Israel has launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza early Friday, in response to dozens of rockets fired from neighboring Lebanon into Israeli territory.
The Israeli military has blamed Palestinian militants for the barrage, and a CNN journalist in Gaza City reported hearing the sounds of planes and explosions just minutes after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the operation.
The airstrikes targeted multiple areas in the coastal enclave of Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. In retaliation, several rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel.
The IDF stated that its fighter jets struck two “terror” tunnels in Beit Hanoun and Khan Yunis, as well as two weapons-manufacturing sites of Hamas, “as a response to the security violations of Hamas during the last few days.” Additionally, an IDF drone targeted a heavy machine gun in northern Gaza that was used to fire rounds towards IDF jets and Israeli territory.
The recent exchange of fire comes amid heightened tensions in the region following Israeli police raids at the al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
The raids drew widespread condemnation from the Arab and Muslim world and sparked retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Subsequently, on Thursday, the IDF reported that 34 rockets were launched into Israel from Lebanon, marking the largest such attack since the 2006 war between the two countries that resulted in significant casualties.
Videos posted on social media showed rockets from Lebanon streaking through the skies over northern Israel, with the sounds of explosions heard in the distance. In response, Israel closed its northern airspace.
While the Israeli military spokesman stated that they believed Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group was responsible for the attack, not the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Lebanese army confirmed that a number of rockets were launched from the country’s south, without attributing responsibility.
The Lebanese army also reported finding “missile launchers and a number of rockets intended for launch” in the vicinity of Lebanese towns, Zibqin and Qlaileh, and was in the process of dismantling them.
Hezbollah, which dominates Lebanon’s southern border region militarily and politically, neither denied nor claimed responsibility for the rocket fire into Israel. However, the powerful Iran-backed armed group appeared to hint at its involvement in a statement, warning that “hundreds of millions of Muslims” were prepared to “shed blood” for al-Aqsa.
In recent months, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had also warned that violations at the mosque compound in Jerusalem’s old city would cause “all hell to break loose in the region.”
Tensions have been running high following the Israeli police’s incursions into the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on two separate occasions during the holy month of Ramadan. Footage from inside the mosque showed Israeli officers using force against Palestinian worshipers, leading to hundreds of arrests. The IDF’s international spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, linked the recent rocket fire to the incursions, stating that they had created “very negative energies.”
“The context of the story starts two days ago on Temple Mount with these very, very harsh pictures coming out of the prayer at night,” Hecht said, using the Jewish name for the Jerusalem holy site, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
The recent escalation of violence between Lebanon and Israel is particularly concerning as the two countries are considered enemy states, although a truce has largely held since the 2006 war. There have been sporadic small-scale rocket attacks from Lebanon into Israel in recent years, prompting retaliatory strikes from Israel. However, casualties have been limited, with the largest death toll recorded in an exchange of fire in 2015 that resulted in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper.