JERUSALEM, April 7 (AP): Israel conducted rare airstrikes in Lebanon and continued bombarding the Gaza Strip on Friday, an escalation that sparked fears of a broader conflict following violence over Jerusalem’s most sensitive site.
With tensions running high across Israel and the region, an alleged Palestinian shooting attack near an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank killed two women in their 20s and seriously wounded a 45-year-old, Israeli medics said.
The attack, coming after weeks of unusually heightened unrest in the West Bank, suggested that the recent tensions in Jerusalem could be spilling over to the occupied territory.
Even as quiet returned to Israel’s northern and southern borders Friday, the early morning Israeli strikes on Lebanon — which analysts described as the most serious border violence since Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants — threatened to push the confrontation into a new phase.
Israeli strikes came in retaliation for a major barrage of rockets from Lebanon the day before, after Israeli police raids at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem spiralled into unrest and sparked outrage in the Arab world.
Although the Israeli military was quick to emphasize that its warplanes struck sites belonging to only Palestinian militant groups, the barrage risks drawing in Israel’s bitter foe Hezbollah, which holds sway over much of southern Lebanon and has in the past portrayed itself as a defender of the Palestinians and the contested city of Jerusalem.
During a lull in cross-border airstrikes and rocket fire, at least one Palestinian driving in the Jordan Valley allegedly opened fire on a car of three women, killing two of them, the Israeli military said.
Medics said they dragged the unconscious women from their 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 Al-Aqsa mosque and the West Bank.”
Earlier Friday, Israeli missiles struck an open field in the southern Lebanese town of Qalili, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, according to an Associated Press photographer and residents, killing several sheep and inflicting minor injuries on residents, including Syrian refugees.
Other strikes hit a small bridge and power transformer in the nearby town of Maaliya and damaged an irrigation system providing water to orchards in the area.
Qalili resident Bilal Suleiman said his family woke to “violent bombing” that shattered their windows. “I immediately gathered my wife and children and got them out of the house in case there was another strike,” he said.
The Israeli military said it was boosting infantry and artillery forces in a defensive move “to prepare for all possible scenarios.”
A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media, said that Egyptian security officials were working with Hamas and Israel to de-escalate the situation.
The Israeli military said it was clear everyone wanted avoid a full-blown conflict. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli military told reporters Friday.
On Friday, violence again broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The holy site, a tinderbox for Israeli-Palestinian tensions, sits on a hilltop sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
In 2021, an escalation also triggered by clashes at the Al-Aqsa compound spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Chaos erupted at one of the entrances to the esplanade before dawn prayers 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 vast protest on the limestone courtyard, with Palestinians raising their fists and shouting in support of Hamas rocket fire, and Israeli police forced their way into the compound.
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.
The Israeli military said on Friday that Palestinian militants in Gaza had so far fired 44 rockets from Gaza, only 23 of which crossed into Israeli territory.
The others either failed to launch, fell into the Mediterranean Sea, or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system, the military said.
Most missiles that managed to cross the border struck open areas in Israel’s south, but one landed in the town of Sderot, sending shrapnel slicing into a house. There were no reports of Israeli casualties.
The Israeli military said it pounded Gaza with more airstrikes on Friday, hitting 10 targets that it described as underground tunnels, along with weapons production and development sites belonging largely to the Hamas militant group.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza, but the Palestinian Health Ministry said that one of the strikes caused some damage to a children’s hospital in Gaza City.
Hecht said that the military was looking into the reports of damage to the hospital.
The current round of violence began Wednesday after Israeli police twice raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
That led Thursday to rocket fire from Gaza and, in a significant escalation, the barrage from Lebanon.
The Palestinian attack in the West Bank Friday came just as tens of thousands of Palestinians were pouring into Al-Aqsa for midday prayers.
Violence has surged to new heights in the West Bank 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 those Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting police incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.