Israeli strikes foe Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon

Israel launched deadly cross-border strikes Friday on Hezbollah targets in Syria and Lebanon, doubling down on Iran-backed foes and Hamas allies, and fuelling concerns the violence could spark a major regional conflagration.

The Israeli army said it killed the deputy head of Hezbollah's rocket unit, Ali Naim, in one of the attacks on southern Lebanon.

In Syria, Israeli strikes targeted a Hezbollah "rockets depot" in Aleppo province, killing 36 Syrian soldiers, seven Hezbollah members and another pro-Iran fighter, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

It was the highest Syrian army toll in Israeli strikes since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, said the monitor, which also reported raids on "defense factories" controlled by pro-Iran groups elsewhere in the province.

Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes in Syria since civil war erupted there in 2011, targeting mostly army positions as well as Iran-backed combatants including Hezbollah fighters entrenched there for years in support of the Damascus government.

It rarely comments on individual strikes but the raids have increased since the Gaza war began.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army across the country's southern border since October, saying it is in support of Gazans and Hamas militants.

Hezbollah said Friday seven of its fighters were killed by Israeli fire, without specifying where or when they died. It said one was Naim, but did not specify his role.

- 'Supply route' -

"Syria and Lebanon have become one extended battleground from the Israeli perspective," Riad Kahwaji, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, told AFP.

"Israel warplanes hit targets in both countries almost daily in a sustained effort to destroy Hezbollah military infrastructure and to also tarnish the group's image," he said.

"Israeli strikes have clearly escalated in size and depth" in Lebanon, he added.

Syria's foreign ministry condemned the Aleppo raids, which it said killed and wounded "a number of civilians and soldiers."

Damascus allies Russia and Iran also slammed the Israeli strikes.

Moscow said they were "categorically unacceptable" while Iran said they were a "violation of Syria's sovereignty" and "a serious threat to regional and international peace and security."

According to Kahwaji, "Syria is the main supply route linking Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon."

"Israel has been hitting this supply line and destroying arms depots and eliminating IRGC leaders in Syria," he said, referring to Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Friday's strikes were the second on Syria in 24 hours.

Syrian state media said "two civilians" were killed in an "Israeli air attack that targeted a residential building" on Thursday.

The Britain-based Observatory said the target was the Sayyida Zeinab area, a stronghold of pro-Iran armed groups including Hezbollah, south of the capital.

- 'Changing Israel's calculations' -

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on social media he visited northern Israel on Friday "to get an overview on the actions being carried out in preparation for more eliminations and actions -- in Lebanon, Syria and further afield."

Hezbollah claimed several attacks on Israeli targets on Friday, including two it said came "in response to the Israeli enemy attacks on Damascus and Aleppo."

The group, which has a powerful arsenal of rockets and missiles, last went to war with Israel in 2006.

On March 12, the Israeli army said it had hit some 4,500 Hezbollah targets in Lebanon and Syria over the past five months.

In Lebanon, cross-border fire since October has killed at least 347 people, mostly Hezbollah fighters, including at least 68 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

The fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people in southern Lebanon and in northern Israel, where the military says 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed.

Analyst Lina Khatib said "Israel is increasing the pressure on Hezbollah, the Syrian army, and other Iran-backed groups in Syria and in Lebanon, knowing that it is not in their interest to escalate the fight."

"Hezbollah's attacks on northern Israel are changing Israel's calculations," said Khatib, associate fellow with Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program.

Israel "is likely to further increase its strikes in Syria to significantly weaken the pro-Iran front in both Syria and Lebanon," she added.

Source: Agence France Presse

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