BEIRUT (AP) — A top official with Hezbollah vowed that Israel will pay a high price whenever it starts a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and said Saturday that his militant group based in Lebanon already is “in the heart of the battle.”
The comments by Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Kassem, came as Israel shelled and made drone strikes in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah fired rockets and missiles toward Israel. Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed Saturday, the highest daily toll since the violence began two weeks ago.
For Hezbollah, heating up the Lebanon-Israel border has a clear purpose, Kassem said: “We are trying to weaken the Israeli enemy and let them know that we are ready.” Hamas officials have said that if Israel starts a ground offensive in Gaza, Hezbollah will join the fighting.
Exchanges of fire along the Lebanon-Israel border have picked up in the two weeks since the attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas that killed over 1,400 civilians and soldiers in southern Israel. Retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on Gaza have killed more than 4,000 Palestinians.
There are concerns that Iran-backed Hezbollah, which has a weapons arsenal consisting of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles as well as different types of drones, might try to open a new front in the Israel-Hamas war with a large-scale attack on northern Israel.
Kassem said his group, which is allied with Hamas, already was affecting the course of the conflict by heating up the Lebanon-Israel border and keeping three Israeli army divisions tied up in the north instead of preparing to fight in Gaza.
“Do you believe that if you try to crush the Palestinian resistance, other resistance fighters in the region will not act?” Kassem said in a speech Saturday during the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter. “We are in the heart of the battle today. We are making achievements through this battle.”
On Friday, the Israeli military announced the evacuation of a border city where three residents were wounded in the crossfire a day earlier.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that an Israeli drone fired a missile on a valley in the Sejoud area, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the Israeli border. Hezbollah did not immediately confirm the attack, but if true it would mark a major escalation as it is deep inside Lebanon and far from the border.
An Associated Press journalist in south Lebanon reported hearing loud explosions Saturday along the border, close to the Mediterranean coast.
Hezbollah said its fighters attacked several Israeli positions and also targeted an Israeli infantry force, “scoring direct hits.”
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported Israeli shelling of several villages and said a car took a direct hit in the village of Houla. On Saturday evening, shelling intensified around an Israeli army post across from the Lebanese village of Yaroun.
Hezbollah said six of its fighters were killed Saturday, raising the total of Lebanese militants killed to 19 since Oct. 7.
Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee said a group of gunmen fired a shell into Israel and an Israeli drone was launched back toward them. A drone also was dispatched after another group of gunmen fired toward the Israeli town of Margaliot, Adraee said.
“Direct hits were scored in both strikes,” Adraee posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Hezbollah’s Kassem spoke about foreign dignitaries who visited Lebanon over the past two weeks asking Lebanese officials to convince the group not to take part in the latest Hamas-Israel battle. He said Hezbollah’s response to Lebanese officials was, “We are part of the battle.”
“We tell those who are contacting us, ‘Stop the (Israeli) aggression so that its (conflict) repercussions and possibility of expansion stops,’” Kassem said, referring to the officials who recently visited Beirut, including the foreign ministers of France and Germany.
Speaking about an expected Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, Kassem, said: “Our information are that the preparedness in Gaza by Hamas and resistance fighters will make (the) Israeli ground invasion their graveyard.”