After ‘unacceptable’ Hezbollah threats, European ministers fear Middle East escalation

Greek foreign minister says Athens stands by Cyprus after Nasrallah warned island nation could be targeted; EU policy chief says it is ‘eve of the war expanding’

FILE - Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
FILE - Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday that the Middle East was close to seeing the conflict between Israel and Hamas expanding into Lebanon, days after the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group threatened EU member Cyprus.

“The risk of this war affecting the south of Lebanon and spilling over is every day bigger,” Borrell told reporters ahead of a foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg. It was unclear if he mentioned the potential impact on Israel.

“We are on the eve of the war expanding,” he said.

Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking Israel the day after Hamas’s October 7 assault sparked the war in Gaza. Hezbollah has said it would not stop until there is a ceasefire in Gaza.

Hezbollah terror chief Hassan Nasrallah last week said that nowhere in Israel would be safe if a full-fledged war broke out. He also threatened EU member Cyprus for the first time, and other parts of the Mediterranean.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to make threats against a sovereign state of the European Union,” Greek Foreign Minister George Gerapetritis said. “We stand by Cyprus and we will all be together in all kinds of global threats coming from terrorist organizations.”

George Gerapetritis makes statements during a handover ceremony, in Athens, Greece, on June 27, 2023 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who is visiting Israel and the Lebanon this week, said the situation was very worrying.

“A further escalation would be a catastrophe for people in the region,” she said.

Israeli officials have threatened a military offensive in Lebanon in the absence of a negotiated move to push Hezbollah away from the border, after more than eight months of increasingly intense attacks on towns and military posts in northern Israel.

The attacks have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, and huge amounts of destruction, as political pressure builds in Israel for tougher action.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have also fled their homes following Israeli strikes in south Lebanon.

Last week Nasrallah said Cyprus had been allowing Israel to use its airports and bases for military exercises and that Hezbollah could consider it “a part of the war” and strike it, if it allowed the IDF to use logistical infrastructure in the country to attack Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a ceremony commemorating a slain Hezbollah senior commander, June 19, 2024. (Screenshot)

“Opening Cypriot airports and bases to the Israeli enemy to target Lebanon would mean that the Cypriot government is part of the war, and the resistance will deal with it as part of the war,” he said.

Cyprus is not known to offer any land or base facilities to the Israeli military, but has in the past allowed Israel to use its airspace to occasionally conduct air drills, though never during conflict.

There are two British bases in Cyprus. They have been used for operations in Syria and more recently, Yemen, and the Cypriot government has no say in the matter. According to Hebrew media reports, British Royal Air Force fighter jets and refueling aircraft took off from bases in Cyprus to help thwart a massive drone and missile attack launched by Iran against Israel in mid-April.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, and in recent weeks have staged attacks deeper inside northern Israel while threatening sensitive infrastructure in the major city of Haifa. The attacks have drawn a limited Israeli air campaign against the terror group in southern Lebanon.

An Israeli army officer shows damage inside a house in the city of Kiryat Shmona, Israel, which was hit by a missile fired from Lebanon few weeks ago, on June 16, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. Dozens have been injured. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 349 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing fighting, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 64 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

A war between the two heavily armed foes could be devastating to both countries and incur mass civilian casualties. Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal is believed to be far more extensive than Hamas’s.

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