Violence Shakes Israel, With Rocket Fire and Police Battling Palestinians


JERUSALEM — In a sudden crescendo of violence on Monday evening, militants in Gaza fired rockets toward Jerusalem and the Israeli military responded with airstrikes. The exchange followed a police raid that morning on the Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, that left hundreds of Palestinians and a score of police officers wounded, capping weeks of unrest in the city.

At least 45 rockets were fired from Gaza shortly after 6 p.m., the Israeli Army said. At least one landed in a village in the hills west of Jerusalem, causing damage to houses but no casualties.

Palestinian health officials in Gaza said nine residents of Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza, including three children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike.

An Israeli military spokesman said he could neither confirm nor deny Israeli responsibility for the deaths and suggested that they might have been a result of friendly fire. But the spokesman confirmed that there had been an Israeli strike in the area.

The Israeli Army said in a statement that an Israeli airstrike had killed three Hamas operatives.

Separately, militants fired an anti-tank missile along the Gaza perimeter toward an Israeli vehicle, wounding the driver.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the rockets, saying that it had acted to protect Jerusalem after the police raid on the mosque compound in Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad, a separate militant group, claimed the anti-tank missile attack, as well as scores of other rocket attacks.

Bomb sirens sounded across the regions closest to the Gaza perimeter, as well as in the Jerusalem area.

The attacks capped a day of violence in Jerusalem, which began when police entered the mosque compound around 8 a.m. and fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades at stone-throwing Palestinians. The Palestinians had stockpiled stones at the site in expectation of a standoff with the police and Jewish far-right groups.

By the afternoon, more than 330 Palestinians had been injured, with at least 250 hospitalized, according to a representative of the Palestinian Red Crescent. One person was hit in the head by a bullet and was in critical condition, the medical aid group said, with at least two more in serious or critical condition.

At least 21 police officers were injured, according to the police.

Tensions were already high in Jerusalem. Palestinians have been demonstrating daily since April against the planned expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in the city, amid frequent clashes over restrictions on Palestinian access to the city’s ancient core.

The unrest was long predicted to come to the boil on Monday, when far-right Israelis were scheduled to make a provocative march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

The march is an annual event to mark the capture of East Jerusalem during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, an anniversary known in Israel as Jerusalem Day. Israel subsequently annexed that part of the city, a move that most of the world has not recognized. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and view the day’s celebrations as a provocation.

The Israeli government did little to de-escalate the tensions until Sunday night, when it took several measures to try to tamp down the conflict.

With minutes to go before the march began on Monday, the government restricted it to a less contentious route to avoid a head-on confrontation.

Militants in Gaza had fired rockets into Israel overnight Sunday, after sending incendiary balloons into Israeli farmland for the past several days, but the rockets had hit only open areas. Israel returned fire, barred fishermen from the territory from accessing the sea and shut a key crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the military, said the army had been “looking to stabilize the situation” and avoid escalation.

Witnesses at the mosque reacted with shock at the Israeli police tactics at one of the world’s holiest sites. “Why have they been attacking the Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan?” asked Khaled Zabarqa, 48, a lawyer who said he had been praying at the mosque compound before escaping after the first shots were fired.

“The Aqsa Mosque is a sacred place for Muslims,” Mr. Zabarqa added. “Israel is starting a religious war.”

Mr. Zabarqa and other witnesses said the fighting began around 8 a.m. after the police entered the mosque compound and began firing.

The Israeli government said the police responded only as a last resort after the Palestinians had started the clash by throwing stones at them.

“We wanted today to pass as quietly as possible,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. “Unfortunately, Palestinian extremists had the opposite goal.”

Mr. Netanyahu praised the police for “taking a strong stand.”

“A struggle is now being waged for the heart of Jerusalem,” he said. “It is not a new struggle. It is the struggle between intolerance and tolerance, between lawless violence and law and order,” he added, casting the confrontations as the continuation of a sectarian struggle for the city over hundreds of years.

Tensions escalated again Friday night, as the police fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades and Palestinians threw stones following prayers at the Aqsa compound. Video showed some grenades landing inside the mosque.

“Everything is connected,” one of the Arab lawmakers, Aida Touma-Sliman, said of the day’s many intertwining tensions. The various standoffs across Jerusalem reflected the “struggle of a people under occupation who want to liberate their land, houses and souls,” she said.



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