(Al Jazeera Media Network) Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned Israel that it must pull back from its attacks on Gaza or face the possibility of an expanded conflict.
Speaking on Tuesday, Khamenei accused Israel of committing “genocide” in its assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, adding that Iran-backed forces across the region would not sit on the sidelines indefinitely.
“If the crimes of the Zionist regime continue, Muslims and resistance forces will become impatient, and no one can stop them,” Khamenei said.
“Regarding the situation in Gaza, we all have a responsibility to react – we must react,” he said.
The comments are the latest out of Tehran warning Israel and the United States that Iran-backed groups across the region, sometimes referred to as the “axis of resistance”, could join the current war between Israel and Hamas.
Iran’s Fars News Agency also reported that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander-in-Chief Ali Fadavi had issued similar warnings.
“The resistance front’s shocks against the Zionist regime will continue,” he said.
The question of potential expansion of the fighting to include not just Hamas, the Palestinian group that governs Gaza and receives some support from Iran, but more formidable Iran-backed groups such as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, has loomed over the 11-day war.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday that supporting the Palestinians was Iran’s foreign policy priority but that the armed groups make independent decisions.
Israel has pounded Gaza from the air since Hamas launched a surprise attack from Gaza on southern Israel on October 7, when hundreds of Hamas fighters breached the Israeli fence that surrounds Gaza and killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli authorities.
After the attack, Israel cut off food, water, and electricity to the more than 2.3 million residents of Gaza and launched an aerial assault that has killed more than 3,000 people and wounded 12,500 others, according to Palestinian authorities.
Israel has said it intends to destroy Hamas and has mobilized hundreds of thousands of military reservists ahead of an expected ground offensive on Gaza. Military experts have warned that any ground offensive into densely populated areas of Gaza would be extremely challenging and could potentially lead to heavy losses on both sides.
The Israeli military suggested on Tuesday that it was considering other options as it prepares for “the next stages of the war” against Hamas.
“Everyone is talking about a ground offensive, but it could be something else,” Israeli army spokesperson Richard Hecht said on Tuesday without providing further details.
“Any ground operation [by Israel into Gaza], starting such an operation, that could be a trigger” for other armed groups to join the war, Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera.
The United States has sought to deter Iran-backed groups from joining the war, moving two aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean and putting 2,000 of its troops on deployment alert. Israel has warned that any party that joins the fighting will pay a heavy price.
But a widening of the conflict could also cause considerable problems for Israel, which would be faced with the prospect of barrages of missiles from Hezbollah’s considerable arsenal and a two-front war that could stretch the capacity of its forces.