JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel launched rare strikes in southern Lebanon early Friday and pressed on with bombing targets in the Gaza Strip, marking a widening escalation in the region following violence this week at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.
The cross-border fighting erupted during a time of heightened religious fervor — when Jews are celebrating the Passover holiday and Muslims are marking the Ramadan holy month. In 2021, an escalation also triggered by clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Friday’s strikes in southern Lebanon came a day after militants fired nearly three dozen rockets from there at Israel, wounding two people and causing some property damage. The Israeli military said it targeted installations of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in southern Lebanon.
Associated Press correspondents in the area said several missiles fired by Israeli warplanes struck an open field in the town of Qalili near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, close to the coastal southern city of Tyre, while others struck a bridge and power transformer in the nearby town of Maaliya and a farm on the outskirts of Rashidiyeh, killing several sheep. No human deaths were reported.
Israeli strikes in Lebanon risk drawing Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia into the fighting, which could lead to war. The Iran-backed group, armed with thousands of rockets and missiles, holds sway over much of southern Lebanon and is viewed by Israel as a bitter foe.
The Israeli military was careful to note in its announcement about Friday’s attack that it was targeting only sites linked to Palestinian militants. In recent years, Hezbollah has stayed out of other flareups related to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stands on a hilltop revered by Muslims and Jews.
In Jerusalem before dawn prayers on Friday, violence erupted again at the hilltop compound as Israeli police stationed at one of the gates forcibly dispersed vast crowds of worshippers who chanted praise for Hamas while pushing their way into the limestone courtyard. Videos from the scene showed police beating large groups of Palestinian men with sticks until they stumbled backward, falling and knocking down vendors’ tables.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, Maj. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro, said he was in contact with Israeli and Lebanese authorities early Friday. The force, known as UNIFIL, said that both sides have said they do not want war.
Meanwhile, Israeli air strikes on Gaza resumed early Friday, after militants fired more rockets from the blockaded territory, setting off air raid sirens in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. The military said targets included the entry shaft to an underground network used for weapons manufacturing.
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, the rocket barrage from Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Security Cabinet for a three-hour meeting late Thursday. “Israel’s response, tonight and beyond, will extract a heavy price from our enemies,” he said in a statement after the meeting.
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. For now, Palestinian militants have fired only short-range rockets from Gaza, rather than the long-range projectiles that can reach as far as Tel Aviv and typically invite harsher Israeli retaliation.
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 Al-Aqsa 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.
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.
“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 has condemned the Israeli police raids in Jerusalem. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided an all-out conflict since a 34-day war in 2006 ended in a draw.
The current escalation comes against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s 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.
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. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut also contributed.