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A huge Palestinian flag hangs on a building as Hezbollah supporters wave Hezbollah flags as they chant slogans during a protest in solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 18.Hassan Ammar/The Associated Press

Hezbollah has warned that it will not let the deadly bombing of a hospital in Gaza go unanswered, as Israel expanded its evacuation of citizens along its northern border.

“In the coming days, we will be ready to respond to this atrocity that was committed,” warned Hashem Safi al-Din, head of Hezbollah’s executive council, in an address to a large crowd in Beirut Wednesday. “Because if we don’t, they will target all countries in our region.”

But there was little sign Wednesday that grisly scenes at the hospital would prod the Lebanese militant group into escalatory reprisal attacks on Israel, a fear that has prompted new international warnings against travel to Lebanon.

Leaders with Hezbollah and Hamas instead sought to use the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arabi Baptist Hospital as leverage against Israel to damage its standing with neighbours it has assiduously courted in recent years.

Arab and Islamic countries should expel ambassadors from Israel and “stop all forms of normalization, co-ordination and co-operation with it, activate all forms of boycott against it, and take serious steps to isolate this entity and prevent attempts to integrate it into the body of our Arab and Islamic nation,” Osama Hamdan, a member of the Hamas politburo, told a news conference organized by the group in Beirut Wednesday.

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Before Israel launched its hard-fisted response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, the country had normalized relations with four Arab countries since 2020 (Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates); Saudi Arabia had been in talks to do the same.

Israel has blamed the devastation of the hospital on a failed rocket launch from inside Gaza, and on Wednesday offered a tape recording and analysis of the hospital crater to bolster its case. President Joe Biden and the U.S. National Security Council both said the evidence points against Israel’s involvement – an argument dismissed by Hezbollah and Hamas.

Mr. Hamdan pointed instead to Israeli demands in recent days that Palestinians evacuate Gaza hospitals.

“The Israeli enemy has always had a plan to cripple the medical body of Gaza because it is one of the major foundations of Gaza,” he said.

He argued that Israeli radars should have triggered alarms if the rocket came from inside Gaza, but did not.

“Either your radars are faulty and out of date – or you’re a liar,” he said, adding that Israel could be made to pay a price for the hospital deaths.

“The extent of our resistance has not yet been expressed,” he said. “What we’ve done so far is only a small part of what we can do.”

Such a threat implicitly involves Hezbollah, which possesses far more potent weaponry than Hamas, and which has been engaged in deadly clashes with Israel at the Lebanon border. On Wednesday, Israel expanded an evacuation of nearby communities, clearing people living within five kilometres of the demarcation with Lebanon.

Worry that clashes in the area could expand into a punishing war continues to disquiet Israel’s neighbours and allies. The U.S. and France have already warned citizens against travel to Lebanon. On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia called for its citizens to leave the country. (Canada has recommended that citizens avoid non-essential travel to Lebanon, and said those already in the country should leave while commercial flights remain available.)

Lebanon Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, meanwhile, warned that if Israel continues its attacks on Gaza, it “could ignite a fire that could consume the entire region.”

But the conflict showed no indication of new ignition Wednesday, with Israel reporting that it had been attacked by several anti-tank missiles and used a drone to kill militants firing mortars.

“It’s basically what we’ve been seeing over the last few days, so at this stage they haven’t adjusted or altered their operational pattern,” said Nick Blanford, a Beirut-based fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program who is author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.

Instead, Hezbollah was “taking advantage of it in terms of propaganda,” he said.

At a large demonstration in Beirut Wednesday, thousands chanted “Death to America,” then disbanded with a loud motorcade of scooters roaring off toward the U.S. embassy, some waving Palestinian flags. Lebanese security forces fired water cannons and tear gas before the crowd at the embassy dispersed.

“I wish Hezbollah would bring on a bigger fight” against Israel, said Ahmed Sabra, a math teacher and former militant who attended the demonstration. “And they won’t be alone. It will be us, our women and our children fighting in the Hezbollah ranks to liberate Palestine.”

But with no sign yet of a new war, perhaps the hospital deaths can at least change minds, said Haidar Termos, a digital-media student who also attended the demonstration.

“Israel has always been killing Palestinians, but no one would bat an eye,” he said. “This time, maybe it will be different. It could be a wake-up call.”

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