JERUSALEM — Militants in Gaza fired several rockets toward Israel overnight and early Thursday and the Israeli Air Force said it retaliated by striking two military sites in Gaza, the most intense fighting between the two sides since the end of an 11-day war in May last year.
No deaths were reported on either side, but the Israeli public broadcaster, Kan, said several Israelis had been treated for shock and injuries sustained while running for shelter. One of the rockets landed in southern Israel, one fell short in Gaza, and four more were intercepted by an Israeli air defense system, the army said.
In response, the Israeli military said its jets struck a militant outpost involved in making rockets and later hit a Palestinian air defense facility. Video posted by Palestinians to social media showed several rocket interceptions in the air over Gaza and several explosions on the ground.
The exchange followed a sharp rise in violence across Israel and the occupied territories over the past month, beginning with the deadliest wave of Arab attacks within Israel in more than a half decade. The attacks killed 14 and prompted an Israeli crackdown in the occupied West Bank, which killed at least 15 Palestinians.
Tensions escalated further after clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinian stone-throwers at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, known to Jews as Temple Mount and a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. Those confrontations drew rare public criticism from Israel’s new Arab allies, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
Clashes at the Jerusalem mosque compound flared again early Thursday as the police forced Palestinians from parts of the site to secure access for tourists and Jewish worshipers, including hard-line Jewish activists who hope one day to rebuild an ancient Jewish temple that once stood on the site of the mosque compound.
The Israeli police fired rubber-tipped bullets and tear gas, while Palestinians shot off fireworks, Kan reported.
The Israeli police said they were responding to responding to stone-throwing and fireworks set off by masked Palestinian rioters. Arab media outlets said Palestinians were responding to the police.
But both Israel and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, have indicated in recent days that they want to avoid another mini-war like the one last year. For now, the hostilities have followed a familiar routine that allows both sides to save face without forcing the other into a major escalation.
By firing rockets without killing Israeli civilians, the militants can express anger at events in Jerusalem without provoking a more violent Israeli reaction. By retaliating with nonlethal airstrikes, Israel proves to both Israelis and Palestinians that it won’t let any act of aggression go unanswered — but avoids pushing the militants into a corner.
On Wednesday, Israel blocked far-right Jews from marching through Muslim areas of the Old City of Jerusalem — something that could have easily triggered more violence — and barred a far-right Jewish lawmaker from setting up a makeshift office next to an entrance to the Old City that is used by tens of thousands of Palestinians to reach the Aqsa Mosque.
The Israeli police said it had arrested three Jewish visitors to the site who did not comply with police instructions.
A Hamas official, Fawzi Barhoum, said early Thursday that the group was seeking to put pressure on Israel over the situation in Jerusalem but “without going to a war.”
In Gaza, officials are still mending infrastructure damaged in last May’s fighting. Militants are still replenishing their weapon stocks and defenses. And analysts say they believe Hamas is wary of taking action that might prompt Israel to cut the number of Israeli work permits assigned to Gaza residents, an important source of revenue for Palestinians.
Tensions may calm in the coming days, when Israel will adopt its standard practice of closing the Aqsa compound to Jews and tourists during the last 10 days of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
But the exchange overnight showed how quickly the situation can spiral out of control, particularly as video of police interventions at the mosque flood Arab social media, causing deep offense among Muslims, who are currently observing Ramadan. Last year’s war in Gaza was set off in part by similar scenes.
The Recent Rise in Violence in Israel
To Israelis, the repeated police raids at the mosque compound are a responsible act of law enforcement on Israeli sovereign territory. The Israeli government says it has been forced to intervene at the mosque to contain disturbances that were started by Palestinian rioters who placed both Muslims and Jews in danger, and to ensure freedom of access for all, including tourists.
“Israel is doing everything so that all peoples, as always, can celebrate the holidays safely — Jews, Muslims and Christians,” the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said this week.
Israel captured the compound in 1967, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, and now considers it an integral part of its capital. But the United Nations Security Council has frequently deemed it occupied territory.
To Palestinians, the Israeli police presence at the site is the unwelcome result of Israeli occupation, and confrontations with the police at the compound, regardless of who starts them, are seen as a legitimate act of resistance against an occupying power.
They fear that the police’s recent facilitation of Jewish prayer at the site, against decades of convention, is the latest effort to weaken Muslim access to and oversight over one of Islam’s most sacred places.
The Israeli interventions have also caused offense across the Arab world, and prompted criticism from the three Arab countries that signed diplomatic agreements with Israel in 2020.
Weeks after a landmark diplomatic conference on Israeli soil, involving ministers from those countries, the responses show how the Palestinian conflict still affects Israel’s relationship with the Arab world, even as decades of Israeli diplomatic isolation in Middle East are fading.
The clashes have also prompted an Islamist party in the Israeli governing coalition to suspend its membership, deepening a government crisis that could lead to early elections.
Reporting was contributed by Raja Abdulrahim from Jerusalem, Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.