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Israel strikes Lebanon, Gaza, as Al-Aqsa crisis escalates

JERUSALEM — Israel conducted rare airstrikes in Lebanon on Friday, a sharp escalation that sparked fears of a broader conflict after militants fired dozens of rockets from Lebanon into Israeli territory. Israel also continued bombarding the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon — what analysts described as the most serious border violence since Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group — threatened to push the confrontation into a dangerous new phase following violence at one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites.

Although the Israeli military was quick to emphasize that its warplanes struck sites belonging to only Palestinian militant groups, the barrage risks drawing in Israel’s bitter foe Hezbollah, which holds sway over much of southern Lebanon and has in the past portrayed itself as a defender of the Palestinians and the contested city of Jerusalem.

Even as Israel announced it was allowing residents of the south to leave bomb shelters and return home after an hourslong lull in hostilities, the Israeli military said it was boosting infantry and artillery forces along the country’s borders with Lebanon and Gaza “to prepare for all possible scenarios.”

“The forces are on high alert,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hagari.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said that Egyptian security officials have been working with Hamas and Israel to de-escalate the situation.

Earlier Friday, Israeli missiles struck an open field in the southern Lebanese town of Qalili, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, according to an Associated Press photographer and residents, killing several sheep and inflicting minor injuries on residents, including Syrian refugees. Other strikes hit a small bridge and power transformer in the nearby town of Maaliya and damaged an irrigation system providing water to orchards in the area.

Qalili resident Bilal Suleiman said his family woke to “violent bombing” that shattered their windows. “I immediately gathered my wife and children and got them out of the house in case there was another strike,” he said.

The Lebanese military said it found another rocket launcher Friday after dismantling several the day before.

The Israeli airstrikes came in response to an unusually large barrage of rockets from Lebanon after Israeli police raids at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem spiraled into unrest and sparked outrage in the Arab world. The holy site, a tinderbox for Israeli-Palestinian tensions, sits on a hilltop sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In 2021, an escalation also triggered by clashes at the Al-Aqsa compound spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.

On Friday, violence again broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Chaos erupted at one of the entrances to the esplanade before dawn prayers on Friday as Israeli police wielding batons descended on crowds of Palestinian worshippers, who chanted slogans praising Hamas as they tried to squeeze into the site. An hour later, according to videos, people leaving the prayers staged a vast protest on the limestone courtyard, with Palestinians raising their fists and shouting in support of Hamas rocket fire, and Israeli police forced their way into the compound.

Police did not comment on the earlier beatings, but said security forces entered the holy compound after prayers in response to “masked suspects” who threw rocks toward officers at one of the gates.

Military analysts and officials said they did not expect heavier fighting given the limited nature of Israeli strikes, but scenes of Israeli police beating Palestinians could further inflame tensions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor.

The Israeli military said it was clear that both sides wanted to avoid a full-blown conflict. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli military told reporters Friday. But, he added, “All our eyes are now on Jerusalem.”

The Israeli military said on Friday that Palestinian militants in Gaza had so far fired 44 rockets from Gaza, only 23 of which crossed into Israeli territory. The others either failed to launch, fell into the Mediterranean Sea, or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system, the military said. Most missiles that managed to cross the border struck open areas in Israel’s south, but one landed in the town of Sderot, sending shrapnel slicing into a house. There were no reports of Israeli casualties.

The Israeli military said it pounded Gaza with more airstrikes on Friday, hitting 10 targets that it described as underground tunnels, along with weapons production and development sites belonging largely to the Hamas militant group. There were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza, but the Palestinian Health Ministry said that one of the strikes caused some damage to a children’s hospital in Gaza City.

“This is not the first time that health facilities have been targeted, and it is unacceptable,” the ministry said of the damage to Al Dorra Pediatric Hospital, which it said caused panic and confusion.

Hecht added that the military was looking into the reports of damage to the hospital. Residents in Gaza surveyed destruction at the site of a nearby Israeli attack in Gaza City, where an airstrike bore massive holes into the dirt, charred cars and blew out windows.

The current round of violence began Wednesday after Israeli police twice raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque. That led Thursday to rocket fire from Gaza and, in a significant escalation, the barrage from Lebanon.

The Israeli military said it would hold Lebanon accountable for rockets fired from its territory. Lebanese caretaker Defense Minister Maurice Slim, in a meeting with his Italian counterpart, promised Friday that the Lebanese army was working to “control security and maintain stability and calm in the south.”

Tensions have simmered along the Lebanese border in recent weeks as Israel appears to have ratcheted up its shadow war against Iranian-linked targets in Syria, another close ally of Iran, Israel’s archenemy in the region.

Suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks have killed two Iranian military advisers and temporarily put the country’s two largest airports out of service. Hecht, the military spokesman, said Thursday’s rocket fire was not believed to be connected to events in Syria.

“It’s Hamas-dominant,” Hecht said, referring to the targets of the Israeli airstrikes both in Lebanon and Gaza.

In Jerusalem, even as calm returned to at Al-Aqsa a few hours after the burst of violence, the situation remained tense ahead of midday Friday prayers.

For the previous two nights, Palestinians have barricaded themselves in the mosque with stones and firecrackers. Israeli police have fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to evict the worshippers. On Tuesday, Israeli police fiercely beat Palestinians and arrested over 400 people, stoking rage across Arab towns in Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli authorities control access to the site, but the compound is administered by Islamic and Jordanian officials.

Associated Press writer Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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