Rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon and a second Israeli police raid on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque in as many nights have stoked fears of further escalation in the region during a sensitive period of overlapping religious holidays.
On Thursday afternoon, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said the biggest salvo of rockets since the 2006 war had been fired from Lebanese territory into northern Israel. Most of the 34 projectiles were intercepted, but there were two minor injuries and a fire.
Later on Thursday, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pledged to retaliate. “As for the aggression aimed at us from other fronts – we will hit our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression,” he said, before a meeting with the security cabinet.\
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the launches came just hours after the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said it would support “all measures” taken by Palestinians to defend the sacred al-Aqsa compound.
However, the Israeli army blamed Palestinian groups. “We know for sure it’s Palestinian fire,” army spokesperson Lt Colonel Richard Hecht told reporters. “It could be Hamas, it could be Islamic Jihad. We are still trying to finalise, but it wasn’t Hezbollah.
“We assume Hezbollah knew about it, and Lebanon also has some responsibility. We are also investigating whether Iran was involved,” he continued.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said he rejected any “escalation” from his country.
The marked uptick in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the beginning of the Jewish Passover holiday comes after a year of increasing bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also carried echoes of 2021, when clashes at al-Aqsa during Ramadan helped start an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. Thursday’s events have led to fears of a wider conflagration around the region.
“We are still figuring out the whole dynamic of what happened this afternoon and our assumption is a Palestinian identification,” an Israeli defence official said. “We are looking at this upcoming and sensitive weekend,” they added, referring to Friday afternoon prayers, the holiest of the Muslim week.
Eyewitnesses in south Lebanon told the Guardian that counter artillery fire hit the rocket launching sites within seconds, while Hezbollah-affiliated media retracted a claim that Israel had shelled the southern town of al-Qlaileh in response. The Israeli military denied that it had retaliated “thus far”.
Hezbollah and its allies have faced extensive attacks by Israeli jets in Syrian territory over the last week, striking at what Israel believes to be sites to manufacture drones. At least two members of the organisation are believed to have been killed during night raids that levelled several hangars at Syrian airbases.
The militant group has vowed to strike back at its arch foe whenever its members are killed, but, like Hamas in the Gaza Strip, remains wary of an escalation. Though Palestinians groups operate in the south of Lebanon, none do so without the knowledge of Hezbollah, and a large scale rocket strike would almost certainly be coordinated.
The raid on Palestinians by Israeli police inside al-Aqsa mosque could have served as a pretext for a limited rocket strike, which served both the Palestinians and Hezbollah and gave the latter at least some deniability.
In the early hours of Thursday, Palestinian militants in the blockaded Gaza Strip launched about nine rockets into Israel in the early hours, setting off air raid sirens across the south of the country but causing no casualties or damage. Most of the rockets exploded before impact, the Israeli army said, and none of Gaza’s militant groups claimed responsibility.
Two rockets were fired just before the second incident at the holiest Jerusalem site late on Wednesday and early on Thursday, in which police using stun grenades and rubber bullets entered the compound to remove worshippers. Six people were injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The latest flare-up followed a large Israeli police raid on al-Aqsa the day before, in which at least 12 people were injured and more than 350 arrested. That raid also triggered rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which was countered with Israeli airstrikes on alleged military sites belonging to Hamas, the Islamist movement in control of the strip.
The first raid, in which disturbing footage of soldiers beating Palestinians with batons and the butts of rifles emerged, drew widespread condemnation in the Muslim world and concern from the White House over the possibility of escalation.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/04/archive-zip/giv-13425cGJj03mUS1YG/
Both the UN and US called for calm on Thursday after the rocket fire, while the Lebanese government said it would coordinate with Unifil, the UN force on the Israeli-Lebanese border, to prevent an escalation.
Elsewhere on Thursday, clashes broke out overnight between protesters and police in the Arab-majority town of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel and a Palestinian teenager was shot and lightly wounded by an Israeli civilian in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The Palestinian foreign ministry said the UN security council would hold a closed-door session on Thursday to discuss the violence since Wednesday’s raid on al-Aqsa, which Israeli authorities said was an attempt to prevent clashes by clearing groups barricaded inside with weapons, rocks and firecrackers planning to breach the peace.
The Jordanian organisation that manages the site, known as the Waqf, said along with witnesses that police entered the mosque before prayers were over.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesperson for the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, said: “Israel’s raid into al-Aqsa mosque, its assault on worshippers, is a slap to recent US efforts which tried to create calm and stability during the month of Ramadan.”
Abu Obaida, a spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, said: “The patience of the resistance forces in Gaza is running out. We won’t leave the worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque alone.”
The Temple Mount in occupied East Jerusalem, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif or as al-Aqsa, is holy to Jews and Muslims and is regularly the scene of violence. Security and diplomatic officials have warned that this year’s overlap of Ramadan and Passover has increased tensions.
Muslims often spend the night in the mosque compound during Ramadan, but the Waqf agreed this year that worshippers would not be allowed to stay in the house of prayer overnight for at least the first 20 days of the holiday.
Under a longstanding compromise implemented after the Israeli occupation began in 1967, Jews are allowed to visit but not pray at the site, and any perceived attempt to alter the arrangement acts as a lightning rod for violence. In recent years Jewish visitors have increasingly prayed more or less openly in the compound, sometimes under police protection.
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the state would uphold the delicate status quo at the compound.
“Israel is committed to maintaining freedom of worship, free access to all religions and the status quo on the Temple Mount and will not allow violent extremists to change that,” he said.
Events in Jerusalem and tit-for-tat cross-border fire add to an already tense political atmosphere in Israel, which is reeling from weeks of protests, which have included large numbers of military reservists, over the government’s plans to limit the powers of the supreme court.
Netanyahu publicly fired his defence minister, Yoav Galant, two weeks ago for voicing opposition to the judicial overhaul, but did not follow up with the required formal written notice.