Israel, Gaza activists trade fire as Mideast tensions mount

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian militants fired several rockets into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip early Thursday and Israeli aircraft hit militant targets in Gaza, part of an escalation that was eerily similar to the run-up to last year’s Israel-Gaza war.

The cross-border strikes came against the backdrop of Israeli-Palestinian tensions that have been boiling in Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, hundreds of flag-waving Israeli ultra-nationalists marched toward predominantly Palestinian areas around Jerusalem’s Old City, a demonstrative display of Israeli control over the disputed city seen as a provocation by Palestinians.

Police closed the main road leading to the Damascus Gate of the Old City, the epicenter of last year’s unrest preceding an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas. After some pushing and shoving with police, the marches rallied near the barricades, waving flags, singing and chanting.

A hilltop shrine in the Old City is the emotional ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a flashpoint for previous rounds of violence. Known to Muslims as the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, it is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site in Judaism, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, the site of their biblical temples.

For Palestinians, the mosque compound, administered by Muslim clerics, is also a rare place in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem where they have a measure of control. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as a future capital.

Palestinian militant groups in Gaza — the ruling Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad — have positioned themselves as defenders of the Jerusalem holy site. On Wednesday, Hamas said Israel would bear “full responsibility for the repercussions” if it allowed the marches “to approach our holy sites.”

Several rockets were fired from Gaza overnight. Four rockets fired early Thursday were intercepted by Israel, the military said. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, and no one claimed the rocket strikes. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire.

Early Thursday, Israeli warplanes conducted a series of airstrikes in the central Gaza Strip, local media reported. Social media posts by activists showed smoke billowing in the air. The Israeli military said the airstrikes were aimed at a militant site and an entrance of a tunnel leading to an underground complex holding chemicals to make rockets.

The military later said its planes attacked another Hamas compound after an anti-aircraft missile was fired from Gaza during the initial airstrikes. It said the missile failed to hit its target and no injuries or damage were reported.

Tensions have surged in recent weeks after a series of deadly attacks inside Israel, Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank and repeated clashes between Israelis and Palestinians at the Al Aqsa compound.

Last May, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets toward Jerusalem as a much larger group of thousands of Israelis held a flag march to the Old City following weeks of protests and clashes in and around Al-Aqsa. Those events led to an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

Israeli nationalists stage such marches to try to assert sovereignty over east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in 1967, along with the West Bank and Gaza, and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. The Palestinians seek an independent state in all three territories and consider east Jerusalem their capital.

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Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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