There was a tense calm on the Gaza border on Friday after a night of rocket fire from Palestinian terror groups and Israeli retaliatory air strikes as both sides appeared intent on avoiding an escalation into a full-scale war.
While in Jerusalem, Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount — often a flashpoint for violence — were subdued, with a heavy police presence.
The tit-for-tat fighting in Gaza broke out amid sky-high tensions following an Israel Defense Forces raid in the West Bank that left nine Palestinians dead the previous day.
Both the Palestinian rocket fire and the retaliatory air force strikes appeared limited and there were no reports of casualties on either side.
Still, a few dozen Palestinians rioted on the Gaza border on Friday afternoon, with a few attempting to cross the security barrier into Israel, before returning back to the Strip the military said.
“There is no fear of a security incident,” the IDF added.
In Israel, schools in communities surrounding the Strip were given the go-ahead to operate normally and no travel restrictions were in place near the border, both signs that Israel was not anticipating a wider flare-up.
The Hamas terror group that rules Gaza has been seemingly intent on keeping the calm in the Strip over the past year, while Israel’s new right-wing government is facing pressure from the international community, particularly the Americans, not to escalate the situation with the Palestinians.
CIA Director Bill Burns was reportedly in Israel and the West Bank for talks, while US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is due next week.
The government also has enough on its plate at the moment with widespread public opposition and protests against its legislative plans that critics warn will undermine democracy and the economy.
The government also faced criticism on Friday morning from Ashkelon Mayor Tomer Glam who said they were holding up the transfer of millions of shekels for bomb shelters in the southern city.
“It’s inconceivable that a budget of a billion shekels that can solve this issue is not being transferred. There was a government decision, but the Finance Ministry is doing everything to withhold the money,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.
Despite the desire for calm, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned the Palestinians that Israel would step up strikes if the rocket fire did not stop, saying that he had ordered the military to “prepare for action with a range of offensive means aimed at quality targets, in case we need to continue — until quiet is restored for the citizens of Israel.”
In Jerusalem too, an uneasy calm prevailed around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on Temple Mount for Friday prayers.
Tensions at the Jerusalem holy site have triggered violence in the past, including a bloody Gaza war in 2021. The site is considered both the third-most sacred site in Islam, as well as the site of an ancient Jewish temple that is the holiest place in Judaism.
Israeli police were out in force at entrances to the limestone alleys that lead to the sacred compound, apparently bracing for violence as they searched Palestinian passers-by before weekly noon prayers.
“In spirit and blood, we will sacrifice you,” Muslim worshippers shouted. “Greetings Jenin, Greetings Gaza.”
But there were no reports of violence.
Eyad Shaher, a 45-year-old construction worker from Bethlehem who prays weekly at Al-Aqsa, said he was relieved to have a peaceful morning.
“Thank God it was good and there were no problems after that cursed day,” he said, referring to Thursday’s events.
Fadi, a 41-year-old shopkeeper near Al-Aqsa, said he felt the outbreak of violence had frightened residents and subdued the usual Friday morning shopping frenzy. He declined to give his last name.
“The Old City is empty because of all the problems,” he said. “We’re just trying to work and this happens. It’s like we’re trapped in every way.” The night before, scuffles erupted between young religious Jews and Palestinians at restaurants and shops in the area.
The IDF said that overnight a total of seven rockets were fired at Israel with four being intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system and three others falling in open areas.
Several other projectiles fell short of the border.
The rocket fire triggered warning sirens in several communities and towns near the border.
A second barrage of rocket attacks came as Israeli jets carried out a series of bombing raids in the central Gaza Strip in response to Gazan terrorists firing two rockets toward Ashkelon at midnight. Both projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome.
The military said it targeted an underground facility where rockets are manufactured in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza. It said the site was in an area surrounded by residential buildings and 180 meters (590 feet) from a storage facility maintained by UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency for Palestinian refugees.
Footage released by the military showed the site being bombed from the air.
“The attack will lead to significant harm to Hamas’s efforts to build up its arms,” the IDF said in a statement.
In response to the second round of rocket attacks, the IDF said fighter jets targeted “one of the most significant” Hamas military bases, in the northern Gaza Strip.
The military wing of Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, claimed that its fighters fired anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-air missiles at the Israeli planes carrying out the attacks.
The terror group later published a video of its members launching missiles at the Israeli jets. None of the missiles hit Israeli aircraft.
There were no reports of injuries on either side.
Footage published on social media showed several large explosions from the airstrikes in Gaza.
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Later Friday the Palestinian Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rocket launches against Israeli towns, which came after Israeli officials expressed concerns about potential retaliation, including in the form of rocket fire from Gaza, over the deaths of nine Palestinians during an IDF raid against a PIJ cell in the northern West Bank city of Jenin Thursday morning.
Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas threatened to hit back over the deaths.
Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the Strip and generally responds to rocket fire with airstrikes against the group regardless of who launched the attack.
According to Israeli officials, the IDF had foiled a “ticking time bomb” in Jenin on Thursday after receiving “accurate intelligence” from the Shin Bet security agency about the cell’s hideout apartment in the camp.
Nine Palestinians — including several members of the PIJ cell, other gunmen and at least one uninvolved civilian — were killed, and another 20 were wounded in the clashes.
The clashes on Thursday morning marked the deadliest Israeli operation in the West Bank in years.
Separately on Thursday afternoon, a Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli troops in the town of a-Ram, north of Jerusalem, the PA health ministry said. And in Gaza, a 13-year-old boy died of wounds sustained in the last major round of fighting between Israel and Gaza, in August 2022.
Tensions have recently soared in the West Bank as the IDF presses on with an anti-terror offensive mostly focused on the northern West Bank to deal with a series of attacks that have left 31 people in Israel dead in 2022.
Jenin is widely seen as a hotbed of terrorist activity and has been the focus of many of the raids.
The IDF’s operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids. It also left 171 Palestinians dead in 2022, and, as of Thursday, another 30 since the beginning of the year, many of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, though some were uninvolved civilians.
The last time a rocket was fired from the coastal enclave toward Israel was on January 3, following retaliation threats from Hamas over National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir paying a visit to the flashpoint Temple Mount site, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The rocket failed to cross the border.
AP contributed to this report