The Guardian / April 7, 2023
Rocket fire from Gaza and Lebanon and second Israeli raid on al-Aqsa mosque stoke fears of further escalation.
Israeli jets hit sites in Lebanon and Gaza early on Friday, in retaliation for rocket attacks it blamed on the Islamist group Hamas, as tensions following police raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem this week threatened to spiral out of control.
Two explosions were heard in Gaza late on Thursday. It was not immediately clear what had been targeted but Israel said its jets hit targets including tunnels and weapons manufacturing sites of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the blockaded southern coastal strip.
“Israel’s response, tonight and later, will exact a significant price from our enemies,” prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following a security cabinet meeting to discuss what the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) described as the biggest rocket salvo since the 2006 war into northern Israel. Most of the 34 projectiles were intercepted, but there were two minor injuries and a fire.
As the Israeli jets struck in Gaza, salvoes of rockets were fired in response and sirens sounded in Israeli towns and cities in bordering areas. The IDF also said it had launched strikes in Lebanon hitting “targets including terrorist infrastructures belonging to Hamas”.
AFP reported at least three explosions in southern Lebanon’s Tyre region with at least two shells falling near a Palestinian refugee camp near Tyre city. One missile fell on a farmer’s house near the camp, causing material damage, an AFP correspondent in the area said.
The pro-Iranian Hezbollah channel Al-Manar reported that the shelling had targeted three areas in southern Lebanon, including the refugee camp area.
“We hold the Zionist occupation fully responsible for the grave escalation and the flagrant aggression against the Gaza Strip and for the consequences that will bring onto the region,” Hamas said in a statement.
With tensions running high on Friday, two Israeli sisters [Jewish settlers] were killed and their mother seriously injured in a shooting attack in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli military said it was searching for those behind the attack. No militant group immediately claimed responsibility but a Hamas spokesman praised the attack.
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.
Although Israel blamed Hamas for Thursday’s attack, which took place as Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh was visiting Lebanon, security experts said Hezbollah, the powerful Shia group which helps Israel’s main enemy Iran project its power across the region, must have given its permission.
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 Palestinian groups operate in the south of Lebanon, none do so without the knowledge of Hezbollah.
The raid on Palestinians by Israeli police inside Al-Aqsa Mosque could have offered a pretext for a limited rocket strike, which served both the Palestinians and Hezbollah and gave the latter at least some deniability.
Early on Thursday, Palestinian militants in Gaza 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.
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 wounded by an Israeli civilian in Jerusalem’s Old City.