The militant group Hamas has fired rockets deep into Israel after days of violence at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque between Israeli policemen and Muslim protesters left hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
The rocket fire came after a 6pm deadline that Hamas had issued to Israel to withdraw its forces from the compound of the mosque, a holy site for Muslims and Jews. Television images showed smoke rising from the hills near Jerusalem, farther into Israel than any rockets fired in recent years.
The Israeli military responded with air strikes in the Gaza Strip, including one that appeared to target a senior Hamas military commander. The Israel Defense Force’s spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the military had a “green light” to hit military targets until Hamas “gets the message and learns its lesson”.
Health officials in Gaza said up to 20 people had been killed, including nine children, and 65 injured in the air strikes. More air strikes are expected.
One of the Hamas rockets hit an Israeli home in the Jerusalem outskirts, with no injuries, and one Israeli civilian was lightly injured after his car was hit by an anti-tank missile near the border with the Gaza Strip.
Hamas had crossed a “red line” with its most recent volley, now nearly 50 rockets, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, warning that this bout of fighting could “continue for some time”.
“We will not tolerate an attack on our territory, in our capital, on our citizens and soldiers. Whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price,” Netanyahu said on Monday evening.
The Israeli military asked public gatherings and schools to be restricted as far as central Israel, as it braced for more rockets from Hamas.
Over the past three days, violence has escalated in East Jerusalem with hundreds of Palestinians injured after Israeli riot police used stun grenades and officers on horseback to break up protests over planned home evictions and restrictions at the mosque. The demonstrations coincided with celebrations for Ramadan.
The growing tension has become a diplomatic problem for Israel, which has faced condemnation from Arab and Gulf nations for the police’s actions at the mosque and drawn statements of deep concern from allies including the US and EU over its plans to evict dozens of Palestinians in a nearby neighbourhood to make way for Jewish settlers.
Israel has sought to temper rising tensions by changing the route of an annual rightwing settlers’ parade through East Jerusalem, and delaying the planned evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah Arab neighbourhood. At the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations, flag-waving Israelis typically march through the Muslim quarter of the Old City to commemorate the Jewish state’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1967.
Hamas has fired close to a dozen rockets targeting Israeli civilians over the past week, as images of police violence at the mosque spread across the Arab world. The militant group issued a warning on Monday that Israel should withdraw its forces from the mosque’s compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Just after 6pm, as the deadline expired, air raid sirens rang out over Jerusalem and the nearby town of Beit Shemesh. Israel’s Channel 13 showed smoke rising from the hills surrounding Jerusalem. At least seven rockets were fired, and one intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system, the military said.The area the mosque sits on, called the Temple Mount by Jews, is the holiest site in Judaism and is the original home of the second temple destroyed by the Romans in AD70. Many Jews worship at the Western Wall, the surviving part of the temple, and face its direction during prayers.
On Monday morning, Israeli riot police had again rushed into the mosque compound to disperse thousands of devotees who had spent the night inside. More than 300 Palestinians were injured and about 20 police officers needed medical attention, Palestinian and Israeli medics said. Seven Israel civilians were also injured.
The government stepped in on Sunday into an eviction case it had previously dismissed as a private property dispute, with the attorney-general asking for a delay to a High Court verdict that was due on Monday.
But tensions have remained high — the Israeli army cancelled war games planned for the month in order to focus on the possibility of escalation by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.