Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians escalated dramatically on Monday as militant groups in Gaza fired rockets into Israel and Israel responded with strikes on the Palestinian coastal territory following a police raid on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that left hundreds injured.
The rocket attacks were launched just minutes after the passing of a Hamas-issued ultimatum for Israel to withdraw security forces from both the Jerusalem compound that is home to the al-Aqsa mosque and the Old City’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
The two locations have been the scene of increasingly violent confrontations in recent days between Israeli security forces and Palestinians that have drawn mounting international concern.
Anger had been growing for weeks among Palestinians before a now-delayed Israeli court ruling on whether authorities were able to evict dozens of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and give their homes to Jewish settlers.
Jerusalem residents reported hearing air raid sirens shortly after 6pm local time, when the ultimatum was due to expire, and the sound of explosions.
Sirens were also reported near the coastal city of Ashkelon and in other areas close to the Gaza border. The Israeli army said there was an initial burst of seven rockets, one was intercepted, and rocket fire was continuing in southern Israel.
The Gaza health ministry said 20 Palestinians, including nine children, were killed in Israeli airstrikes in the Palestinian territory after the barrages against Israel. An Israeli military spokesperson said it had started to attack Hamas military targets in Gaza.
The rocket strikes signalled a significant escalation and raised the likelihood of a tough Israeli response. Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, said: “Palestinian terrorism must be fought with an iron fist,” while opposition leader Yair Lapid called for a “strong and determined action to restore deterrence” raising the prospect of further military action.
The rocket attacks, and retaliatory air raids, followed a day of rapid escalation that came after Israeli police stormed the compound early on Monday, firing stun grenades and teargas and clashing with Palestinians inside, who threw stones.
The clashes left more than 500 Palestinians and 21 police officers injured. Footage from the scene showed crowds of people running in front of the mosque through clouds of smoke.
The incursion raised tensions significantly given the huge historical sensitivity over the site, not least during the holy month of Ramadan.
Seven of the injured from Monday’s clashes were in serious conditions, with local media reporting that a seven-month-old Israeli child had been injured by stones thrown at her family’s car.
In an apparent attempt to avoid further confrontation, Israeli authorities had changed the planned route of a contentious march by nationalist Jews through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.
Palestinian residents of the Old City have long complained that the flag march, to mark Israel’s capture of the Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites in 1967 during the six day war, is deliberately provocative.
The marchers were ordered to avoid the area and sent on a different route circumventing the Muslim Quarter on their way to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Hamas’s military wing claimed responsibility for the first wave of rocket fire in a statement saying it struck Jerusalem in response to Israel’s “crimes and aggression in the Holy City, and its harassment of our people in Sheikh Jarrah and al-Aqsa mosque”.
“This is a message that the enemy should understand well,” said a spokesperson. Islamic Jihad in Gaza also claimed to have launched its own rocket attacks.
The growing tensions followed the most serious clashes in the city since 2017.
Hundreds of Palestinians and several dozen police officers have been hurt in recent days in clashes in and around the Old City, including the sacred compound, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary – or Haram al-Sharif.
The latest violence occurred as the UN security council held closed consultations on the situation in Jerusalem and was considering a proposed statement calling on Israel to cease evictions and calling for “restraint” and respect for “the historic status quo at the holy sites.”
Addressing a special cabinet meeting before Jerusalem Day, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilise the calm in Jerusalem. We will enforce law and order decisively and responsibly”.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel should stop “immediately,” and he urged all sides to take steps to de-escalate the situation.
“All sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down,” Blinken said as he met his Jordanian counterpart in Washington.
Israel has faced mounting international criticism of its heavy police response and the planned evictions. Last week a UN rights body described the expulsion of Arabs from their homes as a possible war crime.
In East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, Palestinians feel an increasing threat from settlers who have sought to expand the Jewish presence there through buying homes, constructing buildings, and court-ordered evictions, such as the case in Sheikh Jarrah.
Nabeel al-Kurd, a 77-year-old whose family faces losing their home, said the evictions were a racist attempt to “expel Palestinians and replace them with settlers”.
Under Israeli law, Jews who can prove a title from before the 1948 war that accompanied the country’s creation can claim back their Jerusalem properties. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs were displaced in the same conflict but no similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in the city.