to pressure and stress test Israel’s response along the heavily militarized northern border. Hezbollah’s vast rocket and missile arsenal dwarfs Hamas’s capabilities, and its battle-hardened fighters have decades of experience fighting Israeli and Syrian rebels, making it by far the most feared non-state actor in the region.

On Thursday, the conflict appeared to expand beyond Israel’s borders as fighters from Yemen’s Houthi movement and Iraqi militias – both loyal to Iran – carried out a series of attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria and may have even attempted to to attack Israel to US and regional intelligence officials.

A U.S. warship shot down several missiles and drones fired from Yemen in the northern Red Sea on Thursday evening that American and European officials suspect were aimed at Israel. If true, it would be the largest expansion of the conflict to date.

“We cannot say with certainty what these missiles and drones were aimed at, but they were fired from Yemen north along the Red Sea, possibly toward targets in Israel,” Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters .

A regional intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity told VICE News that Yemen’s Houthi militia, a long-time ally of both Iran and Hamas, used some of its extremely long-range missiles to attack the southern Israeli port of Eilat, but from The US warship was patrolling the area.

Also on Thursday, the US military in Iraq and Syria reported a series of small drone strikes on US bases in al-Assad (Iraq), Erbil (Kurdistan) and Tanif (Syria), which were likely the work of Iraqi militant groups associated with cooperated with Iran. A civilian contractor reportedly died of a heart attack, but all drones were intercepted and no damage was caused to U.S. forces or facilities.

Israeli security forces inspect a site where a rocket fired from Lebanon hit in the northern town of Qiryat Shemona, near the border, on October 19. Photo: JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

“Both the Houthis and militias in Iraq have announced their presence in this conflict,” the regional official said. “Iran has been developing, arming and training these regional proxies for years and appears to be sending a clear signal that regional escalation beyond Hamas and Hezbollah, which could easily draw the United States into the conflict, is on the table.”

Yemen’s Houthi movement, which has controlled large swathes of the country for more than a decade, has long focused on developing a long-range missile and drone program with Iranian help. The group has carried out a series of successful or near-successful operations on remote targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as an isolated, failed attack on a U.S. warship in 2016, but an apparent attempt to attack Israel shows both its capability as well as their capabilities. The Houthis’ willingness to join the conflict comes as Israel prepares for a widely expected extensive ground campaign against Hamas and other militants based in the Gaza Strip, which has been hit by Israeli airstrikes and artillery since Hamas militants launched the deadliest attack on Israel in the year history of the country on October 7th.

More than 1,400 people were killed when gunmen broke out of Gaza and attacked kibbutzim, towns, a music festival and military targets. In response, Israel launched an airstrike on Gaza, killing more than 3,700 people. The United Nations and aid groups warned that the “total siege” of the Gaza Strip had brought the humanitarian situation in the densely populated coastal strip to an all-time high.

Along the northern border with Lebanon, militants unleashed the largest bombardment since October 7 on Thursday, firing dozens of rockets into the partially evacuated Golan Heights and Israeli towns and villages along the border. Three Israeli injuries were reported and the Lebanese Armed Forces said at least one person was killed and up to seven other civilians were injured by Israeli artillery and machine gun fire that responded to rocket fire claimed by a Lebanon-based branch of the Israeli army Hamas . However, the regional security official said Hezbollah’s involvement and permission was obvious.

“Hamas has never had a significant military wing in Lebanon,” they said. “They might have let a Hamas fighter pull the trigger, but Hezbollah and Iran continue to pressure Israel and threaten it along its northern flank.”

When VICE News visited the northern border on Wednesday, towns and settlements within 2 km of the Lebanese border had largely been evacuated under military orders. Hamas’ attack from Gaza on October 7 involved a mass infiltration of militants into Israel that caught Israeli forces by surprise, but this type of attack has long been a major concern along the northern border. As a result, the Israeli civilians who have not yet evacuated the area have formed armed self-defense groups in coordination with the heavy IDF presence.

In a settlement about 4 km from the border, in the footprint of the United Nations-designated Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon, most families have left for safer areas, but about 40 people are with weapons, medical supplies and a Plan to defend their communities lagged in the event of a major Hezbollah incursion.

Yemen’s Houthi supporters hold banners and flags as they chant and protest against Israel’s air offensive on the Gaza Strip on October 18 in Sana’a, Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

“We know it is pointless because we are so close to the border and the rockets would destroy our city,” said a volunteer who did not want to be identified or specifically identify the community. “But this is our home and our land and we will protect it.”

The volunteer’s wife was less sure.

“We are here for now, but if things get worse we will be forced to leave,” she said. “We have safe rooms and shelters, but the size of the weapons Hezbollah can fire from such great distances means we would not be able to survive for long. I think the IDF will ask us to evacuate soon.”

In the nearby town of Qiryat Shemona, which the IDF announced it would evacuate after Thursday’s exchange and which is normally home to about 40,000 Israelis, the streets were mostly deserted except for IDF soldiers and reservists.

In the center of the city, two Merkava battle tanks sat hidden in a shopping center parking lot, along with a fuel truck and a company of reserve infantry.

IDF tanks are a common sight in Israel, but parking them in population centers is a rare attempt to protect the community from mass attacks by gunmen like those that devastated border communities around Gaza on October 7.

“The terrorists will not fight against unarmed civilians and police when they attack us here,” said an Israeli civilian. “What happened on October 7th can never happen again. If a regional war is necessary, Israel is ready to fight one.”

Source : www.vice.com

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