Israel unleashed rare airstrikes on Lebanon and bombarded the Gaza Strip on Friday, an escalation that sparked fears of a broader conflict after days of violence over Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.
Later in the day, there were signs that both sides were trying to keep the hostilities in check. Fighting on Israel’s northern and southern borders subsided after dawn, and midday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem passed peacefully. But a Palestinian shooting attack in the Israeli-occupied West Bank killed two women near an Israeli settlement just hours later — a grim reminder of the combustible situation.
The early morning Israeli strikes followed an unusually large rocket barrage fired at Israel from southern Lebanon — what analysts described as the most serious cross-border violence since Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants. The violence erupted after Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem earlier in the week, sparking unrest in the contested capital and outrage across the Arab world.
The Israeli strikes seemed designed to avoid drawing in Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group that Israel considers its most immediate threat. The Israeli military said its warplanes struck infrastructure belonging to Palestinian militants that it accused of firing the nearly three dozen rockets that slammed into open areas and northern Israeli towns on Thursday. Nonetheless, the Israeli military said it believed the Palestinian militants acted with the knowledge of Hezbollah, which holds sway over much of southern Lebanon.
There were no reports of serious casualties, but several residents of the southern Lebanese town of Qalili, including Syrian refugees, said they were lightly wounded.
“I immediately gathered my wife and children and got them out of the house,” said Qalili resident Bilal Suleiman, who was jolted awake by the bombing.
A flock of sheep was killed when the Israeli missiles struck an open field near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, according to an Associated Press photographer. Other airstrikes hit a bridge and a power transformer in the nearby town of Maaliya and damaged an irrigation system providing water to orchards.
In the Gaza Strip, Israel’s military pounded what it said were weapons production sites and underground tunnels belonging to Hamas, the militant group ruling the Palestinian enclave. Residents inspected the damage left after Israeli strikes — including to a children’s hospital in Gaza City, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
After the retaliatory strikes, Israelis living along the southern border returned home from bomb shelters. Most missiles that managed to cross into Israeli territory hit open areas, but one landed in the nearby town of Sderot, sending shrapnel slicing into a house.
There were no reports of casualties on either side of the southern border.
The Israeli military said everyone wanted to avoid a full-blown conflict. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” said spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.
Tensions remained high in the region. In the West Bank, the Palestinian shooting attack near an Israeli settlement in the Jordan Valley killed two sisters in their 20s and seriously wounded their 45-year-old mother, Israeli medics and officials said. The three victims were residents of the Israeli settlement of Efrat, near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, said Oded Revivi, the mayor of the settlement.
The girls’ father was driving in a car behind his wife and daughters and witnessed the attack, Revivi added. Medics said they dragged the unconscious women from the smashed car that appeared to have been pushed off the road.
The Israeli military said it was searching for those behind the attack, setting up roadblocks in the area. No militant group immediately claimed responsibility. But Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem hailed the attack “in retaliation for the crimes committed by Israel in the West Bank and the Al-Aqsa mosque.”
Jerusalem’s holy site of Al-Aqsa, a tinderbox for Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sits on a hilltop sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In 2021, an escalation also triggered by clashes at the compound spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Over 130,000 worshippers poured into the compound for midday prayers on Friday, which ended without incident.
Before dawn prayers, chaos had erupted at one of the entrances to the esplanade as Israeli police wielding batons descended on crowds of Palestinian worshippers, who chanted slogans praising Hamas as they tried to squeeze into the site. An hour later, according to videos, people leaving the prayers staged a large-scale protest on the limestone courtyard, with Palestinians raising their fists and shouting against Israel. Israeli police forced their way into the compound, inflaming tensions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Police did not comment on the earlier beatings, but said security forces entered the holy compound after prayers in response to “masked suspects” who threw rocks toward officers at one of the gates. Israeli authorities control access to the area but the compound is administered by Islamic and Jordanian officials.
The unrest comes at a delicate time for Jerusalem’s Old City, which on Friday was teeming with pilgrims from around the world. The Christian faithful retraced the route Jesus is said to have taken for Good Friday, Jews celebrated the weeklong Passover holiday, and Muslims prayed and fasted for Ramadan.
The current round of violence began Wednesday after Israeli police twice raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque — in one case fiercely beating Palestinians, who responded by hurling rocks and firecrackers. That led Thursday to rocket fire from Gaza and, in a significant and unusual escalation, the barrage from southern Lebanon and the Israeli retaliation.
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry said Friday it had instructed the country’s mission to the United Nations in New York to submit a complaint to the U.N. Security Council against the “deliberate Israeli bombing and aggression” in the south, which it condemned as “a flagrant violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty.”
Even as a tense calm took hold along the Lebanese and Gaza borders, the West Bank remained volatile. Violence has surged to new heights there in recent months, with Palestinian health officials reporting the start of 2023 to be the most deadly for Palestinians in two decades.
Nearly 90 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank since the start of the year, according to an Associated Press tally. During that time, 16 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis — all but one of them civilians. Israel says most of the Palestinian victims have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting police incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.