The day that started with an unusually provocative rocket attack on Israel from Lebanon on Thursday ended with an Israeli strike on Gaza and fears of wider fires on multiple fronts.
The rocket fire from Lebanon appeared to be in response to an Israeli police attack on a mosque Wednesday morning in a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem that has sparked widespread anger among Palestinians. The Israeli military linked the rocket fire to offshoots of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two Gaza-based militias that also have a presence in Lebanon.
But instead of retaliating against the Lebanese-based branches, Israeli warplanes struck several locations in Gaza shortly after midnight on Friday, according to Palestinian news media and Israeli military statements. Armed groups in Gaza then fired more rockets into Israeli airspace, triggering air raid sirens over parts of southern Israel.
“Israel's reaction, tonight and in the future, will demand a significant price from our enemies,” Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, said in a statement after Israeli warplanes hit Gaza.
The turmoil of hostilities occurred when the Jews celebrated the Passover holiday and Muslims were in the middle of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Military experts say Thursday's offensive from Lebanon was the heaviest in northern Israel since 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah, the armed group and political movement that dominates southern Lebanon, last fought a full-scale war.
The Israeli military said it believed the militias on Thursday had acted with Hezbollah's knowledge.
The event raised fears of a wider conflict and prompted city councils in Israel to open public bomb shelters, in hopes of further rocket fire from either Gaza or Lebanon.
But it was initially unclear how far the two sides were prepared to escalate the situation.
Israeli military and Palestinian news reports said Israel had targeted Palestinian paramilitary outposts in Gaza away from major urban areas, while Palestinian militias returned fire only with short-range rockets, at least initially. No injuries were reported in Gaza during the first hour of the Israeli air strike. And by avoiding further confrontation in Lebanon, Israel is signaling that it is suspicious of provoking all-out war with Hezbollah.
However, the violence added to the already unstable security situation in the region. It comes against a backdrop of rising tensions in Jerusalem, unusually high violence in the occupied West Bank, and divisions within the Israeli military over the Israeli government's controversial plans to overhaul the country's judiciary.
The stage for Thursday's hostilities was set early Wednesday when Israeli police raided the Aqsa mosque compound, a highly sensitive holy site in Jerusalem that is holy to both Jews and Muslims and known to Jews as the Temple Mount. Officers arrested more than 350 Palestinians.
Israeli police said it was a key operation to prevent troublemakers from intending to stop Jewish visitors from entering the site in the future.
But critics saw it as an unjustified attack on Muslim worshipers during Islam's holiest month, and the attack caused outrage across the Middle East. A day later, it appeared to trigger a rocket attack from Lebanon.
At least 34 rockets were fired in the rocket attack, 25 of which were intercepted by Israel's air defense systems and six landed on Israeli territory, according to the Israeli military. Hours later, Lebanese media and Israeli officials reported a second brief explosion in northeastern Israel.
None of the groups blamed for the rockets – Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, all backed by Iran – claimed responsibility for the attack. A Hamas spokesman declined to comment, an Islamic Jihad spokesperson did not return requests for comment, while a media outlet run by Hezbollah said the source of the rockets was unknown.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, whose government has limited influence over southern Lebanon, condemned the rocket attack.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in Lebanon on Thursday to meet leaders from Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, adding to speculation about the three groups' involvement in the rocket fire.
The Israeli rocket fire and attacks on Gaza follow weeks of escalation along the Israel-Lebanon border.
In an extraordinarily daring operation last month, a man officials say may be linked to Hezbollah crossed illegally from Lebanon into Israel and planted a bomb beside an Israeli highway. The attack seriously injured an Israeli citizen.
The barrage on Thursday from Lebanon took the Israelis by surprise.
Israel has a long history of conflict with Lebanese groups, occupying southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000, and briefly striking again during the 2006 war. Since 2006, however, armed groups have occasionally fired rockets from Lebanon into Israel. , they carry out much smaller explosions and are usually further away from major cities.
Two of the rockets fired Thursday landed in a dense area, raising a thick cloud of smoke. The echo and shrapnel shattered several windows, and a rocket hit a barn. Several people in Israel were injured, including one by shrapnel, according to the emergency medical group, Magen David Adom.
The UN peacekeeping force operating along the border, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, described the situation as “very serious” and said it was in contact with the authorities in both countries.
The Israeli military denied Lebanese reports that Israel had responded with cross-border artillery fire.
Israel regularly strikes Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria, where Hezbollah forces are participating in the Syrian war. But confrontations on the Israel-Lebanon border have been relatively restrained over the last decade.
Fear of a bigger battle has grown in recent weeks after the roadside bombing.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently said he believes Israel is on the brink of collapse, referring to a domestic political crisis over a proposed judicial overhaul that has exacerbated long-standing divisions in Israeli society.
The judicial crisis led Netanyahu to fire his defense minister, Yoav Gallant—at least nominally—after the minister called for a halt to the reshuffle because of the anger it generated in parts of the armed forces, which jeopardized Israel's military readiness. But Mr Netanyahu never sent Mr Gallant a letter formally confirming his dismissal, meaning that he remains in the post.
“As we have always predicted, the great Israel has fallen,” Nasrallah said in a speech last month. “There is no trust in soldiers, political leaders or military leaders.”
But Mr. Netanyahu said late on Thursday that Israelis remained united in the face of external enemies. “Internal arguments within Israel will not prevent us from acting against them at any necessary place and time,” he said.
People close to Hezbollah said the group was also angered by the Israeli attack on the Aqsa mosque compound.
“Aqsa is a red line for all Muslims,” said Kassem Kassir, a political analyst close to Hezbollah. “The rocket attack is a message to Israel that we will not be silent about all this escalation.” And he issued a warning: “If the escalation continues, 20 rockets may become 1,000 in the coming days.”
Reported by Hiba Yazbek in Jerusalem; Hwaida Saad in Beirut, Lebanon; Gabby Sobelman in Rehovot, Israel; and Farnaz Fassihi in New York.