Israel will soon decide whether to go on the offensive into Lebanon, top officials said, adding to fears of a wider war as fighting with the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah has intensified.

As war has raged in Gaza, Hezbollah and Israel have exchanged a steady drumbeat of attacks for months — the worst fighting between the two foes since a deadly, month-long war in 2006. U.S. mediation attempts have so far failed to negotiate a diplomatic solution.

Alongside the creeping escalation in fighting, there have been mounting calls from Israeli officials to deal a decisive blow at that border, fueling concerns of a broader regional conflict.

“We are prepared for very intense action in the north,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday on a visit to a military base there.

The Israeli leader vowed to restore security “one way or another,” after the military’s chief of staff, Herzl Halevi, said “we are approaching a decision point.” He said the army was ready and had gone through training “to move to an offensive.”

Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, on his own tour in the north, pledged Tuesday that hostilities at the border would be dealt with by the end of the summer, whether by diplomatic agreement or military escalation.

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The Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which is both a military group and political party in Lebanon, has said it does not want a full-blown war, while also asserting that it is prepared if one should erupt.

The deputy leader of Hezbollah told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that the decision was not to widen the conflict but that it was ready to fight any war imposed on it. “If Israel wants to fight an all-out war, we are ready for it,” Naim Qassem said. Hezbollah has also said there will be no deal until there is a cease-fire in Gaza.

The United States and allies have tried for months to avoid a wider war by urging a deal between the two sides to demarcate the land borders, move Hezbollah away from the frontier and boost the Lebanese army presence there.

In a statement urging restraint, the European Union said it was “increasingly concerned” about rising tensions and “forced displacement of civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border” — which has faced near-daily bombardments.

In Lebanon’s south, Israeli airstrikes have scorched swaths of farmland and pushed tens of thousands of people to flee to other parts of the country, which is already beset by economic collapse.

Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Israeli forces have used white phosphorus in 17 areas of southern Lebanon since October. White phosphorus is a chemical that ignites when exposed to oxygen and is dispersed in artillery shells, bombs and rockets.

The Israeli military said it uses white phosphorus shells to create smokescreens, not to cause fires. Israel used U.S.-supplied white phosphorus munitions in an October attack in southern Lebanon that injured at least nine civilians, according to a Washington Post analysis of shell fragments found in a small village.

Tens of thousands of people have also been evacuated from northern Israel, piling pressure on Israeli leaders to take action to allow them to return to their homes. Hezbollah rockets set off fires there this week.

Israeli leaders say privately that they expect domestic protests to grow if displaced residents are not able to return before the start of the next school year in September.

At least 78 people who were killed and 220 injured arrived at al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza over the past 24 hours, a hospital spokesman, Khalil al-Diqran, said Wednesday. He said many were women, children and elderly people, and that the hospital did not have enough medical supplies. In response to a request for comment, the Israeli military said it was carrying out operations against militants in Deir al-Balah and Bureij areas, including airstrikes and ground attacks.

Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City were bracing for an influx of protesters Wednesday as part of an annual “Flag Day” march that draws settlers and other right-wing activists. The march, which typically features young settlers shouting provocative chants — including “let your village burn!” — has led to violent clashes in the past. Opposition leaders criticized the government for allowing the march to go forward amid the war in Gaza. Police said they would deploy more than 3,000 officers to keep order.

A gunman who opened fire near the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon early Wednesday was shot and wounded by Lebanese troops, the country’s army said. The gunman’s motive was not immediately clear. The embassy said “small-arms fire was reported in the vicinity of the entrance,” adding that the “facility and our team are safe.”

CIA Director William J. Burns is set to meet Qatari leaders in Doha for an update on their discussions with Hamas leaders about the cease-fire proposal, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday. Talks for a deal to secure the release of hostages and a halt in fighting in Gaza had previously stalled for months. Biden presented what he called an Israeli proposal for a Gaza cease-fire on Friday. Netanyahu has since publicly distanced himself from the deal, which his right-wing coalition partners said would prompt them to bring down the government.

The House passed legislation aiming to impose sanctions on International Criminal Court officials after the court’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges against Israeli and Hamas leaders for war crimes. The bill, written by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), passed Tuesday with a vote of 247 to 155, receiving most of its support from Republicans. It is unlikely to become law, however, and White House officials said Monday that the administration opposes it.

At least ​​36,550 people have been killed and 82,959 injured in Gaza since the war started, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and it says 287 soldiers have been killed since the launch of its military operations in Gaza.

Lior Soroka and Hajar Harb contributed to this report.



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