Israel begins airstrikes in Gaza following rocket fire

Israel begins airstrikes in Gaza following rocket fire

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The Israeli military struck targets in the Gaza Strip early Friday, pushing the region closer toward a wider conflagration after a day of rocket fire along the country’s northern and southern borders following two days of unrest at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.

At least two loud explosions could be heard in Gaza. It was not immediately clear what was struck.

The airstrikes came after militants in Lebanon fired a heavy barrage of rockets at Israel earlier in the day, forcing people across Israel’s northern frontier into bomb shelters, wounding at least two people. In Gaza, militants also fired rockets toward Israel.

Israeli military officials said the rocket fire on both fronts was carried out by Palestinian militants in connection to this week’s violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, where Israeli police stormed into the building with tear gas and stun grenades on two straight days. The violent scenes from the mosque have ratcheted up tensions across the region.

The airstrikes came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting with his Security Cabinet to discuss the rocket fire. He vowed an “aggressive response.”

“We will strike our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression,” he said, adding that Israelis remain united in the face of external threats despite their political differences.

There was no immediate Israeli response in Lebanon, where militants fired some 34 rockets across the border. The military said 25 were shot down by its Iron Dome aerial defense system. Five rockets struck Israeli territory and the rest of the strikes were being investigated. Israel said two people were wounded.

The unusually large salvo of rockets raised fears of a wider conflagration, as Israel’s bitter enemy, the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, holds sway over much of southern Lebanon. Over the past two days, tensions have skyrocketed at the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and along Israel’s tense border with Gaza.

In a briefing with reporters, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, said the army drew a clear connection between the Lebanese rocket fire and the recent unrest in Jerusalem.

“It’s a Palestinian-oriented event,” he said, adding that either the Hamas or Islamic Jihad militant groups, which are based in Gaza but also operate in Lebanon, could be involved. But he said the army believed that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government were aware of what happened and also held responsibility. He declined to say how Israel might respond, saying there were “all sorts of scenarios.”

Earlier on Thursday and late Wednesday night, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired several rockets toward Israel in protest over the Israeli police storming into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City with tear gas and stun grenades. On Thursday, Hezbollah condemned Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa. The shrine — the third-holiest site in Islam — stands on a hilltop revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.

No faction in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the salvo of rockets, which set off air raid sirens across the country’s north.

A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media, said the country’s security forces believed the rockets were launched by a Lebanon-based Palestinian militant group, not by Hezbollah militants. The official said there were no casualties on the Lebanese side.

A spokesperson for Hezbollah did not respond to a request for comment. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided an all-out conflict since a 34-day war in 2006 ended with a draw.

Tensions have simmered along the Lebanese border as Israel appears to have ratcheted up its shadow war against Iranian-linked targets in Syria, another close ally of Iran, Israel’s archenemy in the region. Suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks have killed two Iranian military advisers and temporarily put the country’s two largest airports out of service. Hecht said Thursday’s rocket fire was not believed to be connected to events in Syria.

In Washington, Principal Deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said, “Israel has legitimate security concerns and has every right to defend themselves. ”

But he also urged calm in Jerusalem. “We emphasize the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem and any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo to us is unacceptable,” he said.

In Israel, Thursday’s rocket fire from Lebanon sent shrapnel flying that wounded at least two people, according to the Galilee Medical Center. Israeli police said a bomb squad removed a number of fragments from areas in the north.

Videos on social media showed huge plumes of dark smoke billowing from Israel’s northern hills and streaks through the sky left by the Iron Dome defense system. Widely circulated photos showed shrapnel that punched a hole in a street in the northern Israeli town of Shlomi and at least one building with its windows blown out.

The Lebanese army said it found missile launchers and “a number of rockets intended for launch” in the vicinity of the towns of Zibqin and Qalila in south Lebanon and was working to dismantle them.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad hailed the rockets as “a heroic operation against the Israeli crimes in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is visiting Lebanon, where he met with exiled leaders of Palestinian militant groups late Thursday. “Our Palestinian people will not remain passive towards the ongoing aggression,” he said.

In Jerusalem, tensions ran high after two nights of unrest. Conflicting claims over the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque have spiraled into violence in the past, including a bloody 11-day war in 2021 between Israel and Hamas.

For the past two nights — a volatile time during which the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlap — Palestinians have barricaded themselves in the mosque with stones and firecrackers. Worshippers have been demanding the right to pray overnight inside the mosque — which authorities typically only permit during the last 10 days of the monthlong holiday. They also have stayed in the mosque in protest over threats by religious Jews to carry out a ritual animal slaughter at the sacred site for Passover.

Israel bars ritual slaughter on the site, but calls by Jewish extremists to revive the practice, including offers of cash rewards to anyone who even attempts to bring an animal into the compound, have amplified fears among Muslims that Israel is plotting to take over the site

Early Wednesday, Israeli police raided the mosque, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets to evict worshippers who had locked the doors of the building. Palestinians hurled stones and fireworks at officers. After a few hours of scuffles that left a trail of damage, police managed to drag everyone out of the compound. Police fiercely beat Palestinians and arrested over 400 people. Israeli authorities control access to the area but the compound is administered by Islamic and Jordanian officials.

The violence at the site has resonated across the region, with condemnations pouring in from Muslim leaders.

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