JERUSALEM - The Israeli military struck targets in the Gaza Strip while Palestinian militants fired barrages of rockets into southern Israel early Friday, with the region edging closer toward war following two days of unrest at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site and a rare rocket attack from neighboring Lebanon.
The fighting comes during a delicate time — when Jews are celebrating the Passover holiday and Muslims are marking the Ramadan holy month. Similar tensions spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers in 2021.
The current round of violence began Wednesday after Israeli police twice raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. That led Thursday to rocket fire from Gaza and, in a significant escalation, an unusual barrage of nearly three dozen rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel.
FILE - Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes on the central part of the Gaza Strip, on April 07, 2023, in Gaza City, Gaza. Smoke rose from the area after the attack. (Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet late Thursday, the military struck what it said were four sites in Gaza belonging to Hamas.
Following the nearly three-hour meeting, Netanyahu’s office put out a short statement saying a series of decisions had been made.
"Israel’s response, tonight and beyond, will extract a heavy price from our enemies," Netanyahu said in the statement. It did not elaborate.
But almost immediately, Palestinian militants in Gaza began firing rockets into southern Israel, setting off air raid sirens across the region. Loud explosions could be heard in Gaza from the Israeli strikes, as outgoing rockets whooshed into the skies toward Israel.
FILE - Smoke rises above buildings in Gaza City as Israel launches air strikes on the Palestinian enclave on late April 6, 2023. - Several explosions coming from Gaza were heard by AFP journalists on April 6, 2023, night, as the Israeli army said it (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)
The airstrikes came after militants in Lebanon fired some 34 rockets into Israel, forcing people across Israel’s northern frontier into bomb shelters and wounding at least two people.
The Israeli military said the rocket fire on its northern and southern fronts was carried out by Palestinian militants in connection to this week’s violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where Israeli police stormed into the building with tear gas and stun grenades to confront Palestinians barricaded inside on two straight days. The violent scenes from the mosque ratcheted up tensions across the region.
There was no immediate Israeli action in Lebanon. The military said some 25 of the rockets were intercepted. But two people were wounded and property was damaged in several communities in northern Israel.
The rare attack from Lebanon raised fears of a wider conflagration as Israel’s bitter enemy, the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, holds sway over much of southern Lebanon.
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.
FILE - People view the damaged glass facade of a building in the aftermath of intercepted rocket fire launched from Lebanon and intercepted by Israel in its northern town of Shlomi April 6, 2023. (OREN ZIV/AFP via Getty Images)
"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.
The mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — stands on a hilltop revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. The competing claims to the site have repeatedly spilled over into violence over the years.
No faction in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the salvo of rockets. 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.
Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, condemned the firing of rockets from Lebanon, adding that Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers were investigating and trying to find the perpetrators. Mikati said his government "categorically rejects any military escalation" and the use of Lebanese territories to stage acts that threaten stability.
Hezbollah, which has condemned the Israeli police raids in Jerusalem, did not respond for a request for comment on the rocket fire. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided an all-out conflict since a 34-day war in 2006 ended in a draw.
FILE - Israeli police bomb disposal unit members inspect the remains of a shell fired from Lebanon and intercepted by Israel in its northern town of Shlomi on April 6, 2023. (OREN ZIV/AFP via Getty Images)
Netanyahu could be constrained by his own domestic problems. For the past three months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating against his plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system, claiming it will lead the country toward authoritarianism.
Key military units, including fighter pilots, have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul is passed, drawing a warning from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that Israel’s national security could be harmed by the divisive plan. Netanyahu said he was firing Gallant, but then backtracked as he put the overhaul on hold for several weeks. Critics could also accuse him of trying to use the crisis to divert attention from his domestic woes.
Netanyahu said that the domestic divisions had no impact on national security and that the country would remain united in the face of external threats.
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, the military spokesman, said Thursday’s rocket fire was not believed to be connected to events in Syria.
In Washington, the 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, saying that "any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo to us is unacceptable," he said.
FILE - People inspect a crater formed by an intercepted rocket fired from Lebanon at the northern border town of Shlomi. (Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)
In Jerusalem, the situation remained tense at Al-Aqsa. For the previous two nights, Palestinians 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 Ramadan 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 did not try to prevent people from spending the night in the mosque early Friday — apparently because it was the weekend, when Jews do not visit the compound. But tensions could re-ignite Sunday when Jewish visits resume.
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
In this week’s violence, Israeli police fired 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.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.