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After Raid on Aqsa Mosque, Rockets From Gaza and Israeli Airstrikes

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Gaza officials say 20 people were killed in the airstrikes. The escalation followed clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

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More than 330 Palestinians were injured on Monday after the Israeli police entered the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. The police fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades, while Palestinians threw rocks at officers.

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Video player loadingMore than 330 Palestinians were injured on Monday after the Israeli police entered the Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. The police fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades, while Palestinians threw rocks at officers.CreditCredit…Mahmoud Illean/Associated PressPatrick KingsleyIsabel Kershner

Published May 10, 2021Updated May 11, 2021, 6:57 a.m. ET

JERUSALEM — Weeks of simmering tensions in Jerusalem between Palestinian protesters, the police and right-wing Israelis suddenly veered into military conflict on Monday, as a local skirmish in the decades-long battle for control of the city escalated into rocket fire and airstrikes in Gaza.

After a raid by the Israeli police on the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem left hundreds of Palestinians and a score of police officers wounded, militants in Gaza responded by firing a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem, drawing Israeli airstrikes in return.

The catalyst for the escalation was the conflict over recent Israeli efforts to remove Palestinians from strategic parts of the city. The issue became a rallying cry for Palestinians, who saw the moves as ethnic cleansing and illegal, and right-wing Israeli Jews, who said they were fighting for their property as landowners while also attempting to ensure Jewish control over East Jerusalem.

The dispute, focused on a single Jerusalem neighborhood, has exploded into a major flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gaining world attention after a period in which the Palestinian cause had been largely marginalized — by the United States under President Donald J. Trump, by the Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel, and by Israel, ruled by a right-wing government for more than a decade.

By the end of the day Monday, Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, had fired rockets at Jerusalem for the first time in seven years. Israeli airstrikes left at least 20 Palestinians, including nine children, dead, according to Palestinian officials. And the region was bracing for a cycle of reprisal attacks.

ImageThe police fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades at stone-throwing Palestinians.The police fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades at stone-throwing Palestinians.Credit…Ahmad Gharabli/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For weeks, Palestinians had been protesting the planned eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, leading to clashes with Israeli police and far-right-wing activists. There were also clashes between Palestinian protesters and the police elsewhere in the city, as well as a spate of assaults by Jewish and Arab street mobs, during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, when tensions often run high.

The violence on Monday began after the police entered the mosque compound around 8 a.m. and fired rubber-tipped bullets and stun grenades at stone-throwing Palestinians.

The Israeli government said the police had been responding after the Palestinians started throwing stones at them. The Palestinians had stockpiled stones at the site in expectation of a standoff with the police and Jewish far-right groups.

Palestinians threw rocks at the Israeli police.Credit…Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press

Palestinian witnesses said the fighting began after the police entered the mosque compound and began firing.

By the afternoon, more than 330 Palestinians had been injured, with at least 250 hospitalized, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. One person was hit in the head by a bullet and was in critical condition, the medical aid group said, with at least two more in serious or critical condition.

At least 21 police officers were injured, according to the police.

Hamas had been threatening for weeks to respond with force to what it described as Israeli provocations in Jerusalem. “Tampering with Jerusalem will burn the heads of the occupiers,” Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official, said on Sunday night.

On Monday, angered by the raid on Al Aqsa, Hamas and its allies in Gaza sought to make good on that promise.

Hamas militants fired at least 150 rockets across southern and central Israel, the Israeli Army said, with at least one landing in a village in the hills west of Jerusalem, causing damage to houses but no casualties.

The volley of half a dozen rockets that reached the Jerusalem area were the first to be fired toward the city since 2014, an army spokesman said.

Israel returned fire with airstrikes.

“Israel will respond with great force,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in a statement. “We will not tolerate attacks on our territory, on our capital, on our citizens and on our soldiers. Whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price.”

The Israeli military said in a statement that an Israeli airstrike had killed eight Hamas operatives and struck two military sites and a tunnel used by militants.

Separately, the Islamic Jihad militant group fired an anti-tank missile from the Gaza perimeter toward an Israeli vehicle, wounding the driver.

An unusually high number of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested in solidarity with Gaza following the airstrikes, with many photographed waving Palestinian flags.

The Palestinian demonstrations over the planned expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah came after years of frustration over Israeli restrictions on building permits in East Jerusalem, which have forced Palestinian residents to leave the city or to build illegal housing and risk demolition. There have also been recent clashes over restrictions on Palestinian access to a popular plaza at the center of Palestinian communal life.

The unrest was long predicted to come to a boil on Monday, when far-right Israelis were scheduled to march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Far-right Israelis marching on Monday outside the Old City. Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

The march on Jerusalem Day, an annual event to mark the capture of East Jerusalem during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967, is seen by Palestinians as a provocation. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Israel annexed it after 1967, a claim most of the world does not recognize.

