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The US said it was sending more advanced weapons systems to the Middle East and the Israeli military warned Lebanon to rein in the militant group Hizbollah, reflecting growing concerns that Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip could escalate into a broader regional conflict.
Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said on Saturday evening that he was sending a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery and additional Patriot air defence systems to locations throughout the Middle East after speaking with president Joe Biden about “recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the region”.
Austin said that he had put an additional, undisclosed number of troops on “prepare to deploy” orders to bolster regional deterrence efforts after two military bases housing American troops in Iraq were attacked by militants last week. The US has already deployed two aircraft carrier groups and put 2,000 marines on standby for deployment to the region.
On Thursday the US military said it had intercepted three missiles and several drones in the Red Sea fired by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen that were probably heading towards Israel.
The US announcement came as Israel struck targets in southern Gaza early on Sunday and warned Palestinians in the north to leave the area as it increased attacks around Gaza City ahead of an expected ground offensive.
Israel has laid siege to Gaza, cutting off power, water and fuel supplies after cross-border attacks by Hamas that killed more than 1,400 people in the country, according to Israeli officials. More than 4,000 Palestinians have died from Israeli attacks in Gaza since the beginning of the war, Palestinian health officials said.
On Saturday, a small convoy of aid was allowed to enter Gaza for the first time since the start of the fighting. However, the UN’s humanitarian arm warned that the 20 truckloads were just 4 per cent of the amount imported each day before the war “and a fraction of what is needed after 13 days of complete siege”.
Aid workers say that they are starting to see cases of diseases attributable to poor sanitary conditions and consumption of dirty water, and have warned that cases are expected to increase unless water and sanitation facilities are provided with fuel or electricity to resume functioning.
Israeli political and military officials have made it clear in recent days that a ground offensive into Gaza is imminent, in remarks intended to prepare troops and the Israeli public for what most expect to be a long military operation with the goal of dislodging Hamas from power in the strip.
Complicating a potential Israeli ground offensive, Palestinian gunmen abducted about 212 hostages into the densely populated territory and are holding them hostage. Two were freed after US mediation on Friday.
“Gaza is densely populated, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there,” Herzi Halevi, Israel’s military chief of staff, said in remarks to troops on Saturday evening published by the Israel Defense Forces on Sunday morning. “But we are also preparing for them.”
The war has inflamed regional tensions, including with Hizbollah, one of the Middle East’s best-trained and equipped militant groups, which Israel fought in 2006. Hizbollah, Iran’s most powerful proxy in the region, has political and military wings and is deeply embedded in Lebanese society and politics.
On Saturday, Naim Qassem, Hizbollah’s second in command, said the militant group was “in the heart of the battle” and vowed that Israel would pay a high price for a ground offensive in Gaza.
His comments came amid escalating artillery exchanges across Lebanon’s volatile southern border with Israel. The group announced six of its fighters were killed on Saturday, the highest number of dead on a single day since the start of hostilities two weeks ago, bringing the total number to 19.
“We are trying to weaken the Israeli enemy and let them know that we are ready,” Qassem said, outlining his group’s strategy of keeping large numbers of Israeli forces tied up in the north.
Israel’s military has also sent more troops to its northern border area and said it would be ready to fight a war on two fronts if need be. Israel on Sunday called on residents to evacuate 14 more communities in its far north bordering Lebanon.
“Is the Lebanese state really willing to jeopardise what is left of Lebanese prosperity and Lebanese sovereignty for the sake of terrorists in Gaza, for the Isis of Gaza?” military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said in an online briefing on Sunday.
The October attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Israel have sparked the region’s biggest war in years and returned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the global spotlight, amid uncertainty over how Gaza’s 2.3mn people might be governed if Israel were to succeed in dislodging Hamas.
Israel’s military and Shin Bet internal security service on Sunday said they had launched an aerial strike on a mosque containing what they called a “terror compound” belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Jenin in the north of the occupied West Bank. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, two people were killed in the attack.
That followed one of Israel’s biggest attacks on the West Bank in years on the Nur Shams refugee camp last week, in which at least 13 Palestinians were killed, including five children.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington