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Israel strikes sites in Gaza after rocket attacks, as tensions rise

A missile from Israel's Iron Dome defense system lights up the sky over the Gaza Strip on April 21. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM — Gaza militants and the Israeli military engaged in a limited exchange of rocket attacks and airstrikes early Thursday, escalating fears of spreading violence as holiday tensions continue to simmer at contested Jerusalem holy sites.

It was unclear how many rockets were fired toward Israel starting late Wednesday, according to operational updates from the Israeli military. At least one projectile landed but did not explode close to a house near the city of Sderot, just outside the Gaza Strip, according to local media reports. Another was launched in the predawn hours but fell short inside Gaza, the military said. Israeli officials, after initially reporting that an additional salvo of four rockets had been fired and intercepted by an Israeli air defense system, later said those alerts had been false alarms triggered by bullets being fired from Gaza at Israeli military aircraft.

Israel said its warplanes struck at least two targets in Gaza in the course of the exchange, including a tunnel it said contained chemicals used to produce rocket propellant.

“This strike will significantly impede rocket manufacturing capabilities in the Gaza Strip,” the military said in a statement.

There were no reports of serious injuries after any of the attacks, although one resident of the house near Sderot was taken to a hospital for “shock,” according to local media.

The exchange marks one of the most extensive military engagements between the two sides since an 11-day air war a year ago in which more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel were killed. Officials have been alert for flare-ups involving forces in Gaza during the ongoing Ramadan and Passover holidays, which have been marked by clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City between police and Palestinians, and sometimes Jewish activists.

Similar clashes over access to the plaza around al-Aqsa Mosque — considered sacred by both Muslims and Jews — were the spark of the broader Gaza conflict in 2021.

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Israeli police were criticized for entering the mosque last week in pursuit of young men who shot fireworks and threw rocks at nearby Jewish worshipers. On Sunday, video posted on social media showed police blocking some Palestinians from entering the plaza even as they escorted Jewish visitors into the compound, prompting sharp condemnation from the government of Jordan, which plays a lead role in managing the holy site.

Police and Palestinians engaged in new skirmishes Thursday, the final day that non-Muslim visitors will be allowed to the enter the al-Aqsa compound before the last 10 days of Ramadan, a policy that multiple Israeli governments have adopted in recent years. Palestinian media outlets said that one man was injured by a sponge-tipped bullet and that others were subjected to tear gas. Israeli police said they dispersed the crowd after masked protesters attacked them with rocks.

Despite the clashes, diplomats and intelligence officials say that conditions are different during this holiday period and that authorities on both sides were showing greater restraint.

Israeli officials say their security measures have succeeded in keeping al-Aqsa open for prayers attended by tens of thousands of Ramadan worshipers. And Jerusalem police on Wednesday evening blocked far-right Israeli activists from reaching the Old City’s Damascus Gate, a gathering place for Muslims at the end of Ramadan fasting, thereby avoiding a repeat of last year’s clash.

And Hamas leaders, while calling for Palestinians to protest at al-Aqsa, have reportedly sent back-channel signals that they are working to avoid a major escalation. The Islamist militant group, which governs Gaza, is still rebuilding from the 2021 fighting and trying to improve its economy and living standards.

“They don’t want another war at this time,” a Western diplomat familiar with the communications said Thursday morning, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. “They are still rebuilding from the last one.”

But officials cautioned that tensions remained at powder-keg levels, with extremists on both sides willing to ignite a wider conflict. A single rocket launched into Israel from Gaza on Monday night was widely attributed to Islamic Jihad, a rival militant group in the enclave. In Israel, right-wing politicians have hammered the coalition government for not responding harshly enough to clashes in Jerusalem and to a spate of recent attacks by Palestinian gunmen on Israeli civilians.

“It is still a very precarious time,” the diplomat said.

A Hamas official early Thursday condemned Israel’s overnight strikes inside the enclave but stopped short of calling for a bigger response.

The strikes will “strengthen the Palestinian people’s determination to continue resisting the occupation,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem said, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

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