| 8 December 2023, Friday |

Shooting attack in West Bank with Israel on high alert

Two Israeli women were killed in a shooting in the occupied West Bank, and Israel reinforced troops near its borders after cross-border violence and police raids at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque raised fears of escalation.

Despite militants firing rocket salvos from Lebanon and Gaza and the Israeli military responding with air strikes, no other serious injuries were reported along the borders, and neither side appeared eager to escalate the fighting.

“Nobody wants an escalation right now,” an Israeli army spokesman said. “Quiet will be answered with quiet, at this stage I think, at least in the coming hours.”

One official with a Palestinian militant group told Reuters they were ready to keep the calm should Israel do the same, with the group having “made its point”.

Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, which draws hundreds of thousands of worshippers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and where Israel has deployed large police forces, passed without major incidents.

Apart from some stone-throwing, police said the compound was quiet. The Palestinians and Jordan, who is custodian of holy sites in East Jerusalem, reject any Israeli police presence in the compound, revered in Judaism as Temple Mount, a vestige of the two biblical temples.

Earlier in the week Israeli police raided Al-Aqsa and beat Palestinian worshippers, arresting and removing hundreds of people from the compound in what they said was an effort to remove agitators holed up in the mosque.

The action drew condemnation from across the Arab world.

During Ramadan, Muslims see it as a religious duty to remain overnight and pray at mosques.

In Friday’s West Bank shooting, two Israeli women, reported by local media to be sisters, were killed when their car came under fire near the Jewish settlement of Hamra.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was holding a security assessment. Palestinian militant group Hamas Hamas, which rules Gaza, praised the shooting attack but stopped short of claiming responsibility.

Israel blamed Hamas for Thursday’s rocket attacks, although the group did not say it was behind them.

The salvoes included the largest from Lebanon since a 2006 war. They interrupted the Jewish holiday of Passover and sent residents running for shelters. Rocket fire from Gaza hit at least one house.

Israel called on the United Nations Security Council to condemn Lebanon and Hamas for the rocket fire.

Before noon on Friday, however, Israel’s military said residents near the Gaza border no longer needed to keep close to bomb shelters.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said extra infantry and artillery forces were sent to the north and south to help defend against “possible scenarios”.

Earlier on Friday, Israeli air strikes hit sites in Gaza and Lebanon.

Loud blasts rocked the blockaded coastal enclave and Israel said its war planes hit 10 targets including Hamas tunnels and weapons-making sites.

Afterwards, streets were largely empty except for some taxis and emergency vehicles. In Gaza City’s Tufah neighbourhood some houses and a children’s hospital were damaged.

Taxi driver Muhanad Abu Neama, 23, said his family barely escaped Israeli air strikes that hit near his house, filling rooms with dirt and debris and damaging his car.

“I could hardly see because of the dust, the dirt covered my sisters’ beds and I carried them out one by one,” he said.

Even before the flare-up of the past few days, the West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in the past several months, with near-daily military raids and escalating settler violence amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.

With the international-led peace process long moribund, Palestinians’ hopes of creating an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, have faded. Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed it as its capital in a move not recognised internationally.

Israel’s new hard-right government is set on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and includes members who rule out a Palestinian state. Hamas for its part spurns coexistence with Israel.

Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 250 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians. More than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks in the same period.

  • Reuters