The Israeli Air Force and Palestinian militants exchanged fire across the Gaza border early Thursday as clashes erupted again at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, worsening an escalation that has been eerily similar to that which preceded the Israel-Gaza war of last year.
The violence along the Gaza front, fueled by unrest between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem, appears to be the most intense cross-border fighting since last year’s 11-day war and comes despite efforts to prevent that ‘they don’t breed.
A rocket fired from Gaza this week shattered a months-long post-war period of calm.
Palestinian militants fired two rockets towards Israel from the Gaza Strip late Wednesday and early Thursday, and Israeli planes hit militant targets in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
One rocket landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a frequent target, and another failed and landed in Gaza, the Israeli military said. The launches set off air raid sirens in parts of southern Israel, disrupting the calm of the Passover holiday week.
Early Thursday, Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes in the central Gaza Strip, local media reported. Activists’ social media posts showed smoke rising into the air. The Israeli army said the airstrikes targeted a militant site and the entrance to a tunnel leading to an underground complex containing chemicals to make rockets.
The army later said its planes attacked another Hamas compound after an anti-aircraft missile was fired from Gaza. He said the missile did not hit its target and no injuries or damage were reported.
The latest Israeli-Palestinian tensions boiled over after a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians on Israelis, which then sparked day-long arrest raids by the army in a burning West Bank city and spilled over into clashes newspapers in Jerusalem.
This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided with Passover, a time of increased religious observances and large numbers of people visiting Jerusalem.
Israeli police said dozens of masked protesters dug into the Al-Aqsa Mosque Thursday morning, sealed the doors and began throwing rocks and firecrackers.
Police said they tried to disperse the Palestinians using “riot dispersal means”, without giving further details, and that the forces did not enter the mosque itself.
A Palestinian official with the Waqf, which administers the site, said a large number of police used stun grenades to clear the site. He added that police also fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at Palestinians who had locked themselves inside the mosque.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the incident with the media.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said 20 people were injured, one seriously.
Similar clashes took place throughout the week, while more violent clashes erupted at the site earlier this month, injuring more than 150 Palestinians and three policemen. Palestinians have accused Israeli police of using excessive force at the holy site, and Palestinian social media has been filled with videos showing Israeli forces beating what appear to be unarmed Palestinians, including women.
Police say Palestinians are inciting violence and have released their own videos showing young Palestinian men throwing rocks and fireworks at security forces. Police say Palestinians desecrate their own sanctuary and put others at risk.
The scenes of repeated rocket attacks and violence in Jerusalem are reminiscent of the preparations for war last year. Last year, the violence also spread to mixed Jewish-Arab towns, which has not happened in the current wave of unrest. On Wednesday, hundreds of flag-waving Israeli ultra-nationalists marched toward predominantly Palestinian areas around Jerusalem’s Old City, a show of Israeli control over the contested city seen as a provocation by Palestinians.
Last year’s war erupted during a similar march, when militants in Gaza, declaring themselves the guardians of Jerusalem, fired a barrage of rockets into the holy city.
These events, along with other developments, led to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas that killed more than 250 Palestinians and 14 people inside Israel, causing extensive damage in Gaza.
This year, Israeli police closed the main road leading to the Old City’s Damascus Gate and the heart of the Muslim Quarter. After a few scuffles with the police, the marchers gathered near the barricades, waving flags, chanting and chanting.
Israeli nationalists stage such marches in an attempt to assert sovereignty over East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza, and annexed in an internationally unrecognized move. The Palestinians seek an independent state in the three territories and regard East Jerusalem as their capital.
The hilltop shrine in the Old City is the emotional ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the center of previous cycles of violence. Known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, it is Islam’s third holiest site. It is also the holiest site in Judaism, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of their biblical temples. Israel says it maintains a decades-old status quo at the site, which prevents Jews from praying there. But during the Passover holiday this year, Jewish visits spiked, and in some cases Jews prayed inside the compound. The Palestinians view the visits, under police escort, as a provocation and a possible prelude to Israel taking control of the site or partitioning it. For the Palestinians, the mosque compound, administered by Muslim clerics, is also a rare place in Israel’s annexed East Jerusalem where they have some control. Palestinian militant groups in Gaza – the ruling Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad – have positioned themselves as defenders of the holy site in Jerusalem. On Wednesday, Hamas said Israel would bear “full responsibility for the repercussions” if it allowed the marchers “to approach our holy sites”.
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)