Militants in Gaza fired a rocket into Israeli airspace on Monday night that was intercepted by an Israeli air defense system, as tensions continued to rise after recent clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli police at a holy site in Jerusalem.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the rocket attack, but it followed several recent hints by Islamic Jihad, a militant group in Gaza, that it may respond to the clashes at the Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as Temple Mount. It was believed to be the first rocket strike since January from Gaza, where tensions have been comparatively low since the end of an 11-day war between Gaza militants and Israel last May.
Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, has condemned Israeli interventions at the mosque, but also indicated it is wary of escalating tensions so soon after last year’s war. Khaled Meshaal, a senior Hamas official
Gazan authorities are still rebuilding infrastructure that was damaged or destroyed in last May’s fighting; militants are still rebuilding their arsenal; and Hamas is considered leery of losing several economic concessions Israel recently made to Gaza, including a rise in the number of Israeli work permits assigned to Gazan residents.
But the rocket strike on Monday was a reminder of how quickly such considerations can change, particularly at a volatile time in Jerusalem. Last year’s war was partly set off by similar tensions at the Aqsa Mosque, and some have feared a repeat in the coming weeks, particularly during a rare overlap between Ramadan and Passover.
The Jerusalem tensions have also strained relations with the Jordanian government, which oversees the Islamic trust that administers the mosque. Jordan on Monday summoned a senior Israeli diplomat to complain about the recent police interventions at the mosque.
Within Israel, the clashes have prompted Raam, a small Islamist party, to freeze its participation in the governing coalition. If Raam makes its decision permanent by the time the Israeli Parliament ends its recess on May 8, the opposition will gain a parliamentary majority, raising the likelihood of a fifth general election in three years.
Monday’s rocket launch followed clashes on Friday and Sunday in and around the Aqsa Mosque compound, which is considered both the third-most sacred site in Islam, as well as the site of an ancient Jewish temple that is the holiest place in Judaism.
Israeli police fired rubber-tipped bullets and sound grenades at stone-throwing Palestinian youths on Friday, and later entered the main mosque on the site to arrest dozens of Palestinians who had barricaded themselves inside. On Sunday, police officers blocked Muslim access to the site for much of the morning to allow tourists and Jews to pray at the compound, leading to more clashes in and around the area. A group of Arab men attacked three religious Jews while others stoned passing buses.
Palestinians view any police presence at the site as the unwelcome consequence of Israeli occupation. Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the mosque compound, in 1967, later turning the entire city into its capital. But the United Nations Security Council has ruled it is occupied territory, and Palestinians consider the police facilitation of Jewish prayer there as part of an escalating effort to entrench Israeli control over a sacred Muslim sanctuary.
The Israeli government says the police have been forced to intervene at the mosque to contain violence instigated by Palestinian rioters, and to ensure freedom of worship for both Muslims and Jews everywhere on Israeli soil.
“Here’s the truth,” the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said in a statement on Monday evening. “Israel is doing everything so that all peoples, as always, can celebrate the holidays safely — Jews, Muslims and Christians.”
He added: “The state of Israel will continue to keep our capital, Jerusalem, open to all.”
The Palestinian Authority, which manages parts of the occupied West Bank, condemned Israel in a statement following the first round of clashes on Friday.
“The expulsion of the worshipers by force, repression and batons in preparation for the incursions of the Jewish extremists will ignite the fire of the religious war for which the Palestinians alone will not pay the price,” the authority’s foreign ministry said.