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Israeli medics say 2 are killed in an attack in the West Bank

Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza Strip, Friday, April 7, 2023.
Fatima Shbair
/
AP
Fire and smoke rise following an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza Strip, Friday, April 7, 2023.

Updated April 7, 2023 at 6:04 AM ET

JERUSALEM — Israel conducted rare airstrikes in Lebanon on Friday, a sharp escalation that sparked fears of a broader conflict after militants fired dozens of rockets from Lebanon into Israeli territory. Israel also continued bombarding the Gaza Strip.

Just hours later, during a brief lull in hostilities on Israel's northern and southern borders, an alleged Palestinian shooting attack near an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank killed two women in their 20s and critically wounded another 45-year-old, Israeli medics said. The attack, coming after weeks of unusually heightened unrest in the West Bank, suggested that the recent violence over Jerusalem's most sensitive site could be spreading to the occupied territory.

The early morning Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon — what analysts described as the most serious border violence since Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group — meanwhile threatened to push the confrontation into a dangerous new phase following heightened tensions at one of Jerusalem's holiest sites.

Although the Israeli military was quick to emphasize that its warplanes struck sites belonging to only Palestinian militant groups, the barrage risks drawing in Israel's bitter foe Hezbollah, which holds sway over much of southern Lebanon and has in the past portrayed itself as a defender of the Palestinians and the contested city of Jerusalem.

Just as calm appeared to return to Israel's borders, prompting the military to allow residents of the south to leave bomb shelters, a Palestinian driving in the Jordan Valley allegedly opened fire on a car of three women, killing two of them. Medics said they dragged the unconscious women out of their destroyed car and declared two dead at the scene, where a Palestinian car also appeared to be smashed on the side of the highway. The Israeli military said it was searching for the attacker, who had fled the area. No Palestinian group immediately claimed responsibliity for the shooting.

On Israel's borders with Lebanon and Gaza on Friday, the Israeli military said it was boosting infantry and artillery forces in a defensive move "to prepare for all possible scenarios."

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said that Egyptian security officials have been working with Hamas and Israel to de-escalate the situation.

Earlier Friday, Israeli missiles struck an open field in the southern Lebanese town of Qalili, near the Palestinian refugee camp of Rashidiyeh, according to an Associated Press photographer and residents, killing several sheep and inflicting minor injuries on residents, including Syrian refugees. Other strikes hit a small bridge and power transformer in the nearby town of Maaliya and damaged an irrigation system providing water to orchards in the area.

Qalili resident Bilal Suleiman said his family woke to "violent bombing" that shattered their windows. "I immediately gathered my wife and children and got them out of the house in case there was another strike," he said.

The Lebanese military said it found another rocket launcher Friday after dismantling several the day before.

The Israeli airstrikes came in response to an unusually large barrage of rockets from Lebanon after Israeli police raids at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem spiraled into unrest and sparked outrage in the Arab world. The holy site, a tinderbox for Israeli-Palestinian tensions, sits on a hilltop sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In 2021, an escalation also triggered by clashes at the Al-Aqsa compound spilled over into an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers.

On Friday, violence again broke out at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Chaos erupted at one of the entrances to the esplanade before dawn prayers on Friday as Israeli police wielding batons descended on crowds of Palestinian worshippers, who chanted slogans praising Hamas as they tried to squeeze into the site. An hour later, according to videos, people leaving the prayers staged a vast protest on the limestone courtyard, with Palestinians raising their fists and shouting in support of Hamas rocket fire, and Israeli police forced their way into the compound.

Police did not comment on the earlier beatings, but said security forces entered the holy compound after prayers in response to "masked suspects" who threw rocks toward officers at one of the gates.

Military analysts and officials said they did not expect heavier fighting given the limited nature of Israeli strikes, but scenes of Israeli police beating Palestinians could further inflame tensions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious fervor.

The Israeli military said it was clear that both sides wanted to avoid a full-blown conflict. "Quiet will be answered with quiet," Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli military told reporters Friday. But, he added, "All our eyes are now on Jerusalem."

The Israeli military said on Friday that Palestinian militants in Gaza had so far fired 44 rockets from Gaza, only 23 of which crossed into Israeli territory. The others either failed to launch, fell into the Mediterranean Sea, or were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defense system, the military said. Most missiles that managed to cross the border struck open areas in Israel's south, but one landed in the town of Sderot, sending shrapnel slicing into a house. There were no reports of Israeli casualties.

The Israeli military said it pounded Gaza with more airstrikes on Friday, hitting 10 targets that it described as underground tunnels, along with weapons production and development sites belonging largely to the Hamas militant group. There were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza, but the Palestinian Health Ministry said that one of the strikes caused some damage to a children's hospital in Gaza City.

"This is not the first time that health facilities have been targeted, and it is unacceptable," the ministry said of the damage to Al Dorra Pediatric Hospital, which it said caused panic and confusion.

Hecht added that the military was looking into the reports of damage to the hospital. Residents in Gaza surveyed destruction at the site of a nearby Israeli attack in Gaza City, where an airstrike bore massive holes into the dirt, charred cars and blew out windows.

The current round of violence began Wednesday after Israeli police twice raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque. That led Thursday to rocket fire from Gaza and, in a significant escalation, the barrage from Lebanon.

Tensions have simmered along the Lebanese border in recent weeks as Israel appears to have ratcheted up its shadow war against Iranian-linked targets in Syria, another close ally of Iran, Israel's archenemy in the region.

Suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks have killed two Iranian military advisers and temporarily put the country's two largest airports out of service. Hecht, the military spokesman, said Thursday's rocket fire was not believed to be connected to events in Syria.

"It's Hamas-dominant," Hecht said, referring to the targets of the Israeli airstrikes both in Lebanon and Gaza.

The attack the West Bank came just as tens of thousands of Palestinians were pouring into Al-Aqsa for midday Friday prayers.

Violence has surged to new heights in the West Bank in recent months, with Palestinian health officials reporting the start of 2023 to be the most deadly for Palestinians in two decades.

Nearly 90 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank since the start of the year, according to an Associated Press tally. During that time, 16 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis — all but one of them civilians. Israel says most of those Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting police incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press