Tensions flaring days after Israeli police raided Muslim holy site in Jerusalem
Israeli jets hit sites in Lebanon and Gaza early on Friday, in retaliation for rocket attacks Israel blamed on the militant group Hamas, as tensions following police raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem this week threatened to spiral out of control.
Ground-shaking blasts rocked different areas of Gaza. Israel said its jets hit targets including tunnels and weapons manufacturing sites of Hamas, which controls the blockaded southern coastal strip.
As daybreak neared, the military said it had also struck Hamas targets in southern Lebanon, where residents around the area of the Rashidiyeh refugee camp reported three loud blasts.
The strikes came in response to rocket attacks from Lebanon towards northern Israeli areas, which Israeli officials blamed on Hamas. The military said 34 rockets were launched from Lebanon, of which 25 were intercepted by air defence systems. It was the biggest such attack since 2006, when Israel fought a war with the heavily armed Hezbollah movement.
Israeli military officials said the rocket fire was carried out in connection to this week's violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, where Israeli police stormed into the building with tear gas and stun grenades on two days in a row. The violent scenes from the mosque have raised tensions across the region.
The airstrikes came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meeting with his security cabinet to discuss the rocket fire. He vowed an "aggressive response."
"We will strike our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression," he said, adding that Israelis remain united in the face of external threats despite their political differences.
The unusually large salvo of rockets raised fears of a wider conflagration; Hezbollah holds sway over much of southern Lebanon.
In a briefing with reporters, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman, said the army drew a clear connection between the Lebanese rocket fire and the recent unrest in Jerusalem.
"It's a Palestinian-oriented event," he said, adding that either the Hamas or Islamic Jihad militant groups, which are based in Gaza but also operate in Lebanon, could be involved. But he said the army believed that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government were aware of what happened and also held responsibility. He declined to say how Israel might respond, saying there were "all sorts of scenarios."
Rockets from Lebanon
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. On Thursday, Hezbollah condemned Israel's storming of Al-Aqsa. 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.
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. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided an all-out conflict since a 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. Hecht said Thursday's rocket fire was not believed to be connected to events in Syria.
Calls for peace after clashes at al-Aqsa mosque
Israeli raids on al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem — one of the holiest sites in both Islam and Judaism — sparked renewed clashes and calls for peace as Passover and Ramadan coincide.
Thursday's rocket fire from Lebanon sent shrapnel flying that wounded at least two people, according to the Galilee Medical Center. Israeli police said a bomb squad removed a number of fragments from areas in the north.
Videos on social media showed huge plumes of dark smoke billowing from Israel's northern hills and streaks through the sky left by the Iron Dome. 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.
Canada strongly condemns the firing of rockets into Israel originating from the south of Lebanon and Gaza. Our thoughts are with civilians impacted by these attacks. Canada reiterates its call for calm during this important holiday period.
The Lebanese army said 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 miltant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, is visiting Lebanon, where he met with exiled leaders of Palestinian militant groups late Thursday. "Our Palestinian people will not remain passive towards the ongoing aggression," he said.
With files from Reuters
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