The Guardian / April 9, 2023
Al-Aqsa Mosque compound tensions have triggered cross-border fighting in Gaza and drawn in Lebanon and Syria.
Simultaneous Muslim and Jewish holiday rites at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount or Al-Aqsa Mosque compound have passed without major clashes after rare cross-border airstrikes and rocket fire between Israel and Syria overnight, and fears of wider conflict in the Middle East after escalations on multiple fronts.
About 15,000 Jewish worshippers gathered at the Western Wall in occupied East Jerusalem, the holiest site at which Jews can pray, on Sunday morning for a benediction prayer marking Passover. At the same time, thousands of Palestinians performed dawn and midday Muslim prayers at Al-Aqsa, an esplanade on the other side of the wall, as part of observances during the holy month of Ramadan. Christian pilgrims also flooded the Old City to mark Easter Sunday, in a rare convergence of celebrations in the three different faiths.
Tensions in the last week over access to the Temple Mount – sacred to both Judaism and Islam – during the sensitive holiday period have triggered fairly common cross-frontier fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, but in a rare development, they have drawn in Lebanon and now Syria. While Sunday’s festivities were conducted peacefully under a heavy Israeli police presence, the region remains braced for further violence.
Overnight, Israel bombarded Syrian military targets in the vicinity of the capital, Damascus, in response to a rare salvo of six rockets launched towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, all of which fell on open ground or were intercepted by air defence systems. The Israeli army said it used artillery and drones to hit the rocket launchers and airstrikes on an army compound, military radar systems and artillery posts belonging to the Syrian army.
Israel has carried out thousands of attacks in Syria over the course of the neighbouring 12-year-old civil war aimed at sabotaging Iranian entrenchment, but rarely acknowledges them. The ayatollahs of Tehran have vowed the Jewish state’s destruction, and are allied with Palestinian groups, the Damascus regime and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
A wing of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad group based in Damascus claimed responsibility for the attack, Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported, saying it was retaliating for scenes of Israeli police violence against Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa. Israel’s defence ministry said in a statement it held the Syrian state “responsible for all activities occurring within its territory and will not allow any attempts to violate Israeli sovereignty”.
No casualties were reported on either side, suggesting the attacks were limited in scope, but the launches from Syrian territory come in the wake of a barrage of rocket fire towards Israel from Lebanon on Thursday – the biggest flare-up between the two countries since a short war with the militant group Hezbollah in 2006.
Although Israel said it believed the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas was behind the attack from Lebanon, it is unlikely it was carried out without coordination with Hezbollah.
Rocket fire blamed on Hamas from the blockaded Gaza Strip on two consecutive nights this week, which was met with Israeli airstrikes, and continued “lone wolf” Palestinian attacks that killed three people in the occupied West Bank and Tel Aviv over the weekend add to the complex and combustible atmosphere.
The funeral for two British-Israeli sisters, Maia and Rina Dee, aged 20 and 15, killed in a shooting in the Jordan valley, was scheduled for Sunday evening at a cemetery in the Jewish settlement of Kfar Etzion in the West Bank. No suspects have yet been identified in the attack.
An Italian tourist, Alessandro Parini, 35, a lawyer from Rome, had arrived in Tel Aviv a few hours before he was killed in a car-ramming on the city’s beachside promenade on Friday. The driver, an Palestinian-Israeli citizen, was shot and killed at the scene.
On Saturday, 20-year-old Ayed Salim was shot dead by Israeli forces during an incident in which the military said it used live fire on Palestinians throwing stones and explosive devices in the West Bank town of Azzun.
Under a longstanding compromise implemented after the Israeli occupation began in 1967, non-Muslims are allowed to visit but not pray at the Temple Mount, known in Islam as Al-Haram al-Sharif or Al-Aqsa, and any perceived attempt to alter the arrangement is a lightning rod for violence.
Palestinians who barricaded themselves in a prayer hall at Al-Aqsa Mosque on Wednesday night over fears that Jewish ultranationalists would attempt a traditional sacrifice for the start of Passover, upsetting the sensitive religious status quo, were forcibly removed by Israeli police in a raid that caused 14 injuries and led to hundreds of arrests.
Video of the confrontations at the third holiest site in Islam showing officers hitting worshippers with the butts of rifles and batons were met with outrage across the Muslim world and triggered this week’s cross-border standoffs.
Israel is also facing significant domestic turmoil: demonstrations against the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary continued for a 14th straight week across the country on Saturday night despite the heightened tensions.
The biggest protest movement in Israeli history has drawn widespread support from former defence and security officials and military reservists, leading to concerns about operational readiness. Netanyahu technically fired his defence minister two weeks ago over his opposition to the judicial changes, but he appears to have remained in post.
At least 90 Palestinians, of whom about half are militants and half civilians, have been killed since January, according to rights groups. In Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis, 18 people have been killed, making 2023 the deadliest start to the year in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of the 2000s.
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian