Gaza militants fire rockets, Israel responds with strikes in biggest escalation since last war

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Palestinian militants fired volleys of rockets from Gaza into Israel, which responded with airstrikes in the early hours of Thursday in the biggest escalation since an 11-day war last year.

A rocket from Gaza fell on Wednesday evening without causing damage in a garden in the city of Sderot, in southern Israel, police said.

Israel returned fire in central Gaza after midnight, witnesses and security sources said, prompting further firing of at least four rockets by militants in the besieged territory.

Israel said its jets targeted a military post and a tunnel complex “containing raw chemicals used to manufacture rocket engines”.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, said it fired surface-to-air rockets at Israeli planes.

The exchanges come after nearly a month of deadly violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories, centered on the compound of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israeli police said Thursday that dozens of rioters threw stones and Molotov cocktails from the mosque.

“A violent splinter group is preventing Muslim worshipers from entering the mosque and causing damage to the site,” police said.

Seven Palestinians, all residents of East Jerusalem annexed by Israel, were arrested on suspicion of taking part in “violent incidents” on Wednesday, he added.

“Death to the Arabs”

Hours earlier, Israeli police blocked crowds of Jewish ultra-nationalist protesters from approaching the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, in a bid to prevent an escalation after four weeks of violence that has left at least 36 dead.

Last year, a similar ultra-nationalist march was planned in the Old City when Hamas launched a barrage of rockets towards Israel, triggering the 11-day war.

By early Wednesday evening, more than 1,000 ultra-nationalist protesters waving Israeli flags had gathered, some shouting “death to the Arabs”, but police prevented them from reaching Damascus Gate and the Muslim quarter of the Old City .

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, a controversial opposition politician, led the protest after being barred from the Damascus Gate area earlier in the day by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“I’m going to say it clearly, I’m not going to blink, I’m not going to go to bed,” Ben Gvir told AFP, as his supporters chanted “Bennett go home!”

“I am not allowed to enter Damascus Gate,” the former lawyer said. “Based on what law?

Bennett said earlier that he blocked the rally for security reasons.

“I have no intention of letting petty politics endanger human lives,” he said.

“I will not allow a political provocation by Ben Gvir to endanger the IDF (Israeli army) soldiers and the Israeli police, and make their already difficult task even more difficult.”

Ben Gvir retorted Thursday that “some Jews do not surrender to Hamas”.

‘Deeply Concerned’

Tensions are high as the Passover holiday coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinians and Israeli Arabs carried out four deadly attacks in Israel in late March and early April that left 14 people dead, most of them civilians.

A total of 23 Palestinians have been killed since March 22, including assailants who targeted Israelis, according to an AFP tally.

On Tuesday, Israel carried out its first strike on Gaza in months, in response to the first rocket since January from the Palestinian enclave.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Jerusalem”.

He added that he was in contact with the parties to urge them “to do everything possible to reduce tensions, avoid inflammatory actions and rhetoric”.

Bennett, himself a right-winger and a key figure in Israel’s settlement movement, leads an ideologically divided coalition government.

His coalition lost its majority in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, this month after a member quit in a dispute over the use of sourdough bread products in hospitals during the war. Easter.

Then on Sunday, the Raam party, from the country’s Arab-Israeli minority, suspended its support for the coalition against the violence of Al-Aqsa.

Right-wing lawmakers are under pressure to leave the Israeli government, which is seen by some on the right as too favorable to Palestinians and Israel’s Arab minority.

(AFP)

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