Editor’s note: On April 9, Israel carried out small-scale airstrikes in Syria in response to mortar and rocket fire from the country.
Iisraelians flock to Cool green woods in Galilee on April 6, the first day of Passover. But at 2:30 p.m., white streaks and smoke filled the sky as 34 rockets fired from Lebanon began to rain down, the largest such attack on northern Israel since the Second Lebanon War nearly 17 years ago. Most were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Three Israelis were slightly injured.
No group has claimed responsibility for the rockets. But there is no doubt that the attack was carried out by members of the Palestinian Islamic militant movement Hamas; the launches were detected by Israel from sites where Hamas is active. On the previous two nights, Palestinians fired salvos of rockets from the Gaza Strip into communities in southern Israel, including during the traditional Passover meal that marks the start of Passover.
This year’s Passover and the Muslim month of Ramadan come just in time. But the two nations, which have been at war over the land for more than a century, don’t seem inclined toward a festive truce. Reports that a small group of Jewish zealots intend to reenact the ancient “Passover sacrifice” on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount caused a stir among Muslims earlier this week. Many see it as a breach of the ban on Jews praying on the mountain, which was struck when Israeli forces captured the mountain from Jordan in 1967. The site includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews and has often been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli police were on the scene arresting the fanatics, some with their kids, before they reached the Temple Mount.
But Hamas used the tense moment to call on hundreds of Palestinian youths to “protect” the mosque. Many arrived with rocks and fireworks that could have been used to attack Jews praying at the Western Wall, which is at the base of one of the Temple Mount’s retaining walls. Violence spread quickly on social media after Israeli riot police entered Al Aqsa and clashed with teenagers, fueling tensions and sparking rocket attacks.
The sequence of events is ominously reminiscent of Ramadan two years ago. At the time, unrest in Jerusalem spread to other Israeli cities with mixed Jewish and Muslim populations. They also fired rockets from Gaza, where Hamas and Israel have waged an 11-day war that has killed more than 300 people, mostly Palestinians.
This time, Israel appears to be trying to avoid an escalation. It responded to the rocket attacks with a series of brief airstrikes on unoccupied Hamas military bases in Gaza and near the southern Lebanese city of Tire. No casualties have been reported so far. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strikes “extracted a great price from our enemies”. But it’s clear that restraint, not revenge, is the primary aim.
One reason could be that Mr Netanyahu’s hands are partially bound. A political crisis has gripped Israel as his government seeks to weaken and politicize the Supreme Court. In late March, protests and strikes forced Mr Netanyahu to suspend his legislation until the next parliament (parliament) session, which begins about three weeks later.
However, the dispute has left its mark. On March 26, Mr Netanyahu said he had fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had publicly warned that judicial reform was endangering Israel’s national security. (Thousands of Army and Air Force reservists have threatened to refuse to report in protest.) Although Mr. Netanyahu has not formally fired Mr. Gallant or reversed his firing, Mr. Gallant is still serving as defense secretary and is handling security issues. crisis. Facing plummeting polls and a dubious defense establishment, the last thing Netanyahu needs is a protracted battle to eclipse Passover, and celebrations of Israel’s 75th anniversary of independence in late April.
The situation in Pakistan is even more unstable. Hamas and other militant armed groups have been calling the shots while the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority remains on the sidelines. President Mahmoud Abbas, 87, is in his 19th year of what was supposed to be a four-year term. His notoriously incompetent security forces have lost control of major West Bank cities; Nablus and Jenin have become battlegrounds between neo-radical groups and Israeli security forces. They also witnessed shootings against Israeli citizens. On 7 April, two young Israeli women were murdered in the Jordan Valley and their mother was seriously injured. Israeli intelligence officials believe the attack was carried out by one of the new groups. On the same day, an Italian tourist was killed when a car plowed into a group of people in Tel Aviv.
Lebanon doesn’t look particularly stable, either. Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia, will almost certainly acquiesce in Hamas’ use of southern Lebanon as a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israel. The violence is a reminder that the Lebanese state cannot control armed groups in the south, an obligation it accepted under a United Nations resolution that ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
At present, there is hope that the situation will ease. Both parties may feel that they have made their point. The midday prayers of the third Friday of Ramadan ended relatively peacefully at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on April 7. Muslims and Jews may have a few days to enjoy their holidays. Still, there is no real ceasefire, and rogue elements are proliferating on both sides — including Jewish supremacists who are now part of Israel’s coalition government. Any respite is likely to be short-lived. ■