ISRAELI police detain a Palestinian during violence at the compound that houses Al Aqsa mosque on Monday.—Reuters
ISRAELI police detain a Palestinian during violence at the compound that houses Al Aqsa mosque on Monday.—Reuters

JERUSALEM: Twenty people, including a Hamas commander, were killed in Gaza Strip on Monday, making it one of the bloodiest days of fighting in several years.

The Israeli military said it struck a number of Hamas targets in response to continued rocket fire out of Gaza. It said eight sites were struck.

Hamas fired dozens of rockets into Israel, including a barrage that set off air raid sirens as far away as Jerusalem, after almost 300 Palestinians were hurt in violence at Al Aqsa mosque.

Seven members of one family, including three children, were killed in northern Gaza after an explosion whose origins were unknown.

Palestinian group fires rockets deep into Jerusalem

The early evening attack on Jerusalem drastically escalated the already heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters that have threatened to become a wider conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of an open-ended operation against Hamas.

In a speech, Netanyahu accused Hamas of crossing a red line with the latest rocket fire and promised a tough response.

“Whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price,” he said, warning that the fighting could continue for a while.

In Washington, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration, including President Joe Biden himself, was monitoring the violence.

“We have serious concerns about the situation, including violent confrontations that we’ve seen over the last few days,” she told reporters.

Israeli police restricted access to Al Aqsa mosque of Palestinians aged over 40, checking identification of anyone who wanted to access the plaza.

Following a call from Al Aqsa mosque’s director Sheikh Omar Kiswani, worshippers later cleared the plaza of debris so that prayers during the holy month of Ramazan could resume.

Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip fired rockets towards Jerusalem on Monday, setting off air raid sirens throughout the city.

The early-evening attack drastically escalated what already are heightened tensions throughout the region following weeks of violence between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem.

Shortly after the sirens sounded, explosions could be heard in Jerusalem. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage. The Israeli army said there was an initial burst of seven rockets, one was intercepted, and rocket fire was continuing.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas military wing, said the rocket attack was a response to what he called Israeli crimes and aggression in Jerusalem. This is a message the enemy has to understand well, he said. He threatened more attacks if Israel again invades the sacred Al Aqsa compound or carries out evictions of Palestinian families in a neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said the Palestinian nationalist organisation, which controls Gaza, would not sit idly with “arms crossed”.

The violence since Friday has been Jerusalem’s worst since 2017, fuelled by a long-running bid by Jewish settlers to evict several Palestinian families from their nearby east Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

A Supreme Court hearing on a Palestinian appeal in the case originally set for Monday was pushed back by the justice ministry due to the tensions.

Despite mounting international condemnation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced support for the Israeli police’s “just struggle”, praising the “steadfastness that the Israeli police and our security forces are currently displaying”.

Police said Jewish “prayers continue as usual” at the Western Wall, which adjoins the esplanade, adding that “we will not let extremists threaten the safety of the public”.

The UN Security Council was to hold an informal meeting at Tunisia’s request later Monday on the unrest that has escalated since the last Friday prayers of Ramazan.

Jerusalem Day

There were fears of further violence ahead of a march on Monday by Israelis to commemorate the takeover of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, an anniversary known as “Jerusalem Day” in the Jewish state.

An AFP journalist saw crowds of Palestinians and Jews shouting angrily at each other on one of the Old City’s narrow, cobblestone streets — separated only by a few police officers — in an indication of potential hostilities if the evening march moves through the Old City as planned.

Palestinians had erected barricade of wooden planks and metal sheets to ensure Jews — who call the Al Aqsa compound the Temple Mount — did not enter, but police had previously indicated Jews would not be permitted at the site on Monday.

The Palestinian Red Crescent put the toll from Monday’s attack at 305 injured, including more than 200 who were hospitalised, five of them in critical condition. The Israeli police reported nine injuries in their ranks.

Three Palestinians lost one eye each, said surgeon Firas Abu Akari at east Jerusalem’s Makassed hospital.

Adnan Farhoud, general director at Makassed, said it appeared Israeli police had targeted rubber-encased bullets directly at people’s heads. When “you mean to harm someone, you shoot at the head”, he told AFP.

Near the Old City, an Israeli driver was pelted with stones, lost control of the car and rammed it into Palestinians, according to police and footage from a journalist on the scene. Once stopped, the vehicle was attacked by around a dozen people who continued to hurl projectiles at the passengers before an Israeli policeman dispersed the crowd by firing into the air.

‘Barbaric aggression’

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “encouraged the Israeli government to pursue appropriate measures to ensure calm during Jerusalem Day commemorations”.

The Israeli role in the hostilities at Al Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site, has met widespread criticism. All six Arab nations that have diplomatic ties with Israel — Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — have rebuked the Jewish state.

Turkey, which also has formal relations with Israel, called it an “apartheid state” that must end the “heinous and cruel attacks” against Palestinians.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, urged the UN Security Council to act.

The Middle East quartet of envoys from the UN, US, EU and Russia — and Pope Francis — have all called for calm.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas issued a fresh condemnation of what he called Israel’s “barbaric aggression”.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2021

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