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Israel strikes Gaza, Hamas fires rockets after hundreds hurt in clashes

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israel’s army on Monday said it launched airstrikes on Gaza in response to rockets fired by Hamas militants after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a religious site in Jerusalem.

Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters that Israeli forces had targeted “a Hamas military operative,” while Hamas sources in Gaza confirmed to AFP that one of their commanders had been killed.

Confrontations between Israeli security forces and protesters have been escalating for weeks. The clashes started at the beginning of Ramadan, almost a month ago, when Israeli police put up barriers to stop people sitting in the Damascus Gate plaza, a popular gathering area during Ramadan. Young Palestinians protested what they saw as Israeli authorities disrupting their religious and social traditions.

Then on April 16, the first Friday of Ramadan, tensions escalated further when Israel imposed a 10,000-person limit on prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were turned away.

Meanwhile, there had been demonstrations over another simmering dispute: An Israeli plan to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, to allow Jewish settlers to move in.

The unrest erupted into serious violence over the weekend, and it got worse on Monday. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 331 Palestinians were injured in a crackdown on worshipers at al-Aqsa mosque on Monday alone. Seven people were left in critical condition, according to the medical group.

Israeli authorities said 30 police officers were injured Monday.

The al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City is one of the holiest sites in Islam, but it has long been under Israeli control. Palestinian protesters put up a makeshift barrier at the entrance, walling themselves in, and threw stones at Israeli police. Officers responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

On Monday, an Israeli car crashed into Palestinian protesters near the mosque. Witnesses said protesters had surrounded the vehicle and pelted it with stones before it veered off the road, but incredibly nobody was killed.

Auhorities announced that Jews would be barred from visiting the area near al-Aqsa, a site that is also sacred to them. The officials were trying to head off more violence on what is an incendiary date: Many Israelis celebrate May 10 as Jerusalem Day, which marks the capture of East Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Mideast War. They see it as the day their capital was reunited.

Palestinians, on the other hand, lament it as the occasion of an illegal seizure of land where they one day hope to establish their own capital city. The seizure of East Jerusalem has never been recognized by the international community.

Amid the tension, Israeli police decided on Monday to allow a march commemorating Jerusalem Day to go ahead, but not through the Damascus Gate as planned. The entry point to Jerusalem’s Old City has frequently been a flashpoint.

Jordan and other Arab nations in the region have condemned both the planned evictions in East Jerusalem and the Israeli security forces’ heavy-handed response to the protests.

Tunisia called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Monday to discuss the violence, and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi was to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss security in the region, with a focus on the current escalations in Jerusalem, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, issued a statement condemning “in the strongest terms the bloodied campaign of repression and the continuous crackdown by the Israeli forces against our fellow Jerusalemites, in their attempt to empty al-Aqsa compound from Palestinians.”

The ministry called on the UN Security Council “to provide international protection for our people, as a legitimate moral and legal right and duty,” and urged President Biden’s administration in Washington “to free itself from the frameworks and limitations set by the previous administration in dealing with the rights and suffering of our people.”

Other Palestinian factions, however, including armed groups, issued an ultimatum on Monday warning Israel to withdraw its security forces from al-Aqsa and Sheikh Jarrah, and to release all those detained during the recent clashes, or face violence.

Even the other political authority in the Palestinian Territories issued a warning, rather than a plea for international support. Hamas Politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh said the Palestinian resistance to Israel’s occupation would escalate to prevent the evictions in East Jerusalem.

“The resistance is ready and will not stand idle,” Haniyeh said. “Our word will be the final word in the battle if the occupation does not back away and put an end to its satanic plans.”

Israel appeared to take the threats seriously, and its security forces were bracing for possible attacks from the Gaza Strip.

Khaled Wassef contributed to this report.

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