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After the killing of a Hamas leader in Beirut, diplomats rush to calm tensions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United States and Europe are sending top diplomats to the Middle East this weekend. This follows the assassination of a top Hamas leader in Lebanon on Tuesday, many presumed by Israel, but its government has not explicitly claimed responsibility. Tensions are high on the Israel-Lebanon border amid fears of a wider regional war. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been following this from Tel Aviv. Lauren, thanks for being with us.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: The war in Gaza has been going on for three months. Is this possibly a new front on the border with Lebanon?

FRAYER: I mean, that's certainly the fear. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border. There are air raid sirens blaring across northern Israel today. Lebanon's Hezbollah militia says it fired dozens of rockets across the border this morning, and it's calling this just an initial response to the airstrike that killed a Hamas leader this past week. As you mentioned, in Lebanon's capital, Beirut, Israel says it has sent tanks, artillery and airstrikes across the border into Lebanon for the past few days. Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, inspected troops yesterday at the Northern Command, and then he recorded this video clip...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOAV GALLANT: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...In which he says Israel prefers a political settlement with Hezbollah rather than a military one, but that we are, quote, "close to the point where the hourglass will turn." Those are his words.

SIMON: That's the northern border with Lebanon. Gaza in the south - what's the latest from there?

FRAYER: So this week, Defense Minister Gallant announced a new phase of Gaza fighting. Israel is withdrawing thousands of troops from northern Gaza and says it's focusing on finding Hamas leaders and Israeli hostages that are believed to be held in southern Gaza. But, you know, Israeli airstrikes and shelling continue pretty much all over the Gaza Strip. Health officials there say more than 120 people have been killed just in the past 24 hours alone. NPR's Gaza producer Anas Baba is in Rafah. That's the southernmost city in Gaza. It's actually where Israel told people to flee to. And now Israel is conducting airstrikes there. Yesterday it hit a house, and our producer, Baba, spoke to a woman named Safaa al-Zagnoun (ph), whose sister was killed there.

SAFAA AL-ZAGNOUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: She says this airstrike went straight into a room with women and children. And she asks, what did these women and children do to deserve this? Now, Rafah, where she is in southern Gaza, has absorbed more than a million evacuees from elsewhere across the Gaza Strip.

SIMON: And, Lauren, what are conditions like there?

FRAYER: Horrible - shortages of food, fuel, water. People are scavenging for material to make their own tents to sleep in. UNICEF, the U.N. children's fund, says 90% of infants and toddlers under the age of 2 in Gaza are now victims of what it calls severe food poverty. Now, Israel says it has eased its blockade on supplies entering Gaza, but aid agencies say not nearly enough aid is getting in. One U.N. official says Gaza is now, quote, "a place of death and despair."

SIMON: These are the conditions in which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is arriving. What's he going to do there?

FRAYER: Today he's in Turkey, Crete and then Jordan. This is part of a regional tour that will include stops here in Tel Aviv and in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, too. You know, it comes amid tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border, as I mentioned, but also possible tensions in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Blinken is expected to urge Israel to curtail its military campaign in Gaza, and also take part in talks about laying plans for Gaza's rebuilding and who will be in charge there.

SIMON: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Tel Aviv, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.