In an exclusive interview on Sunday, Nir Barkat, Israel’s Minister of Economy, warned that Iran’s Ayatollahs will be ‘wiped off the face of the earth’ should Hezbollah, their proxy terror group in Lebanon, attack Israel.
His incendiary comments raise the grave spectre of a rapidly escalating regional conflict and come ahead of an expected Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to ‘annihilate’ Hamas.
Tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers are in position on the borders of the territory, where Hamas – which is also backed by Iran – is holding around 200 hostages seized in the violent assault on southern Israel on October 7.
But fears are growing that Israel could be forced to fight on two fronts, with Hezbollah and the Israel Defence Forces last week repeatedly trading fire across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.
In a direct threat to deter Tehran from intervening further, Mr Barkat warned that not only would Israel ‘eliminate Hezbollah’, if it believes the terror group is opening up a ‘northern front’, but ‘we will actually target Iran.’
‘The plan of Iran is to attack Israel on all fronts. If we find they intend to target Israel, we will not just retaliate to those fronts, but we will go to the head of the snake, which is Iran.
‘The Ayatollahs in Iran are not going to sleep good at night, we are going to make sure they pay a heavy price if, God forbid, they open the northern front.
‘Lebanon and Hezbollah are going to pay a heavy price, similar to what Hamas is going to pay. But that’s not enough.
‘The very clear message is that we are going to be going after the heads of Iran as well. When will we do that? When we decide.
‘Israel has a very clear message to our enemies. We are saying to them, look what’s happening in Gaza – you are going to get the same treatment if you attack us. We are going to wipe you off the face of the Earth.’
Mr Barkat’s uncompromising warning came as:
A deal to release 50 more hostages – following the release of an American mother and her daughter on Friday – collapsed;
Hardline Islamists took to the streets of London and called for Muslim armies to rise up against Israel;
Chaos broke out at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt as aid trucks entered Gaza, but foreign passport holders were blocked from getting out;
Young British Jewish women spoke of their determination to defend Israel after volunteering to fight in its war on terror;
Palestine claimed the Gaza death toll has hit 4,385, with 13,651 injured; Israeli losses have exceeded 1,400.
Despite increasing tensions, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said there was still ‘room for politics and diplomacy even at this darkest hour’ and said ‘good progress’ had been made to open up humanitarian access.
‘Too many lives have already been lost following Hamas’s horrific act of terror. The loss of every innocent life diminishes us all – regardless of faith or nationality,’ Mr Sunak wrote in The Sunday Telegraph.
With 20,000 fighters, Hezbollah is one of the most powerful paramilitary forces in the Middle East, with Iran believed to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the Islamists each year.
A major war broke out in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon after Hezbollah launched missiles at Israeli cities.
During his incendiary interview, Mr Barkat, an ex-mayor of Jerusalem, said Hezbollah ‘will not escalate without the order of Iran’, adding: ‘In many ways… Hezbollah is Iran.’
He said Mr Sunak and US President Joe Biden, who both visited Israel last week, understand there is a ‘global alignment of evil’ between Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.
However Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has warned that the Israel-Hamas dispute must not trigger wider instability. Speaking at a peace summit in Cairo, he said: ‘We must work together to prevent the tragic situation in Gaza becoming a regional conflict because that is exactly what Hamas wants.’
Military experts last night warned that the Israeli minister’s comments risked a serious escalation which could push the region to all-out war.
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former head of the British Army’s Joint Forces Command, warned: ‘If Israel strikes Iran, that is an act of war against Iran, so Iran is going to respond.
‘And when that happens then the Muslim world as a whole will feel that this has become a war between Israel and Islam and where does that take you?