militias in lebanon fire rocket barrage into israel after al aqsa mosque raid

The Israeli military blamed Palestinian exiles in Lebanon for what appeared to be a retaliatory attack over Israel’s raid of a mosque at a Jerusalem holy site one day earlier.

Armed groups in Lebanon fired a heavy barrage of rockets toward Israel on Thursday in an unusual and major escalation that the Israeli military blamed on militias run by Palestinian exiles in Lebanon.

The attack appeared to be in response to an Israeli police raid on a mosque early Wednesday at a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem. The raid prompted widespread anger among Palestinians and an earlier burst of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

The police action and the rocket strike came as Jews were celebrating the holiday of Passover and Muslims were in the middle of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

Military experts said the barrage on Thursday was the heaviest in northern Israel since 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah last fought a full-scale war. Israel did not retaliate immediately, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with senior ministers and military leaders to discuss how to respond.

Amid fears of a wider conflagration, municipal council leaders across Israel announced that they were opening public bomb shelters.

“Our enemies must not misjudge us,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video statement before holding an emergency cabinet meeting later in the night. He said, “We will strike our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression.”

At least 34 rockets were fired in the attack, of which 25 were intercepted by Israeli air-defense systems and six landed in Israeli territory, according to the Israeli military. Several hours later, Lebanese media later reported a short second burst over northeastern Israel.

A spokesman for the Israeli military said it suspected that branches of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the two main militias in Gaza that also have a presence in Lebanon, were involved in the rocket fire from Lebanon. The Israeli military also said it believed that the militias had acted with the knowledge of Hezbollah, the militia and political movement that dominates southern Lebanon.

None of the groups — all which are backed by Iran — has claimed responsibility for the barrage. A spokesman for Hamas declined to comment, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad did not reply to a request for comment, while a media outlet run by Hezbollah said the source of the rockets was unknown.

The Lebanese prime minister, Najib Mikati, whose government has only limited influence over southern Lebanon, condemned the rocket fire.

Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, visited Lebanon this week, adding to speculation about the group’s involvement in the rocket fire. After the attack Thursday, its spokesmen continued to condemn the Israeli raid on Wednesday on the Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount.

The attack from Lebanon compounded an already volatile security situation in the region. It came against a backdrop of rising tensions in Jerusalem, unusually high violence in the occupied West Bank, and divisions within the Israeli military over a contentious plan by the Israeli government to overhaul the country’s judiciary.

It also followed weeks of escalation along the Israel-Lebanon border.

In an unusually brazen operation last month, a man who officials say was likely linked to Hezbollah crossed illegally from Lebanon to Israel and planted a bomb beside an Israeli highway. The attack severely injured an Israeli citizen.

The barrage on Thursday took Israelis by surprise.

Israel has a long history of conflict with Lebanese groups, occupying southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, and briefly invading again during the 2006 war. Since 2006, however, while armed groups have occasionally fired rockets from Lebanon into Israel, they have been in much smaller bursts and usually away from towns and cities.

Two of the rockets fired Thursday landed in built-up areas, sending up large plumes of smoke. The reverberations and shrapnel shattered several windows, and a rocket hit a warehouse. Several people inside Israel were injured, including one person hit by shrapnel, according to an emergency medical group, Magen David Adom.

A U.N. peacekeeping force that operates along the border, the United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, described the situation as “extremely serious” and said it was in touch with the authorities in both countries.

The Israeli military denied Lebanese reports that Israel had already responded with cross-border artillery fire.

Israel regularly strikes Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria, where Hezbollah forces participate in the Syrian war. But confrontations on the Israeli-Lebanese border had been kept in relative check over the past decade.

Fears of a larger battle grew in recent weeks after the roadside bombing.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently said that he believed Israel was on the verge of collapse, referring to the domestic political crisis over the proposed judicial overhaul that has exacerbated longstanding divisions within Israeli society.

The judicial crisis led Mr. Netanyahu to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant — at least nominally — after the minister called for a halt to the overhaul because of the anger it had caused within parts of the armed forces, endangering Israel’s military readiness. But Mr. Netanyahu never sent Mr. Gallant a letter officially confirming his dismissal, meaning that he remains in the post.

“As we have always predicted, great Israel has fallen,” Mr. Nasrallah said in a speech last month. “There is no trust in the army, political leaders or military leaders.”

But Mr. Netanyahu said on Thursday night that Israelis remained united in the face of external enemies. “The internal argument inside Israel will not prevent us from acting against them in every place and at any required time,” he said.

People close to Hezbollah said the group had also been angered by the Israeli raid on the Aqsa mosque, in which more than 350 Palestinians were arrested.

The Israeli police said it was an essential operation to prevent troublemakers from stopping Jewish visitors from entering the site. Muslims saw it as an unjustifiable assault on Muslim worshipers during the holiest month in Islam.

“Aqsa is a red line for all Muslims,” Kassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah, said. “The rocket attack is a message to Israel that we won’t be silent about all this escalation.” And he offered a warning: “If the escalation continues, the 20 rockets might become 1,000 in the coming days.”

Israeli military experts said that it was unclear when, where or how Israel might respond.

In 2006, war broke out after Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli border patrol, killing and capturing a number of soldiers. But the incident on Thursday caused no loss of life, meaning that Israel might not feel it necessary to retaliate on Thursday, said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli general who oversaw military intelligence during the 2006 war.

“Nobody was killed, nobody was kidnapped, so you don’t have to react immediately,” Mr. Yadlin said.

Israel might also choose to retaliate against Hamas in Gaza instead of Lebanon, General Yadlin said.

Reporting was contributed by Hiba Yazbek in Jerusalem; Hwaida Saad in Beirut, Lebanon; Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel; and Farnaz Fassihi in New York.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *