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Violence spreads to West Bank as fears of regional conflict appear to fade

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called up additional forces across the country Friday as twin attacks on civilians capped three days of spiraling violence, ignited by Israeli police raids on one of Islam’s holiest sites.

A nervous calm had settled over Jerusalem early Friday as a crescendo of cross-border airstrikes and rocket fire ebbed and tens of thousands of Muslim worshipers attended prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, where scenes of police beating worshipers earlier this week sparked fury across the Middle East.

But even as Israel and Lebanon took steps toward de-escalation, and the threat of a broader regional conflict appeared to fade, violence spread to Tel Aviv and to the occupied West Bank — where tensions this year have reached levels not seen since the last Palestinian uprising two decades ago.

Israel strikes Lebanon and Gaza after rockets fired; two killed in shooting attack

Suspected Palestinian gunmen attacked a car as it traveled on a road near the Hamra settlement, killing two Israeli sisters, aged 21 and 16, and critically wounding their mother, according to the Israeli army, which said it was searching for the perpetrators. Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, hailed the operation and warned Israel “against continuing its aggression against our Palestinian people and the blessed al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The victims had lived in the Efrat settlement, near Bethlehem, for 20 years, according to Efrat’s mayor, Oded Revivi. Other members of the family were driving in a car ahead of them when the shooting happened, he said, adding they were on their way to a holiday in the north.

“At these moments, our forces are operating in the field in hot pursuit of the terrorists,” Netanyahu said in a statement after visiting the scene. “It is only a matter of time, and not much time, that we will come to terms with them.”

Israel air defense systems intercepted rockets fired from Gaza on April 7 after Israel carried out airstrikes in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Shutterstock/Reuters)

On Friday evening, though, there was another deadly incident, this time in Tel Aviv. An Italian tourist was killed and several others were injured in what authorities described as a terror attack. Israeli police said a driver ran over a number of people near a popular promenade before his car overturned. The attacker was killed at the scene as he reached for a weapon, police said.

Hamas again praised the attack, saying in a statement that the violence “will not stop unless the occupation’s arrogance is broken.”

As news of the car ramming spread, a statement from Netanyahu’s office announced that the “Prime Minister has instructed the Israel Police to mobilize all reserve border police units and has directed the IDF to mobilize additional forces to confront the terror attacks.”

Two Israeli sisters killed in West Bank shooting as violence escalates

Even before the latest round of violence, Israel was mired in twin crises. Protests over a contentious plan by Netanyahu’s new far-right government to weaken the Supreme Court have rocked the country. And violence has surged across the occupied Palestinian territories as settler attacks become more brazen and Israeli forces carry out increasingly deadly raids targeting a new generation of Palestinian militants.

Then an old flash point burned through the fragile quiet of the Passover holiday this week, as Israeli police stormed al-Aqsa Mosque on back-to-back nights, wounding at least 40 Palestinians and arresting hundreds. Officers used batons, steel-tipped rubber bullets and stun grenades to clear worshipers who had gathered for evening prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The most dramatic confrontation came overnight Tuesday, when police said worshipers locked themselves inside the mosque and threw rocks and firecrackers at officers as they entered one of the main prayer halls. Videos showed police beating worshipers as women wailed in the background.

“What Israel is doing right now is pushing all of us into the abyss of violence,” said Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, in an interview Thursday with CNN. They were unusually strong words from Jordan, whose religious authority has managed the al-Aqsa compound since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967.

In 2021, clashes between Palestinians and right-wing Israeli groups at the mosque compound escalated into an 11-day conflict between Israel and Gaza, which killed more than 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

The Holy Esplanade is a potent symbol of religious and political identity for both Israelis and Palestinians.

To Jews, it is known as the Temple Mount, where the faith’s First and Second Temples once stood; to Muslims, it is the Noble Sanctuary, where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Informal rules establishing who can pray where — Muslims atop the esplanade, Jews at the Western Wall — have been tested recently by an increase in Jewish prayer on the esplanade and threats by messianic Jewish activists to conduct animal sacrifice there during Passover.