Despite international calls to tamp down the crisis, the Israeli government did little to de-escalate the tensions until Sunday night, when the Israeli Supreme Court delayed a decision on the eviction of the Sheikh Jarrah families. The ruling had been expected on Monday.

The Israeli police decided Monday to block Jews from entering the Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and holy to both religions. And minutes before the Jerusalem Day march was to begin on Monday afternoon, the government rerouted it on a less contentious path.

Those measures came too late to contain the spiraling violence.

The United States State Department condemned the Hamas rocket attacks, calling them “an unacceptable escalation.” The department spokesman, Ned Price, called on “all sides” to de-escalate and avoid violence, but noted “Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.”

Mr. Price also said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the violent confrontations in Jerusalem, and praised Israel’s efforts to reduce tensions there.

But the Biden administration came under growing pressure on Monday from liberal activists and members of Congress to offer sharper criticism of Israel’s government.

A part of a wheat field on fire after Palestinians in Gaza sent incendiary balloons over the border near Nir Am, southern Israel, on Sunday.Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

J Street, a Washington-based liberal advocacy group, called on the Biden administration “to make clear publicly that Israeli efforts to evict and displace Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are completely unacceptable.”

Asked about a charge on Sunday from Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, that Jerusalem’s deputy mayor had endorsed “ethnic cleansing,” Mr. Price said, “That’s not something that our analysis supports.”

The rockets fired at Jerusalem constituted a pointed escalation.

Militants in Gaza had fired rockets into Israel overnight Sunday, after sending incendiary balloons into Israeli farmland for the past several days, but the rockets had hit only open areas. Israel returned fire, barred fishermen from the territory from going to sea and shut a key crossing between Gaza and Israel.

The attack was a sharp departure from the usual rules of the conflict with Hamas, starting with an explicit threat last week issued by Muhammad Deif, the commander in chief of the group’s military wing. Rarely seen or heard from, Mr. Deif warned that Israel would “pay a very heavy price” for what he called “the aggression against our people in Sheikh Jarrah.”

“Hamas has created a new formula,” said Michael Herzog, an Israel-based fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They have created an equation where they try to deter Israel from taking actions in Jerusalem that they deem provocative,” he said, and if Israel does not comply, “they will fire.”

Israeli police officers detaining a Palestinian.Credit…Ammar Awad/Reuters

Besides the tensions in Jerusalem, the analysts said the internal Palestinian political rivalry was also fueling the current conflict, and in particular the decision by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to postpone elections that had been scheduled for later this month.

“Hamas is trying to tell Abbas in one way or another, ‘You are not the only person or party who calls the shots,’” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza.

Israel has also inflamed the situation, according to Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser.

“We were not careful in Jerusalem,” he said, citing the policy of encouraging Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the more tactical failures of handling the tensions in the city in recent days.

“At a very delicate time toward the end of Ramadan, they gave Deif and the militants in Gaza the motivation to do what they did,” he said.

A Palestinian woman and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man arguing in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on Monday. Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

The scenes of a pitched battle at one of the world’s holiest sites were shocking to many.

“Why have they been attacking the Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan?” asked Khaled Zabarqa, 48, a lawyer who said he had been praying at the mosque compound before escaping after the first shots were fired. “The Aqsa Mosque is a sacred place for Muslims. Israel is starting a religious war.”

Israeli officials said the police were reluctant to enter the site, and did so only as a last resort.

“We wanted today to pass as quietly as possible,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Mr. Netanyahu. “Unfortunately, Palestinian extremists had the opposite goal.”

Videos posted on Twitter showed scenes of chaos earlier in the day both outside and inside the mosque, where some worshipers could be seen sheltering from explosions while others threw stones and set off fireworks. In another clip, police officers were seen striking a man being detained in part of the mosque compound. By early afternoon, the police had retreated from the site.

Another video, released by the police, showed young men throwing stones from the perimeter of the mosque compound onto the land below. A separate clip, taken by a surveillance camera, appeared to show a Jewish man swerving into a Palestinian who had been throwing stones at his car. Palestinians pulled open the car doors before a policeman chased them away.

A Palestinian man, right, scuffled with a Jewish man who appeared to swerve his car into a passer-by after it was hit by stones.Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

The Hadassah Medical Center reported that a 7-month-old girl was treated after being slightly injured in the head by a rock.

Scuffles also broke out in Sheikh Jarrah on Monday afternoon as a group of far-right lawmakers tried to mark Jerusalem Day by forcing their way into the street inhabited by the Palestinians listed for eviction. A group of leftist and Arab lawmakers blocked their path, setting off a brief scrum, before at least one far-right lawmaker, Itamar Ben Gvir, broke through the Arabs’ lines

“Everything is connected,” one of the Arab lawmakers, Aida Touma-Sliman, said of the day’s many intertwining tensions. The various standoffs across Jerusalem reflected the “struggle of a people under occupation who want to liberate their land, houses and souls,” she said.

By the afternoon, more than 250 people had been taken to the hospital.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem; Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel Iyad Abuhweila from Gaza City; and Michael Crowley from Washington.

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