Rockets fired from Gaza raise tension as Passover begins

JERUSALEM — Militants in Lebanon fired a heavy barrage of rockets at Israel on Thursday, the Israeli military said, forcing people across Israel’s northern frontier into bomb shelters, wounding at least two people and ratcheting up regional tensions a day after Israeli police raided Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site.

Israel’s military said 34 rockets had been fired across the border, and that 25 were shot down by its Iron Dome aerial defense system. Another five rockets struck Israeli territory and the rest of the strikes were being investigated, security forces added. The army’s response would come after “a situational assessment” and meeting by Israel’s Security Cabinet later Thursday, it said.

The unusually large salvo of rockets raised fears of a wider conflagration, as Israel’s bitter enemy, the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, holds sway over much of southern Lebanon. Over the past two days, tensions have skyrocketed at the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and along Israel’s tense border with Gaza.

“The current situation is extremely serious,” said Maj. Gen. Aroldo Lázaro, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force operating along the Lebanese-Israeli border, adding that he’s been in touch with authorities in both countries to “avoid further escalation.”

Earlier on Thursday and late Wednesday night, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired several rockets toward Israel in protest over the Israeli police storming into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City with tear gas and stun grenades. On Thursday, Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group condemned Israel’s storming of Al-Aqsa, calling it “a flagrant violation” of “religious, moral and human values.” The shrine — the third-holiest site in Islam — stands on a hilltop revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism.

No faction in Lebanon claimed responsibility for the salvo of rockets, which set off air raid sirens across the country’s north. 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 militants. The official said there were no casualties on the Lebanese side.

A spokesperson for Hezbollah did not respond to a request for comment. While Hezbollah may not have fired the rockets, Israel could hold the group responsible for at least giving militants a tacit greenlight to attack. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided an all-out conflict since their 34-day war in 2006 ended with a draw.

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.

The barrage on Thursday sent shrapnel flying that wounded at least two people, according to the Galilee Medical Center in northern Israel. They included a 19-year-old man who was struck while driving in the Arab village of Fassouta and a 26-year-old hit while riding a motorbike. A 60-year-old woman was also injured after falling as she sprinted to a bomb shelter, medics said. Israeli police said a bomb squad removed a number of fragments from areas in the north.

Videos on social media showed massive plumes of dark smoke billowing from Israel’s northern hills and streaks through the sky left by the Iron Dome system. Widely circulated photos showed shrapnel that punched a hole in a street in the northern Israeli town of Shlomi and at least one building with its windows blown out.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency, along with Lebanese officials, reported that Israeli tanks along the border fired shells toward southern Lebanese towns near the Rashidiyeh Palestinian refugee camp in response to the rocket fire — a claim strongly denied by the Israeli military, which said its retaliation would come after its security assessment.

The Lebanese army said in a statement that it found missile launchers and “a number of rockets intended for launch” in the vicinity of the towns of Zibqin and Qalila in south Lebanon and was working to dismantle them.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad hailed the rockets as “a heroic operation against the Israeli crimes in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The leader of the Palestinian Hamas group that rules Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, had arrived in Beirut on Wednesday, Lebanese state media reported.

In Jerusalem, tensions ran high after two nights of unrest. Conflicting claims over the sacred compound home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque have spiraled into violence in the past, including a bloody 11-day war in 2021 between Israel and Hamas.

For the past two nights — a volatile time during which the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlap — Palestinians have 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 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 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.

On Wednesday night, Israeli police raided the mosque, firing stun grenades and rubber bullets to evict worshippers who had locked the doors of the building. Palestinians hurled stones at officers. After a few hours of scuffles that left a trail of damage, police managed to drag everyone out of the compound. On Tuesday night, the same tensions ended with police fiercely beating Palestinians and arresting 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.

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