Israel is threatening to cut off the “snake’s head” and launch a military attack against Iran if Lebanese militant group Hezbollah joins the war on the side of Palestine's Hamas, opening a second front in the north.
In an exclusive interview with the UK paper The Mail on Sunday, Israeli Economy Minister Nir Barkat warned that Iran's ayatollahs would be "wiped out" if Hezbollah attacked Israel. Iran backs both Hamas and Hezbollah.
His incendiary comments raise the spectre of a rapidly escalating regional conflict and come ahead of an expected Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to "destroy" Hamas.
Tens of thousands of Israeli troops are in positions on the borders of the territory where Hamas is holding about 200 hostages captured in an attack on southern Israel on October 7.
But fears are growing that Israel could be forced into a two-front war as Hezbollah and the Israel Defence Forces repeatedly opened fire across Israel's northern border with Lebanon last week, the Mail on Sunday reports.
In a direct threat to deter Tehran from further intervention, Nir Barkat warned that Israel would not only “destroy" Hezbollah if it believes the group is opening a “northern front”, but “we will actually target Iran”.
“Iran’s plan is to attack Israel on all fronts,” the Israeli minister said.
“If we discover that they intend to attack Israel, we will not only strike back on those fronts, but we will also strike on the head of the snake that is Iran. The ayatollahs in Iran will not sleep well at night. We will make sure they pay a heavy price if, God forbid, they open a northern front. Lebanon and Hezbollah will pay a heavy price similar to what Hamas will pay.”
“But that is not enough. The very clear message is that we are going to go after the leaders of Iran as well. When will we do that? When we decide. Israel has a very clear message to our enemies. We are telling them: Look what is happening in Gaza. We will do the same to you if you attack us. We will wipe you off the face of the earth."
Despite rising tensions, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said there was still "room for politics and diplomacy even in this darkest hour" and said "good progress" had been made in opening up humanitarian access.
"Too many lives have already been lost as a result of Hamas' horrific terrorist attack. The loss of every innocent life humiliates us all – regardless of faith or nationality," Sunak wrote in the UK paper the Sunday Telegraph.
With 20,000 fighters, Hezbollah is one of the most powerful militias in the Middle East, and Iran is believed to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the group every year. A major war broke out between Israel and Lebanon in 2006 after Hezbollah launched rockets at Israeli cities.
During a fiery interview, Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem, said Hezbollah "will not escalate without orders from Iran", adding "n many ways... Hezbollah is Iran".
He said Sunak and US President Joe Biden, who both visited Israel last week, understood there was a "global alliance of evil" between Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
However, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley warned that the dispute between Israel and Hamas should not spark wider instability. Speaking at a peace summit in Cairo, he said: "We must work together to prevent the tragic situation in Gaza from escalating into a regional conflict, because that is exactly what Hamas wants."
Military experts warned on October 11 that the Israeli minister's comments risked a serious escalation that could push the region toward all-out war.
General Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the British Army's Combined Forces Command, warned: "If Israel strikes Iran, it will be an act of war against Iran, so Iran will respond. And when that happens, the Muslim world as a whole will feel that it has become a war between Israel and Islam, and where does that leave you? There is every risk in the Middle East that things will spin out of control and the world will end up in a place that no one wants to be in."
Michael Clarke, of the War Studies Department at King's College London, said US officials are believed to have urged Israel to refrain from making similar threats made by Minister Barkat.
He said: "The Iranians are talking furiously, the Israelis are talking furious, and there are rumours that the US is putting a lot of pressure on Tel Aviv not to make pre-emptive statements of the kind that you just quoted because it could escalate the situation. The Israelis They say this is all done in part as an act of deterrence, [but] it is likely that the Iranians will not be able to control the forces acting on their behalf."
In the interview, Barkat warned that failure to destroy Hamas would lead to a repeat of attacks in the UK.
Amid criticism of the BBC's refusal to label Hamas as terrorists, Barkat, a former Israel Defence Forces paratrooper, said he took some of the broadcaster's reporters to Kfar Aza, the kibbutz where more than 70 people were killed: "We witnessed atrocities in the rooms and the smell of death that still lingers around. This is more than a war zone – it's a hell zone. Can they describe what they saw? If this is not a terrorist organisation, then what is it?”
He also said that Israeli officials had seen video footage of Hamas terrorists dousing a woman with gasoline and burning her alive in the street.
Israel has for years carried out airstrikes against targets it says are linked to Iran in Syria, where Tehran has supported President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war that began in 2011, the UK newspaper reported.
In September, dozens of Israeli Air Force fighters, surveillance planes and tankers flew thousands of miles from Israel to Greece and back to simulate a long-range strike against Iran and its nuclear facilities.