Israel’s defense minister signaled Friday that the military would stop its airstrikes if Palestinian militant groups halted rocket attacks, a day after the deadliest Israeli raid in decades raised the prospect of a major flare-up in fighting.
The limited exchange of fire between Gaza militants and the Israeli armed forces has so far followed a familiar pattern that allows both sides to respond without leading to a major escalation. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant's instruction to the military to prepare for new strikes in the Gaza Strip “if necessary” also appeared to leave open the possibility that the violence would subside.
Midday prayers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, often a catalyst for clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police, passed in relative calm, despite a heavy police presence. Still, residents of the holy city and the occupied West Bank remained on edge.
The bombardments followed an Israeli raid in the flashpoint Jenin refugee camp that turned into a gun battle, which killed at least nine people, including seven militants and a 61-year-old woman.
The raid also sparked clashes elsewhere during which Israeli forces killed a 22-year-old in al-Ram, a Palestinian town north of Jerusalem. At the funeral in al-Ram, crowds of Palestinians carried the young man's body aloft and waved the flags of both Fatah, the party that controls the Palestinian Authority, and militant Hamas, which rules Gaza.
The escalation in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict created an early test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government, which came to office as tensions with the Palestinians soared and has vowed to take a hard line.
The raid also prompted the Palestinian Authority to halt security coordination with Israel and drew “deep concern” from the State Department just days before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected to visit the region.
So far, both the Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes seemed limited so as to prevent escalation into a full-blown war. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes since the militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza toward the south of Israel. Israel retaliated with nonlethal airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza, such as training camps and an underground rocket manufacturing site.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant claimed the military dealt a “tough blow” to Palestinian militants in Gaza and said the army was preparing to strike “high-quality targets ... until peace is restored to the citizens of Israel.”
An uneasy calm prevailed around Al-Aqsa, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. Tensions at the volatile Jerusalem holy site has triggered violence in the past, including a bloody Gaza war in 2021. The site 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 were out in force at entrances to the limestone alleys that lead to the sacred compound. Scores of Muslim worshippers gathered in the mosque's stone courtyard before the iconic golden Dome of the Rock and chanted in solidarity with those killed in the Jenin raid.
“In spirit and blood, we will sacrifice you,” they shouted. “Greetings Jenin, Greetings Gaza.”
Eyad Shaher, a 45-year-old construction worker from Bethlehem who prays weekly at Al-Aqsa, said he was relieved to have a peaceful morning.
“Thank God it was good and there were no problems after that cursed day,” he said, referring to Thursday’s events.
Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks. Jenin, which was an important a militant stronghold during the 2000-2005 intifada and has again emerged as one, has been the focus of many of the Israeli operations.
Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem. Last year, 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Israel says most of the dead were militants. But youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations also have been killed.
Anwar Gargash, a senior diplomat in the United Arab Emirates, warned Friday that “the Israeli escalation in Jenin is dangerous and disturbing and undermines international efforts to advance the priority of the peace agenda.” The UAE recognized Israel in 2020 along with Bahrain, which has remained silent on the surge in violence.
News of the nine killed in Jenin and the overnight rockets blared from phones and radios in Jerusalem's Old City on Friday as young Palestinians milled around and women hawked raisins.
Ibrahim Salameh, a 21-year-old smoking on the steps of Damascus Gate, said he had never been so scared. On Wednesday, he said, his teenage neighbor was killed as police entered the Shuafat refugee camp to demolish an attacker's home.
“Every day there's more and more fear, more tension,” he said. “Somehow I'm living with this idea that at any moment I could be shot dead.”
In the West Bank, Fatah announced a general strike and most shops were closed in Palestinian cities. The PA declared Thursday that it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants. Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship, and also due to U.S. and Israeli pressure.
The PA has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds like the Jenin camp.
Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks. The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want those territories to form any eventual state.
Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people. The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for over a decade.