Why Israeli raids on al-Aqsa Mosque are stoking tensions

As some 60,000 worshipers gathered at al-Aqsa for Friday prayers, many said the violent scenes from recent days were on their mind.

Tawfiq Abulmuq, a 31-year-old electrical engineer from the mostly Arab city of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, said he had traveled with his brother instead of taking the whole family, as he had in the past. “I thought twice about the decision, but at the end of the day, it’s my faith. I have to come,” he said.

While the crowd knelt to pray, groups of Israeli police were stationed throughout the winding passageways of the Old City market, and tourists drifted past, asking for directions to famous landmarks.

Inside the mosque compound, hundreds of worshipers gathered briefly in protest before streaming back into the streets. “Al-Aqsa, rest assured you will be liberated soon,” they chanted.

The Israeli military carried out retaliatory airstrikes in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip early Friday after a barrage of rockets were fired into northern Israel on Thursday. It was the most serious cross-border exchange since 2006, when Israel fought a bloody, month-long war against Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that is Lebanon’s most dominant political and military force.

“For the last 48 hours, civilians in northern and southern Israel have been targeted by aggressive rocket attacks launched by the Hamas terrorist organization. In response, the IDF struck Hamas terrorist targets simultaneously in both Gaza and southern Lebanon,” IDF International Spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said Friday in a video posted on social media.

The strikes on the Gaza Strip targeted what Israel said were tunnels and arms manufacturing sites belonging to Hamas. The strike in Lebanon hit an agricultural area near the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Rashidieh, outside the southern port city of Tyre, local media reported, and one house was damaged. UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, said Friday that it had visited the launch and impact sites as part of an investigation into the attacks.

The Lebanese Foreign Ministry called the Israeli strikes “a blatant violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty” and said it was filing a complaint to the United Nations.

Despite the diplomatic rebukes, though, there were no reports of casualties from the strikes on Lebanon or Gaza, and Israel signaled that it would try to calm tensions.

“The IDF is actively looking to de-escalate the situation, in order to ensure freedom of worship and safety for civilians of all faiths as they celebrate Passover, Ramadan and Easter,” Hecht said.

While Israel has blamed Hamas for Thursday’s rocket fire from Lebanon, no group has claimed responsibility. Hezbollah, which holds sway over parts of the south, warned on Thursday that it would respond to Israeli actions against Lebanon “swiftly and directly,” though no further rocket fire followed. Palestinian armed factions are also known to operate in Lebanon and are suspected of launching smaller rocket attacks on Israel in recent years.

Israel carried out airstrikes in Lebanon and Gaza on April 7, calling them retaliation for rocket attacks by the Islamist group Hamas. (Video: Reuters)

Israel’s response came after a three-hour meeting late Thursday between Netanyahu’s cabinet and his senior defense team. Officials eventually agreed to focus strikes on Hamas, and not Hezbollah, to avoid a more far-reaching escalation, Israeli media reported.

Before the meeting, Netanyahu had warned that Israel would “exact a heavy price” from its enemies. But when the strikes came, they were limited in scope, International Crisis Group analyst Mairav Zonszein said, “pushing the boundaries of deterrence to a specific point and then indicating that they are not interested in further escalation of the likes of 2006.”

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was at the cabinet meeting, later said he was “frustrated” by the response, though commentators pointed out that the vote had been unanimous.

“There has never been a cabinet minister who talked so much about security and understood so little,” opposition leader Benny Gantz said on Twitter.

Israel launches strikes on Lebanon after major rocket barrage

But in a country that snaps into crisis mode as soon as air raid sirens sound, the latest violence will likely prompt Israelis to put aside their differences, experts said, at least for now.

“This is why some people say we are lucky to have external enemies,” said Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “In a way this keeps some kind of ties between these two divergent political camps.”

Parker reported from Washington and Loveluck reported from Jerusalem. Sufian Taha in Jerusalem, Hazem Balousha in Gaza, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Niha Masih in Seoul and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.


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