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Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as US approves military aid

Asia
 An Israeli army battle tank moves at a position along the border between southern Israeli and the Gaza Strip on Jan. 31, 2024. [AFP]

Iran and Israel appeared to step back from the brink of broader conflict as lawmakers in the United States approved new Israeli military aid on Saturday despite growing criticism of its ally's war in Gaza.

Iran downplayed Israel's reported retaliation for its unprecedented drone and missile attack, tamping down fears that escalating attacks between the arch enemies could tip over into a broader war in the Middle East.

However a deadly blast at an Iraqi military base underlined the persisting tensions in the region, as did more deadly Israeli strikes in Gaza and intensifying clashes in the West Bank.

Aiming to bolster Israel's defences including its Iron Dome air defence system, the US House of Representatives approved $13 billion in new military assistance for the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the aid bill, writing on X, formerly Twitter, that it "demonstrates strong bipartisan support for Israel and defends Western civilization".

But the Palestinian presidency condemned it as "an aggression against the Palestinian people" and a "dangerous escalation".

The money would "translate into thousands of Palestinian casualties in the Gaza Strip" and the West Bank, said Nabil Abu Rudeina, spokesman for Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Iran plays down Israel attack

After Iran launched more than 300 missiles and drones a week ago in Tehran's first-ever direct attack on Israeli territory, Israel had warned it would hit back.

The Iran attack was itself in retaliation for an air strike - widely blamed on Israel - that levelled the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards on April 1.

The Israeli retaliation appeared to come on Friday, when Iranian media reported blasts in the central province of Isfahan.

Fars news agency reported "three explosions" close to Qahjavarestan, near Isfahan airport and the 8th Shekari army airbase.

"What happened last night was no attack," Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told NBC News.

"It was the flight of two or three quadcopters, which are at the level of toys that our children use in Iran," he added.

"As long as there is no new adventure on behalf of the Israeli regime against Iran's interests, we will have no response."

No Israeli comment

Israeli officials have made no public comment on what - according to a senior US congressional source who spoke to AFP - were retaliatory Israeli strikes against Iran.

While tensions rose after the attack on Iran's consulate, violence involving Iran-backed groups had already been surging across the Middle East since the outbreak of the Gaza war.

Officials in Iraq said one person was killed and eight wounded in an explosion at a military base south of Baghdad housing pro-Iranian armed groups.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah group said three of its fighters were killed in an Israeli strike in south Lebanon on Saturday.

The Hamas ally has exchanged near-daily cross-border fire with the Israeli army since the Gaza war began.

Violence has also flared in the other occupied Palestinian territory, the West Bank.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 14 people had been killed during a 40-hour Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

The Israeli army said it killed 10 militants during the raid on Nur Shams camp. The Palestinian health ministry said 11 people were wounded, including a paramedic who was shot trying to reach earlier casualties

Nine members of one family killed

Israel has faced increasing global opposition over its military offensive in Gaza, which has reduced vast areas of the besieged Palestinian territory to rubble.

Iranian political expert Hamid Gholamzadeh said that Netanyahu - who is under pressure over the civilian toll - needs "further escalation and another war to distract the world attention" away from suffering in Gaza.

There have been particular fears about Israel's intention to send troops into the southernmost city of Rafah, where most of the population is now sheltering, having fled violence elsewhere.

Foreign ministers of the G7 group of developed economies meeting in Italy on Friday, said they opposed a "full-scale military operation in Rafah" because of the "catastrophic consequences" for civilians.

But even without a full operation, the city has been under regular bombardment.

On Saturday, Gaza's Civil Defence agency said several areas of Rafah had been hit overnight, including one Israeli strike that killed nine members of a family including six children.

The war was triggered by a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel has responded with a retaliatory offensive that has killed at least 34,049 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

Famine fears

Israel's military said it had struck dozens of militant targets over the past day, including the site in north Gaza from which a rocket was fired into the Israeli city of Sderot.

Witnesses in the central Nuseirat refugee camp said the Israeli army had told them to evacuate one home, then several were destroyed.

"They instruct us to evacuate and return later, but where do we go back? To ruins?" asked resident Abu Ibrahim.

A UN report on Friday said "multiple obstacles" continued to impede delivery of urgently needed aid.

Despite some recent aid convoys reaching Gaza, the World Food Programme cited "the real possibility of famine" in the north.

Efforts to seal a long-sought-after truce have stalled, according to mediator Qatar.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch critic of Israel's war in Gaza, met with Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday, calling for unity among Palestinians.

After Washington vetoed a Palestinian bid to become a full UN member state earlier this week, president Mahmud Abbas said his West Bank-based Palestinian Authority would "reconsider" its relationship with the US.

The Israeli foreign ministry said it was summoning the ambassadors of the 12 countries that voted for the Palestinian bid "for a protest talk" on Sunday.

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