The Israeli Air Force struck Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip Wednesday morning after a barrage of rockets was launched at nearby Israeli towns from the enclave throughout the early hours of the day, amid a spike in violence at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as Ramadan coincided with the arrival of the Passover holiday.
A weapons factory and a weapons storage facility belonging to the terror group were targeted in the strikes, the Israel Defense Forces said. Media reports indicated that the rockets were fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, but the Israeli military holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the territory it rules.
The rocket fire came after clashes erupted between the Israel Police and Palestinians inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem overnight. Police said they had entered to dislodge “agitators” who had barricaded themselves inside with fireworks, clubs and stones. On Wednesday morning, authorities said 350 people had been detained in the unrest.
After the IAF struck targets in the Gaza Strip, another salvo of rockets were launched at Israeli border towns shortly before 7 a.m., triggering alert sirens. The Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 30-year-old man was lightly injured after he fell while running to a bomb shelter.
In total, 16 rockets were fired from the strip, eight of which were shot down by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
The Sderot Municipality said one of the rockets struck a factory in the industrial area, causing damage.
The fighting raised fears of a wider conflagration. Similar clashes two years ago erupted into a bloody 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Wednesday morning he was calling for the security cabinet to be convened. “The government of which I am a member should respond strongly to the rocket fire from Gaza. Hamas rockets necessitate a response beyond the bombing of dunes and uninhabited sites.”
“It’s time for heads to roll in Gaza.”
Clashes at Al-Aqsa
On Tuesday night, dozens of masked youths barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount with fireworks, clubs and rocks following evening prayers, while locking the doors and placing barricades at the entrances, police said.
This was an apparent preparation for Jewish visits to the Mount on Wednesday, which is Passover Eve.
Tensions over control of the holy site have been heightened by calls from Jewish ultranationalists to carry out a ritual slaughter of a goat or lamb in the compound, imitating the ancient ritual sacrifice executed on Passover in biblical times. Israel bars ritual slaughters on the site, but calls by fringe groups to revive the practice, including offers of cash rewards to anyone who even attempts to bring an animal into the compound, have amplified fears among Muslims that Israel is plotting to take over the site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is committed to preserving the status quo at the compound.
Police said in a statement that officers tried to convince those inside to leave but were ultimately forced to enter the mosque, where they were attacked with rocks and fireworks.
Police released video footage showing what appear to be fireworks explosions inside the mosque and figures throwing rocks. Another police video showed riot police with shields advancing through the mosque under a barrage of fireworks explosions. The footage then showed a barricaded door and boxes of fireworks on the floor, as well as police escorting at least five people outside with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
1/6 למעלה מ-350 מתבצרים בהתבצרות אלימה בהר הבית, בהם רעולי פנים, מיידי אבנים וזיקוקים ומשחיתי המסגד נעצרו pic.twitter.com/TIwOuDgK73
— משטרת ישראל (@IL_police) April 5, 2023
A Palestinian-filmed video showed security forces beating people inside the mosque as a woman’s voice could be heard shouting, “Oh God. Oh God.”
הפלסטינים מדווחים – שוטרים עם אלות מכים מתפללים ללא אבחנה באלות ובנשק, אחרי שנכנסו למסגד. pic.twitter.com/QZooMwaXsk
— Deiaa haj yahia-ضياء حاج يحيى (@DeiaaHaj) April 4, 2023
Hamas denounced the raid on the mosque as an “unprecedented crime” and called on Palestinians in the West Bank “to go en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque to defend it.”
Ziyad al-Nakhala, leader of Islamic Jihad, said the situation at Al-Aqsa was a “serious threat.” He said that Palestinians must be prepared “for the inevitable confrontation in the coming days.”
Hours later, an Israeli soldier was wounded in a suspected shooting near the West Bank city of Hebron.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 4, 2023
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which this year once again coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover, is known to be a period of higher tension between Israeli forces and Palestinians. Tens of thousands of worshipers visit Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site, throughout the month, regularly leading to a spike in tensions with Israel and violence.
Police said they were forced to enter the mosque after “several law-breaking youths and masked agitators” barricaded themselves inside.
“These instigators fortified [the mosque], hours after the [last evening] Taraweeh prayer in order to disrupt public order and desecrate the mosque,” the police said in a statement. “After many and prolonged attempts to get them out by talking to no avail, police forces were forced to enter the compound in order to get them out with the intentions to allow the Fajr [dawn] prayer and to prevent a violent disturbance,” they added.
“When the police entered, stones were thrown at them and fireworks were fired from inside the mosque by a large group of agitators,” they continued, adding that one officer was injured in the leg by a stone.
Since Ramadan began March 22, scores of Muslim worshippers have been trying to stay overnight in the mosque, a practice that is typically permitted only during the last 10 days of the monthlong holiday. Israeli police have entered nightly to evict the worshippers, stirring tensions with young Palestinians who demand to pray at the holy site until dawn.
Palestinian leadership condemned Israel’s actions at Al-Aqsa. The spokesman of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, warned Israel that such a move “exceeds all red lines and will lead to a large explosion.”
The government of Jordan condemned the Israeli raid “in the strongest terms.” The Foreign Ministry warned “of the consequences of this dangerous escalation and held Israel responsible for the safety of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
The foreign ministries of Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia also condemned what they described as an Israeli intrusion into Al-Aqsa.
As unrest grows, lack of clarity on defense minister
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant after the latter warned publicly of the need to halt the government’s judicial overhaul legislation — which the premier indeed halted a day later. The dismissal led to mass protests and Netanyahu has appeared to walk back the move without actually canceling it — with his office never submitting a formal letter of dismissal and Netanyahu returning to holding meetings with Gallant, saying he had delayed a decision on the matter.
On Twitter Wednesday morning, opposition leader Yair Lapid said “Israel’s security is not on hold. Our enemies will not be delayed.”
“This very morning Netanyahu needs to remove the cloud over Gallant’s dismissal. The State of Israel needs a full-time defense minister, not one on probation. Netanyahu, come to your senses,” wrote Lapid.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 5, 2023
National Unity party head Benny Gantz, himself a defense minister in the previous government, also called on Netanyahu to announce Gallant would not be sacked, “no ifs or buts,” adding that Wednesday’s escalation in the Gaza Strip was a “reminder that in the Middle East, you don’t mix politics with security.”
Closures for Passover
Last week, the IDF announced it would impose a closure on the West Bank, set to take effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday, with crossing points closed to Palestinians on the first and last days of the Passover holiday. Gaza border crossings will also close.
Such closures are standard practice during festivals and holidays. The military says they are a preventative measure against attacks in periods of increased tension.
The closure will last until Saturday, April 8. A second closure will begin on April 11 and last until April 12.
On Friday, April 7, some border crossings are set to reopen to allow Palestinian worshipers from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem to pray at Al-Aqsa for Ramadan.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.