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Supporters of Hamas movement and other Palestinian and Lebanese political factions gathered in Tarik al-Jadide area during a funeral for Saleh al-Arouri on January 4, 2024 in Beirut, Lebanon.Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images

A series of deadly explosions around the Middle East has reignited fears that the three-month-old war between Israel and Hamas could spill over into a region-wide conflict.

The past four days have seen a number of potential tipping points, with Wednesday’s double bombing of a memorial service in the Iranian city of Kerman being the latest match thrown at the growing pile of kindling. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for that attack, which killed at least 95 mourners who had gathered to mark the fourth anniversary of the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike. Iranian state media described Wednesday’s blasts as “terrorist” in nature and vowed the perpetrators would be punished.

The question of what Iran might do next hangs over the entire region between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea amid a violent start to 2024. A Tuesday drone strike – presumed to have been carried out by Israel – killed deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and five others in a Hezbollah-controlled neighbourhood of Beirut, while a New Year’s Eve exchange of fire saw U.S. helicopters sink three boats and kill at least 10 members of Yemen’s Houthi militia, which has been attacking ships in the Red Sea in what its commanders say is an act of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

Both Lebanon’s Hezbollah – which is believed to possess tens of thousands of rockets and missiles capable of striking targets in Israel – and Yemen’s Houthis are funded by the Iranian government and, to a certain extent, take orders from it. Hamas, too, is allied with Tehran, though it has been openly disappointed with the support it has received so far over the course of its 89-day war with Israel, which has seen more than 22,000 Palestinians killed and almost the entire Gaza Strip it previously ruled destroyed by relentless air strikes and artillery fire.

Iran, Hezbollah and the Houthis have all declared their solidarity with Hamas. But while Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in regular tit-for-tat fire across the Israel-Lebanon border since Oct. 7, and the Houthis have made themselves a menace to international shipping, Iran has thus far steered its allies away from a full-scale conflict with Israel.

Speaking Wednesday to supporters in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed that the killing of Mr. al-Arouri “will not go unpunished” – though he also appeared to suggest that the response would be calibrated in a way that would leave it up to Israel to escalate things further.

“We fight on the front with precise calculations,” he said, speaking via a video feed from an undisclosed location. “But if the enemy considers waging a war against Lebanon, our battle will be boundless, without rules. They know what I mean. We are not afraid of war.”

The caution exercised thus far by Iran and its allies was almost certainly due in large part to the two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups that arrived in the region to demonstrate Washington’s support for Israel shortly after the Israel-Hamas conflict began. But the U.S. Navy announced Monday that one of those groups, the USS Gerald R. Ford and its accompanying flotilla, was preparing to withdraw from the Eastern Mediterranean. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its escort ships will remain in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Nasrallah, who had previously warned of a “severe reaction” if Israel carried out any assassinations in Lebanon, denounced the killing of Mr. al-Arouri as “blatant Israeli aggression” and said he would address it further in a Friday speech. He also said that those killed near Gen. Soleimani’s shrine had been “targeted” and vowed that the recent “sacrifices” would bring “positive consequences to Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the entire region.”

Lebanese media reported that at least one fighter jet – presumably Israeli, since the Lebanese air force doesn’t possess any – could be heard flying over Beirut while Mr. Nasrallah was speaking.

Kandice Ardiel, a spokeswoman for the 45-year-old United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, said any escalation between Israel and Hezbollah “could have devastating consequences for people on both sides” of the Israel-Lebanon border.

The Israeli military said four rockets launched from Lebanon struck Israeli territory before Mr. Nasrallah spoke Wednesday without causing any casualties. A larger reaction from Hezbollah is expected in the days ahead, though experts around the region expected Mr. Nasrallah to retaliate in a way that would avoid provoking a full-scale Israeli assault on the group’s stronghold in southern Lebanon, a region still recovering from a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Orna Mizrahi, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank based in Tel Aviv, said she believed Hezbollah would be forced to respond to the “humiliation” of having a Hamas commander killed while he was under the group’s protection. “The response from Hezbollah will come … and it is clear that Israel is already prepared for this. Nasrallah will likely want to react in an unusual way, but not in such a way that would lead to another significant escalation in the fighting in southern Lebanon,” Ms. Mizrahi wrote in an analysis published Wednesday.

“Nasrallah was clear: Don’t go for a full war against us, and we won’t cross the red lines,” said Joseph Bayeh, an assistant professor of international affairs and public policy at Lusail University in Qatar. “I doubt Israel is ready for a full war against Hezbollah also. The cost is too high, and Israel lacks strategic depth against Hezbollah’s missile capabilities now.”

Israel has not claimed or denied responsibility for killing 57-year-old Mr. al-Arouri, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has vowed to strike Hamas leaders wherever they are, declaring them “dead men walking” after the group’s Oct. 7 cross-border attack on southern Israel. That assault left more than 1,200 Israelis dead, most of them civilians. Another 240 people were taken back to Gaza as hostages.

Mr. Netanyahu responded to the attack by ordering his country’s military into Gaza with the complicated dual mission of freeing the hostages – 105 of whom have since been freed through negotiations, while at least 23 others have been killed in the fighting – and eradicating Hamas from the densely populated territory.

While Israel saw Mr. al-Arouri as the mastermind of previous attacks on its citizens, Hamas said Wednesday that he was also involved in the negotiations to exchange Israeli hostages still in Gaza for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The future of those talks is now uncertain.

The battle for Gaza continued Wednesday, with the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run enclave reporting that another 128 people had been killed over the previous 24 hours.

Despite mounting international pressure on Israel to end its invasion because of the high civilian death toll, Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly said the operation will continue until Hamas is defeated. Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said this week that some troops would soon be withdrawn from Gaza, but “there will be additional missions, and the fighting will continue” for the rest of 2024.

The numbers of dead and wounded since the start of the conflict are impossible to independently verify, as both Israel and Egypt, which has its own border with Gaza, have prevented international news media from accessing the besieged strip. Only a trickle of aid has been allowed to reach the 2.3 million people who live in the territory.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been unclear about its long-term intentions for Gaza, and hopes for a peace deal that would bring an independent Palestinian state into existence alongside Israel are as dim as they have been for decades. Josep Borrell, the foreign policy chief for the European Union, warned Wednesday that if the war in Gaza isn’t brought to an end soon, “the entire Middle East might end up in flames.”

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