Dozens of rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel on Thursday, the Israeli military said, in a major escalation that comes amid regional tensions over Israeli police raids at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
Some 34 rockets were launched from Lebanese territory into Israeli territory, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said, with the majority intercepted but six landing in Israel.
It was the largest such attack since a 2006 war between the two countries left around 1,200 Lebanese people and 165 Israelis dead.
Videos posted on social media showed rockets streaking through the skies over northern Israel, and the sounds of explosions in the distance.
The country closed its northern airspace in the wake of the barrage. No deaths were reported, and it is not yet known which group in Lebanon launched the rockets.
Israel said it would “decide on the place and time” of its response, an IDF defense official who asked not to be named told CNN. An Israeli military spokesman said they believed a Palestinian militant group was behind the attack, not the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Ahead of an Israeli security cabinet meeting on Thursday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “will hit our enemies and they will pay a price for every act of aggression.”
The Lebanese army confirmed a number of a rockets were launched from the country’s south, but did not detail who had fired them. It said on Twitter that a unit had found “missile launchers and a number of rockets intended for launch” in the vicinity of the Lebanese towns of Zibqin and Qlaileh, and was “currently working to dismantle them.”
Hezbollah has not yet commented on the incident. It comes a day after Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, arrived in Beirut for meetings with Hezbollah officials.
Tensions are sky-high in the region after Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on two separate occasions Wednesday, as Palestinian worshipers offered prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.
IDF international spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht linked the rocket fire to the two Israeli incursions into the al-Aqsa mosque, saying they had created “very negative energies.”
“The context of the story starts two days ago on Temple Mount with these very, very harsh pictures coming out of the prayer at night,” Hecht said, using the Jewish name for the Jerusalem holy site known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary.
Footage from inside the mosque showed Israeli officers beating people with their batons and rifle-butts, then arresting hundreds of Palestinians. Israeli police said they entered the mosque after “hundreds of rioters” tried to barricade themselves inside.
The incident, which was met with widespread condemnation from the Arab and Muslim world, sparked retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CNN “we are at a very dangerous moment.”
“What we see unfolding on the Lebanese border is obviously a consequence, a reaction to what we saw happening in al-Aqsa [mosque].” Safadi said.
Lebanon and Israel are considered enemy states, but a truce between them has largely held since the 2006 war.
There have been several small-scale rocket attacks from Lebanon in recent years that have prompted retaliatory strikes from Israel. Few casualties were reported in those incidents, with the largest death toll in an exchange of fire in 2015 that left two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper dead. Palestinian factions in Lebanon were believed to be behind those rocket attacks.
The 2006 conflict was the biggest flare-up between Lebanon and Israel since 1982. Around 1,200 Lebanese people and 165 Israelis died in an exchange of fire that involved a nationwide Israeli aerial assault, and a naval and aerial blockade. Hezbollah fired many rounds of rockets reaching deep into Israeli territory during the conflict.
The Israeli military pinned the blame for the rockets on either Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with Hecht saying the IDF assumed that “Hezbollah knew about it, and Lebanon also has responsibility.”
But he emphasized several times that the IDF viewed the attack as having come from a Palestinian source, and that it did not represent a widening of the conflict to actors outside of the direct Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raising hopes that tensions could be ratcheted down after the incident.
The Lebanese foreign ministry also said it was ready to cooperate with the United Nations and take steps to “restore calm and stability” in the south, while calling on “the international community to put pressure on Israel to stop escalation,” the state-owned National News Agency reported.
The IDF has been concerned for some time about an escalation on the Lebanese border, and hosted a high-level seminar in the spring of 2022 to brief journalists and policy makers about it.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said Thursday’s escalation of violence between Lebanon and Israel was “extremely serious.”
UNIFIL also said it has directed its personnel stationed at the border between the two countries to move to air raid shelters, as a “common practice.”
The White House said it was “extremely concerned by the continuing violence and we urge all sides to avoid further escalation.”