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In abrupt escalation, Hamas rockets target Jerusalem and Israel retaliates

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Hours after hundreds of Palestinians were injured in confrontations with Israeli police near a flashpoint religious site in Jerusalem’s contested Old City, Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired dozens of rockets into Israel on Monday evening, some taking rare aim at the holy city.

The rapid escalation of hostilities, which triggered retaliatory Israeli strikes and raised the specter of wider conflict, followed weeks of unrest in and near the Old City over the planned eviction of some Palestinians from their homes in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem and curbs on Palestinian access to sensitive religious sites during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

An Israeli police water cannon is deployed near the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem as a fire burns during clashes between police and Palestinian protesters Monday, May 10, 2021. Hamas militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel on Monday, including a barrage that set off air raid sirens as far away as Jerusalem, after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt in clashes with Israeli police at a flashpoint religious site in the contested holy city. The rocket fire drew heavy Israeli retaliation in the Gaza Strip.

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(Mahmoud Illean/AP)

Palestinians have lambasted days of aggressive behavior by Israeli police, including the bloodying of demonstrators and bystanders, and the firing of rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades into the Al Aqsa Mosque, which sits atop a disputed plateau in the heart of the Old City. A widely viewed video circulated on social media showed Israeli police kicking and beating a Palestinian taken into custody near the site, the third-most sacred in Islam.

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As rockets were fired toward the Jerusalem area from Gaza soon after 6 p.m. on Monday, sirens sounded throughout the city. People fled playgrounds, hurrying for shelter with their children. Footage showed one Jerusalem park empty, with dozens of strollers left behind.

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, halted a session so lawmakers could seek shelter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s politically embattled leader, said Israeli forces would respond “very forcefully” to strikes by Palestinian militants from inside Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas. He called the targeting of Jerusalem a “red line.”

Israeli security forces walk amid debris in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Israeli security forces walk amid debris in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound on May 10, 2021 during clashes with Palestinians.

(AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

In Gaza, the Health Ministry said nine children were among 20 people killed, while the Israeli military reported the deaths of three Hamas operatives. The Palestinian Red Crescent said more than 300 Palestinians were hurt in confrontations earlier Monday with police in the Al Aqsa compound — a site also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount — while Israeli authorities said 21 police officers and five Israeli civilians were injured in the area.

Tensions came to a head Monday as Israel marked Jerusalem Day, a holiday commemorating the Israeli capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In a last-minute bid to tamp down confrontation between Palestinians and ultranationalist Jewish marchers, Israeli authorities rerouted part of a Jerusalem Day demonstration away from a sensitive area of the Old City, and forbade Jews to ascend the Temple Mount.

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Although Hamas has often fired rockets at Israel, the targeting of Jerusalem, with its holy sites, marked a first since Israel and the militant group fought a 2014 war. The Israeli military reported a barrage of more than 50 rockets, at least seven of which were aimed toward Jerusalem, striking a house on its western outskirts.

No casualties were reported, though one Israeli civilian in the southern town of Sderot was hurt when an antitank missile fired from Gaza hit his vehicle.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad acknowledged carrying out the attacks, and Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, called the rocket strikes a message “the enemy should understand.”

Echoing a high-tech approach to past conflicts, an officer from Israel’s home-front command went on television to suggest that people download an app with rocket alerts. Citizens were also advised to seek shelter during an alert, and to lie flat on the ground, hands over head, if caught out in the open.

Palestinians are pictured inside a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Palestinians are pictured inside a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, on May 10, 2021. – Nine people were killed amid air raids in the Gaza Strip, local authorities said, but it was not clear whether the fatalities were caused by Israeli strikes. Israel has confirmed it was bombing Hamas targets in Gaza in response to earlier rocket fire directed towards Israel.

(MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli schools within 25 miles of the Gaza border were to be closed Tuesday, and in central Israel, only schools with bomb shelters would be in session, authorities said.

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The growing volatility of the situation had a familiar feel to many. On Hebrew-language social media, a quote by the late playwright Hanoch Levin circulated as a meme: “In Israel there are only three seasons: winter, summer and war.”

The potential opening of a new phase of hostilities finds Israel in a state of political limbo, as the prime minister’s opponents seek to form a governing coalition following an inconclusive national election, the fourth in two years.

The unrest could hamper efforts by seven political parties calling themselves the “Change Bloc” — an anti-Netanyahu grouping that for the first time includes an Arab party — to form a coalition.

On the Palestinian side, with elections postponed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the rocket attacks were seen by some as a bid by Hamas to claim a greater role in responding to recent events in Jerusalem. Those include the prospective evictions in the
East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, where Jewish settlers have engaged in a legal fight to take over Palestinian homes. Israel’s Supreme Court was to have ruled in the case on Monday, but put off issuing a judgment.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price called the rocket attacks by Palestinian militants an “unacceptable escalation,” and called for calm on all sides.

But the Biden administration’s relatively restrained response to Israeli police tactics against Palestinian demonstrators prompted criticism in some quarters. The liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street urged the Biden administration to respond to “the continued use of intimidation and violent, excessive force against Palestinian protesters and worshipers.”

Palestinian protesters move an object during an anti-Israel demonstration over tensions in Jerusalem.

Palestinian protesters move an object during an anti-Israel demonstration over tensions in Jerusalem, at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank, May 11, 2021. – Israel launched deadly air strikes on Gaza on May 10 in response to a barrage of rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian militants, amid spiralling violence sparked by unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

(ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

Special correspondent Kraft reported from Tel Aviv and staff writer King from Washington.

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