JERUSALEM/GAZA: Fighting between Israel and militants on the Lebanese border and in Gaza appeared to ebb on Friday, easing concern that a big escalation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was unfolding.
However, two Israeli sisters were killed and their mother was wounded in a shooting attack in the occupied West Bank, and soldiers were hunting for the gunman.
Ramadan prayers at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, where violence between Israeli police and Muslim worshippers erupted earlier in the week, passed without major incident.
Salvoes of rockets from Lebanon and Gaza struck north and south in Israel over the past day and the Israeli military replied with air strikes. But neither side seemed keen to prolong 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 many police, passed without a serious flare-up.
Apart from some stone-throwing, police said the compound was quiet. The Palestinians and Jordan, which is custodian of holy sites in East Jerusalem, reject any Israeli police presence in the compound.
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 sisters were killed when their car came under fire near the Jewish settlement of Hamra, Israeli officials said. Their mother was wounded.
Palestinian militant group 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.
Salvoes largest since 2006 war
The salvoes included the largest from Lebanon since a 2006 war with Iran-backed Hezbollah. 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.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah-backed member of parliament Hassan Ezzedine said his group backed “all steps, decisions and plans” taken by the Palestinian factions, without directly mentioning the rocket attacks.
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.