Israel’s military hit sites in Lebanon and Gaza early on Friday, in retaliation for rocket attacks it blamed on the Hamas group, as tensions following Israeli police raids this week on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem threatened to spiral out of control.
Loud blasts rocked different areas of Gaza, as Israel said its jets hit targets including tunnels and weapons manufacturing sites of Hamas, which controls the blockaded southern coastal strip, as well as a heavy machine gun used for anti-aircraft fire.
As daybreak neared, the military said it had also struck Hamas targets in southern Lebanon, where residents around the area of the Rashidiyeh refugee camp reported three loud blasts.
Two Lebanese security sources said the strike hit a small structure on farmland near the area from which the rockets had been launched earlier. They had no reports of casualties.
The strikes came in response to rocket attacks from Lebanon towards northern Israeli areas, which Israeli officials blamed on Hamas. The Israel occupation forces said 34 rockets were launched from Lebanon, of which 25 were intercepted by air defense systems. It was the biggest such attack since 2006, when Israel fought a war with the heavily armed Hezbollah group.
“Israel’s response, tonight and later, will exact a significant price from our enemies,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following a security cabinet meeting.
As the Israeli jets struck in Gaza, salvos of rockets were fired in response and sirens sounded in Israeli towns and cities in bordering areas. However, there were no reports of serious casualties.
The cross border strikes came amid an escalating confrontation over Israeli occupation forces raids at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday.
“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.
Although Israel blamed Hamas for Thursday’s attack, which took place as the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, was visiting Lebanon, security experts said Hezbollah, the powerful Shi’a group which helps Israel’s main enemy Iran project its power across the region, must have given its permission.
“It’s not Hezbollah shooting, but it’s hard to believe that Hezbollah didn’t know about it,” Tamir Hayman, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, said on Twitter.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a statement condemning any military operations from its territory that threatened stability, but there was no immediate comment from Hezbollah. Earlier on Thursday, before the rockets were fired, senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said any infringement on Al-Aqsa “will inflame the entire region.”
UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, said it had been in contact with the parties and said both sides had said they did not seek war, but it said the situation risked escalation.
“We urge all parties to cease all actions across the Blue Line now,” it said, referring to the frontier demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.
U.S. condemns rocket attacks, expresses its concern at Al Aqsa mosque violence
Palestinian factions in Lebanon, which have a presence in the refugee camps, have fired sporadically on Israel in the past. But the border area has been largely quiet since the 2006 war with Hezbollah.
The U.S. State Department condemned the launch of rockets from Lebanon and earlier strikes from Gaza and said Israel had the right to defend itself.
But it also expressed concern at the scenes in the Al-Aqsa mosque, where Israeli police were filmed beating worshipers during raids that officials said were to dislodge groups of young men who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque.
The Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s Old City is Islam’s third holiest site, where hundreds of thousands pray during Ramadan. Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the location of the two biblical Jewish temples, it is also Judaism’s most sacred site, although non-Muslims are not allowed to pray there.
It has long been a flashpoint for tensions. Clashes there in 2021 helped to trigger a 10-day war between Israel and Gaza.
There has been widespread anger among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza over the police actions as well as condemnation from across the Arab world.
Late on Thursday, police said there were also disturbances in a number of Arab cities in Israel itself, including Umm el-Fahem, Sakhnin and Nazareth.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s rocket attack, Israeli TV footage showed large plumes of smoke rising above the northern Israeli border town of Shlomi, with wrecked cars in the streets. The Israel Airports Authority said it had closed the northern airports in Haifa and Rosh Pina.
“I’m shaking, I’m in shock,” Liat Berkovitch Kravitz told Israel’s Channel 12 news, speaking from a fortified room in her house in Shlomi. “I heard a boom, it was as if it exploded inside the room.”
The Israeli occupation forces said mortar shells were also fired across the border.
Amid fears that the confrontation could spiral further following a year of rising Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, the U.N. Security Council held a closed door meeting to discuss the crisis.
“It’s going to be important for everyone to do what they can to calm tensions,” U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Robert Wood told reporters on his way into the meeting.
Thursday’s attack followed a number of rocket launches towards Israel from Gaza, most of which were intercepted. Israel responded to the launches with airstrikes on sites linked to Hamas, which it holds responsible for any attacks from the blockaded Gaza strip.
Speaking from Gaza, Mohammad Al-Braim, spokesman for the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, praised the rocket strikes from Lebanon, which he linked to the Al-Aqsa incidents, but did not claim responsibility.
He said “no Arab and no Muslim would keep silent while (Al-Aqsa) is being raided in such a savage and barbaric way without the enemy paying the price for its aggression.”
– Wire services, edited for style and contents.