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Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again

Tehran, Iran | April 20, 2024, Saturday @ 16:42 in World » GENERAL | By: AFP | Views: 2395
Iran, Israel appear to pull back from brink as Gaza bombed again

Motorists drive their vehicles past a billboard depicting Iranian missiles in Tehran on April 20, 2024, a day after Iran's state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

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Iran has dismissed as akin to child's play the reported Israeli retaliation for an unprecedented Iranian strike, as both sides on Saturday appeared to step back from wider conflict stemming from the war in Gaza.

But a deadly blast at an Iraqi military base emphasised the high tensions which persist, and witnesses in Gaza reported more strikes there.

Fears of a wider Middle East war escalated this month.

Israel had warned it would hit back after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones one week ago in retaliation for a deadly April 1 air strike -- which Iran blamed on Israel -- that levelled the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards.

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," Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told NBC News in a Friday interview.

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

He added that, "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 United States congressional source who spoke to AFP, were retaliatory Israeli strikes against Iran.

Tensions soared after the attack on Iran's consulate, but violence involving Iran-backed groups had already surged throughout the Middle East alongside the Gaza war.

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

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Last weekend, Iran launched its first-ever attack directly targeting Israel.

With the help of the United States and other allies, Israel intercepted most of the more than 300 missiles and drones it said Iran had launched.

Only minor damage was reported and there were no fatalities.

Iran said its attack was in retaliation for the April 1 strike on its Damascus embassy consular annex.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under international pressure over the civilian toll in Gaza's war.

According to Iranian political expert Hamid Gholamzadeh, Netanyahu needs "further escalation and another war to distract the world attention" from Gaza.

However, foreign ministers of the G7 group of developed economies, meeting in Italy on Friday, kept up that pressure.

The group said they opposed a "full-scale military operation in Rafah", where most of Gaza's population is sheltering, because it would have "catastrophic consequences" for civilians.

Israel has for two months threatened to send troops in against Hamas militants in Rafah, but even without such an operation Rafah is under regular bombardment.

On Saturday Gaza's Civil Defence agency said an overnight Israeli strike in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost point, killed nine members of a family including six children.

- 'Hard night' in Rafah -

"It has been a very hard night," the agency spokesman, Mahmud Bassal, said in a statement that reported several other areas of Rafah hit.

With mediator Qatar reporting that Gaza truce talks were "stalling," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to host Qatar-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh on Saturday to discuss the conflict.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said "the dangerous cycle of retaliation in the Middle East" must end, and analysts said further tit-for-tat violence could be avoided.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Britain's Chatham House think tank, said the reported Israeli strike had been "calibrated to avoid damage and further Iranian aggression".

Gholamzadeh, the Iranian analyst, said the incident in Isfahan, while "insignificant", needs to be seen in the context of the "fight for balance of power" between the two countries.

"The region is on fire and an all-out war can be ignited any moment and such activities are making it more imminent," he said.

There were mixed feelings on the streets of Tehran and Israel.

"If Israel wants to attack our country, our goal is to defend it," said Ali, a 48-year-old Iranian construction worker.

Retired firefighter Behrouz, however, said: "We are against war."

In Jerusalem, antique dealer Amitay Bendavid, 37, said Israel's reported retaliation against Iran wasn't firm enough but rather, "a game of children".

At the wheel of his taxi, driver Yossi Basher said he believes "Israel doesn't want war" with Iran.

In Gaza, there was no letup to the war which began October 7 with Hamas's attack on southern Israel. The attack resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

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

The toll included at least 37 deaths over the previous 24 hours, it said.

- Facing famine -

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

In Gaza, the population "faces famine, malnutrition, and infectious disease outbreaks", the International Rescue Committee charity said.

Yet, a UN report on Friday said "multiple obstacles" continue to impede delivery of urgently needed aid.

Over the past week, however, convoys facilitated by the World Food Programme were able to enter northern Gaza through the Erez crossing, other convoys entered Gaza via Israel's Ashdod port, and Israeli authorities facilitated an increased number of food missions into northern Gaza, the UN said.

Despite some immediate improvement in access, the WFP cited "the real possibility of famine" there.

Reflecting the dire situation, images on social media showed men in the sea off Gaza City trying to recover boxes of airdropped aid.

© Agence France-Presse

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