Israel hits Gaza after rocket attack as tensions spike

By AFP

Jerusalem, Undefined – Israel carried out its first air strike on the Gaza Strip in months early Tuesday, in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave after a weekend of violence around a Jerusalem holy site.

The army also said its special forces had made five arrests overnight in the occupied West Bank, which has seen a string of deadly Israeli raids since several recent fatal attacks against the Jewish state.

The latest tensions have focused on the highly contested Al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Israeli-annexed Old City.

Palestinian worshippers gathering there for Ramadan prayers have been outraged by visits by religious Jews under heavy Israeli police protection — as well as restrictions on their own access.

The violence, coinciding with the Jewish Passover festival as well as the Muslim holy month, has sparked fears of a repeat of last year’s events, when similar circumstances sparked an 11-day war that levelled parts of Gaza.

On Monday, warning sirens sounded after a rocket was fired into southern Israel from the blockaded enclave, controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, in the first such incident since early January.

The Israeli military said the rocket had been intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system.

Hours later, the Israeli air force said it had hit a Hamas weapons factory in retaliation.

Hamas claimed to have used its “anti-aircraft defences” to counter the raid, which caused no casualties, according to witnesses and security sources in Gaza.

– Deadly attacks –

No faction in the crowded enclave of 2.3 million inhabitants immediately claimed responsibility for the rocket.

But it comes after weeks of mounting violence, with a total of 23 Palestinians and Arab-Israelis killed, including assailants who targeted Israelis in four deadly attacks.

Those attacks claimed 14 lives, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally.

The rocket fire also followed a weekend of Israeli-Palestinian violence in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque compound that wounded more than 170 people, mostly Palestinian demonstrators.

Israeli police said they had refused to authorise a march Jewish nationalists had planned around the walls of the Old City.

A similar parade last year, following a similar wave of violence, was interrupted by rocket fire from Gaza which in turn triggered the 11-day war.

This month has also seen violence in the West Bank.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Tuesday it had treated 72 people following a demonstration in the village of Burqa, against a march by Israeli settlers demanding the re-establishment of a nearby settlement evacuated in 2005.

The Red Crescent said four people had been directly hit by tear gas canisters and seven had been hit by rubber-coated bullets.

– Regional Arab disquiet –

Incidents at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest in Islam, have triggered repeated rounds of violence over the past century.

Jews are allowed to visit the site at certain times, but they are prohibited from praying there.

The latest spike in violence has strained Israel’s diplomatic relations with some Muslim countries and drawn wider international concern. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed “working to end the cycle of violence” in separate calls with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Tuesday, the State Department said.

The United Arab Emirates summoned Israel’s ambassador to convey “strong protest and denunciation” of events at Al-Aqsa, particularly “attacks on civilians” and “incursions” by Israeli security forces.

The UAE only established ties with Israel in 2020. Jordan, custodian of east Jerusalem’s holy sites, had already summoned Israel’s charge d’affaires on Monday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog against “allowing provocations and threats against the status and spirituality of Al-Aqsa mosque”, which “increased our sadness”.

France, Ireland, Estonia, Norway and Albania condemned the violence in a joint statement issued after an emergency closed-door UN Security Council session on Tuesday, saying the status quo of the holy sites should be “fully respected”.

Abbas stressed his complete rejection of any changes to the legal and historical status quo during his call with Blinken, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said. 

Lapid meanwhile said he emphasised to Blinken “Israel’s responsible and measured efforts in the face of riots by hundreds of Islamic extremists.”

Hamas has vowed to defend Al-Aqsa’s status as “a pure Islamic site”.

But analysts have said in recent weeks that the movement does not want a war at present, partly because its military capacities were degraded by the last one.

They say Hamas is also wary that a new conflict could prompt Israel to cancel thousands of work permits lately issued to residents of impoverished Gaza.

But Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian faction which Israel says has thousands of fighters and rockets in the enclave, warned Monday that it will not be forced “into silence” over events in Jerusalem.