Israel has carried out its first airstrikes on the Gaza Strip in months in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian enclave as tensions soared after a weekend of violence around a Jerusalem holy site.
Warning sirens sounded in southern Israel on Monday night after the rocket was fired from the enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, the first such incident since early January. The projectile crashed into the sea off Tel Aviv.
“One rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. The rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system,” the Israeli military said in a statement.
Hours later, the Israeli air force said it had hit a Hamas weapons manufacturing site in retaliation.
Hamas claimed to have used its “anti-aircraft defence” to counter the air raids, which caused no casualties, according to witnesses and security sources in Gaza.
No faction in the enclave of 2.3 million inhabitants immediately claimed responsibility for the rocket strike. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire from Israel, and usually carries out airstrikes in response.
The incident followed a weekend of Israeli-Palestinian violence in and around Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound in which more than 170 people, mostly Palestinian demonstrators, were wounded.
Diplomatic sources said the UN security council was due to hold a session on Tuesday to discuss the rise in violence. Similar violence in Jerusalem around the same time last year triggered repeated Hamas rocket fire into Israel that escalated into an 11-day war.
The increase in tensions coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish festival of Passover.
Al-Aqsa mosque compound is known to Jews as Temple Mount. It is the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam. Palestinians have been angered by repeated visits to the site by Jewish worshippers, who are permitted to enter but may not pray there.
The government of Naftali Bennett has declared repeatedly that Israeli security forces have a “free hand” to deal with demonstrators.
Hamas had warned on Sunday that “al-Aqsa is ours and ours alone” and swore to defend Palestinians’ right to pray there.
The exchanges of fire in Gaza and al-Aqsa clashes followed an outbreak of violence including four deadly attacks since late March in the Jewish state by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs that claimed 14 lives, mostly civilians.
Twenty-three Palestinians have been killed in the violence since 22 March, including assailants who targeted Israelis, according to an AFP tally.
They include Hanan Khudur, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman who died on Monday after being shot by Israeli forces last week in the village of Faquaa, near the flashpoint city of Jenin.
Israel has been pouring additional forces into the occupied West Bank.
Ned Price, a US state department spokesperson, said on Monday that Washington was “deeply concerned” about the rise in tensions and that senior US officials had been in touch with their counterparts from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab nations.
“We have urged all sides to preserve the historic status quo” at al-Aqsa compound and avoid “provocative” steps, he said.
Bennett on Monday denounced what he called a “Hamas-led incitement campaign” and said Israel was doing “everything” to ensure people of all faiths could safely worship in Jerusalem.
Bennett is facing a political crisis at home after his ideologically disparate coalition lost its one-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, almost a year after he painstakingly cobbled a government together.
On Sunday, Raam, the first Arab-Israeli party to be part of an Israeli government, said it was suspending its membership over the violence in Jerusalem.