JERUSALEM (AP) — Militants fired rockets from Gaza and Lebanon toward Israel on Thursday, following confrontations between Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers at a major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem for a second day in a row.
The escalation at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which sits on the fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, came during a volatile period in which the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish holiday of Passover overlap. The shrine is in Jerusalem’s Old City, where Easter week rituals unfolded at the same time.
Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza toward Israel for a second day Thursday, in an apparent response to the events at the Al-Aqsa shrine. It is the third-holiest site in Islam and stands on a hilltop known to Jews as the Temple Mount, which is the holiest site in Judaism. Conflicting claims over it have spilled into violence before, including a bloody 11-day war two years ago between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.
Later Thursday, Israeli air defenses intercepted a rocket fired from Lebanon into northern Israel, the Israeli military said. It was not immediately clear who was behind the rare rocket fire from Lebanon. Air raid sirens were heard across Israel’s western Galilee region.
Israeli forces shelled south Lebanon after the rocket fire from Lebanon into Israel Thursday, Israeli and Lebanese security officials said.
The rocket fire came after two tense nights at Al-Aqsa where Israeli police clashed with Muslim worshippers attempting to stay overnight.
Since Ramadan began March 22, scores of Muslims have repeatedly tried to stay overnight in the mosque, a practice that is typically permitted only during the last 10 days of the monthlong holiday.
Israeli police have entered nightly to evict the worshipers, but in the night from Tuesday to Wednesday the scene erupted in violence. Police stormed the mosque to remove those present by force, including beatings that left dozens bloody. Some of the Palestinians in the mosque threw stones and firecrackers, and hundreds were detained.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said protests on Wednesday night drew hundreds of people in communities across Israel’s north, home to many of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who make up one-fifth of its 9.6 million population. Police said they arrested five protesters in the large town of Um al-Fahm.
The rocket fire raised fears of a wider conflagration as Jews began the week-long Passover holiday, hundreds of Christians in the Old City gathered for Holy Thursday at the Holy Sepulcher to mark the Last Supper, and Muslims marked Ramadan.
Muslim leaders around the Middle East criticized the Israeli actions in Al-Aqsa.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country recently reconciled with Israel and restored full diplomatic ties, condemned the violence in a television interview late Wednesday.
“Interventions and threats against the historical status and spirituality of Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as the Palestinians’ right to life and religious beliefs must come to an end,” Erdogan told Turkey’s 24 TV. “We will continue to stand by our Palestinian brothers and sisters under all circumstances and protect what is sacred to us. Israel should know this.”
Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group condemned the storming of the mosque, calling it “a flagrant violation of believers in Jerusalem” that violated religious, moral and human values.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lebanon contributed to this report.