No group in Lebanon or in the occupied Palestinian territories immediately claimed responsibility for Thursday’s strikes, but as with previous attacks, they coincided with flaring tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The cross-border rocket attack was among the largest since 2006, when Israel fought a bloody war with militants from Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful armed group and political party.
While most of the 34 rockets were intercepted by Israel’s aerial defense system, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), at least five landed in Israeli territory, and a 19-year-old man was lightly injured by shrapnel.
“We will cripple our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday at the beginning of a meeting with his security cabinet.
Since Netanyahu’s far-right government assumed office three months ago, its proposal to overhaul the country’s judiciary has sparked an unprecedented protest movement. Some of the prime minister’s most prominent critics are high-ranking members of the defense establishment, who have repeatedly warned that the judicial push would undermine military readiness. Speaking Thursday, Netanyahu stressed that, in the face of attacks, the country would remain united.
“At moments of truth, the citizens of Israel stand united and unified, and back the actions of the IDF and the other security services to defend our country and our people,” he said.
“We know for sure it’s Palestinian fire,” Lt. Col. Richard Hect, the IDF’s international spokesman, told reporters earlier Thursday. “It could be Hamas. It could be Islamic Jihad. We’re still trying to finalize it. But it wasn’t Hezbollah,” he added.
Palestinian groups “saw an opportunity happening in the Israeli internal scene,” said Orna Mizrahi, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli national security adviser. “I think they are mistaken if they think our internal problems are going to help them with changing the rules of the game with Israel,” she continued.
Thursday’s rocket fire followed a second night of violence around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, as Israeli police stormed the area using stun grenades, rubber bullets and batons to disperse thousands of worshipers who had gathered in the courtyard for Ramadan prayers.
At least six Palestinians were injured, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. It said 37 were injured the night before when Israeli officers stormed into one of the mosque’s main prayer halls after worshipers had locked themselves inside. Worshipers threw stones and firecrackers at them, police said, and videos from the scene showed officers beating people with batons.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincides this year with the Jewish Passover holiday, a situation that Israeli security officials have long warned could lead to violent escalation as worshipers gather in greater numbers and far-right supporters of Netanyahu’s government test a decades-old status quo around Jerusalem’s holy esplanade, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Shadi Mtour, a Fatah leader in Jerusalem, warned Wednesday that “these incursions are the gateway to evil, and al-Aqsa Mosque is exposed to them every year, and the entire region is exposed to danger.”
Hezbollah now controls the largest number of seats in Lebanon’s parliament and casts itself as a symbol of resistance to Israel and a defender of the Palestinian cause. Lebanon is also home to Palestinian armed groups that are suspected of launching smaller rocket attacks in recent years.
Thursday’s violence came amid a visit to Lebanon by Ismail Haniyeh, the political chief of Hamas — the militant group that rules Gaza. During a meeting with Palestinian factions in the country on Thursday, Haniyeh was defiant: “Our people and the factions of resistance will not stand with our hands tied in front of this brute aggression,” he was quoted as saying by Al Manar television. He emphasized the need to defend al-Aqsa “by any means necessary.”
Lebanon’s prime minister, however, sought to dial down the tensions with Israel.
“Lebanon absolutely rejects any military escalation launched from its land and using Lebanese territory to execute operations to destabilize the current stability,” Najib Mikati said Thursday in a meeting with the Italian defense minister.
The Lebanese army announced that it had found rocket launchers and a number of rockets prepped for launch on the outskirts of two towns in the south of the country and was working to disassemble them.
In a statement, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon described the situation as “extremely serious.”
“I think Netanyahu has many things on his mind,” said Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist in Gaza, predicting that the Israeli leader would try to avoid a wider regional conflict. “Neither Netanyahu nor the Israeli military and security establishment I think are ready for such a scenario right now.”
Dadouch reported from Beirut. Miriam Berger in Washington and Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.