Israeli warplanes are pounding the Gaza Strip as Hamas fires rockets deep into the Jewish state in a significant escalation of hostilities after Israeli police injured hundreds of Muslim protesters at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque.
Israel launched dozens of targeted air strikes after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, unleashed rockets towards Jerusalem on Monday — the furthest into Israel since 2014 — and fired scores more overnight into the area surrounding the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials who mediate between Israel and Hamas were trying to restore calm, an Israeli official told the Financial Times on Tuesday.
The anger has built for days as Israeli police injured close to 600 Palestinian Muslims in and near the mosque. Devotees and protesters, angered by restrictions near the mosque and the planned evictions of East Jerusalem Arabs, clashed with riot police on horseback. Police sprayed putrid skunk water and used tear gas and stun grenades to clear crowds.
The images from Islam’s third-holiest site reverberated through the Arab world, enraging Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. Arab and Gulf nations condemned Israel, while the EU and US pleaded with Israel to show restraint. The US condemned Hamas’s rocket barrage.
“We’re deeply concerned about the situation in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including violent confrontations in Jerusalem,” said Ned Price, state department spokesperson. The US asked Israel to reconsider the evictions over the weekend to help calm tension.
Israeli riot police rushed into the mosque’s compound on Monday morning, clearing stone-throwing protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades, injuring nearly 300 people.
Hamas stepped into the conflict on Monday evening after it gave Israel a deadline of 6pm to remove its forces from the mosque and from a nearby neighbourhood where Jewish settlers, backed by Israeli rightwing politicians, want to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes.
Seven rockets headed towards Jerusalem, with one intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. One rocket hit an empty house on the outskirts of the city, the military said.
Hamas fired at least 150 more rockets on Monday night and Tuesday morning while riots broke out in several Israeli cities between Palestinians and local police, and with Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Six Israelis were injured in the rocket attacks, according to Israeli medics.
Israel immediately responded with dozens of air strikes that continued throughout Monday night, saying it was aiming for military targets to contain Hamas. At least 24 Palestinians were killed, including nine children, the Gaza health ministry said. It added that at least 100 people were injured.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, warned that by targeting Jerusalem with rockets, Hamas had “crossed a red line”, adding: “Israel will respond with great force.”
Hamas’s military wing said on Monday night: “Jerusalem called, and we answered.”
Tension had been building for days. A court case regarding the evictions coincided with an annual Israeli celebration that began on Sunday called Jerusalem Day, where Israelis celebrate their conquest of Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 War.
That overlapped with some of the holiest days in Islam’s calendar as tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims streamed through the old city to al-Aqsa.
The violence coincides with a precarious time in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s position has been weakened as coalition talks progress between his rivals, who are close to securing a government that could dethrone the five-time premier.
His rightwing supporters see the evictions in East Jerusalem as an important campaign, part of a long-running strategy to replace Arabs with Jews in the Holy City.
“Without doubt, Netanyahu is fanning the flames in order to blow up the coalition talks,” Ayman Odeh, an Arab-Israeli member of parliament told the Financial Times. “Bibi is escalating this for personal reasons, at the expense of the Palestinian people, and at the expense of both people.”
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