Hamas fires rockets deep into Israel as tensions escalate

10 May 2021, 18:04

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel
Israel Palestinians. Picture: PA

Earlier, Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians at a flashpoint holy site.

Hamas militants have fired a large barrage of rockets into Israel, including one that set off air raid sirens as far away as Jerusalem, after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a flashpoint religious site in the contested holy city.

The early evening attack drastically escalated what are already heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem.

Shortly after the sirens sounded, explosions could be heard in Jerusalem.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Israelis run to shelters as air attack sirens goes off during a Jerusalem Day march in Jerusalem
Israelis run to shelters as air attack sirens go off during a Jerusalem Day march in Jerusalem (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The Israeli army said there was an initial burst of seven rockets, one was intercepted, and rocket fire was continuing.

Gaza health officials said nine people, including three children, were killed in an explosion in the northern Gaza Strip.

The cause of the blast was not immediately known.

Elsewhere in Gaza, an Israeli drone strike killed a Palestinian in the northern Gaza Strip, Hamas media reported.

The Israeli army said an Israeli civilian in the country’s south suffered mild injuries when a vehicle was struck by an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, said the rocket attack was a response to what he called Israeli “crimes and aggression” in Jerusalem.

Israeli security forces in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City
Israeli security forces in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

“This is a message the enemy has to understand well,” he said.

He threatened more attacks if Israel again invades the sacred Al-Aqsa compound or carries out evictions of Palestinian families in a neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

Earlier, Israeli police firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets clashed with stone-throwing Palestinians at the compound.

More than a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, as police and protesters faced off inside the walled compound that surrounds it, said an Associated Press (AP) photographer at the scene.

Smoke rose in front of the mosque and the famous golden-domed shrine on the site, and rocks littered the nearby plaza.

Inside one area of the compound, shoes and debris lay scattered over ornate carpets.

Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City
Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

In an apparent attempt to avoid further confrontation, Israeli authorities changed the planned route of a march by ultranationalist Jews through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

The marchers were ordered to avoid the area and sent on a different route circumventing the Muslim Quarter on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

But tensions remained high.

More than 305 Palestinians were hurt, including 228 who went to hospitals and clinics for treatment, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

Seven of the injured were in serious condition.

Police said 21 officers were hurt, including three who were admitted to hospital.

Israeli paramedics said seven Israeli civilians were also hurt.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

The confrontation was the latest after weeks of mounting tensions between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the Old City of Jerusalem, the emotional centre of their conflict.

There have been almost nightly clashes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, already a time of heightened religious sensitivities.

Most recently, the tensions have been fuelled by the planned eviction of dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem where Israeli settlers have waged a lengthy legal battle to take over properties.

Monday was expected to be particularly tense since Israelis mark it as Jerusalem Day to celebrate their capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.

On Monday, two anti-Arab members of Israel’s parliament, surrounded by an entourage and police, pushed through a line of protesters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

Several Arab members of parliament were among those trying to stop Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, amid shouting and jostling.

Palestinians scuffle with Israeli police officers during a visit by Israeli right wing Knesset members to the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem
Palestinians scuffle with Israeli police officers during a visit by Israeli right-wing Knesset members to the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Mr Smotrich and Mr Ben Gvir eventually got to the other side of a police barricade and entered a house already inhabited by settlers.

Over the past few days, hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The compound, which has been the trigger for rounds of Israel-Palestinian violence in the past, is Islam’s third-holiest site and considered Judaism’s holiest.

An AP photographer at the scene said that early on Monday morning, protesters had barricaded gates to the walled compound with wooden boards and scrap metal.

Sometime after 7am local time, clashes erupted, with those inside throwing stones at police deployed outside.

Police entered the compound, firing tear gas, rubber-coated steel pellets and stun grenades.

At some point during the morning about 400 people, both young protesters and older worshippers, were inside the carpeted Al-Aqsa Mosque.

A Palestinian man runs away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces in front of the Dome of the Rock Mosque at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City
A Palestinian man runs away from tear gas (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades into the mosque.

They said protesters hurled stones at officers and on to an adjoining roadway near the Western Wall, where thousands of Israeli Jews had gathered to pray.

The tensions in Jerusalem have threatened to reverberate throughout the region.

Before Monday’s rocket attack on Jerusalem, some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Gaza, Palestinian militants had fired several barrages of rockets into southern Israel.

Protesters allied with the ruling Hamas militant group have launched dozens of incendiary balloons into Israel, setting off fires across the southern part of the country.

The rare strike on Jerusalem came moments after Hamas had set a deadline for Israel to remove its forces from the mosque compound and Sheikh Jarrah and release Palestinians detained in the latest clashes.

Jewish women some covered with Israeli flags pray during Jerusalem Day, an Israeli holiday celebrating the capture of the Old City during the 1967 Mideast war, at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in the Old City of Jerusalem
Jewish women, some covered with Israeli flags, pray during Jerusalem Day at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in the Old City of Jerusalem (Oded Balilty/AP)

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, has fought three wars with Israel since it seized power in Gaza in 2007.

The group possesses a vast arsenal of missiles and rockets capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel.

The rocket strike on Jerusalem was a significant escalation and raised the likelihood of a tough Israeli response.

After several days of Jerusalem confrontations, Israel has come under growing international criticism for its heavy-handed actions at the site, particularly during Ramadan.

The UN Security Council scheduled closed consultations on the situation on Monday.

Late on Sunday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat.

A White House statement said Mr Sullivan called on Israel to “pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm” and expressed the US’s “serious concerns” about the ongoing violence and planned evictions.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City
Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against the criticism on Monday, saying Israel is determined to ensure the rights of worship for all and that this “requires from time to time (to) stand up and stand strong as Israeli police and our security forces are doing now”.

In other violence, Palestinian protesters hurled rocks at an Israeli vehicle driving just outside the Old City walls.

CCTV footage released by the police showed a crowd surrounding the car and pelting it with rocks when it swerved off the road and into a stone barrier and a bystander.

Police said two passengers were injured.

The day began with police announcing that Jews would be barred from visiting the holy site on Jerusalem Day, which is marked with a flag-waving parade through the Old City that is widely perceived by Palestinians as a provocative display in the contested city.

Israelis wave national flags during a Jerusalem Day march in Jerusalem
Israelis wave national flags during a Jerusalem Day march in Jerusalem (Ariel Schalit/AP)

But just as the parade was about to begin, police said they were altering the route at the instruction of political leaders.

Several thousand people, many of them from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, were participating.

In the 1967 war in which Israel captured east Jerusalem, it also took the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

It later annexed east Jerusalem and considers the entire city its capital.

The Palestinians seek all three areas for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.

The recent round of violence began when Israel blocked off a popular spot where Muslims traditionally gather each night during Ramadan at the end of their day-long fast.

Israel later removed the restrictions, but clashes quickly resumed amid tensions over the planned eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah.

Israel’s Supreme Court postponed a key ruling on Monday that could have forced dozens of Palestinians from their homes, citing the “circumstances”.

By Press Association