GAZA CITY -- Palestinian militants for the first time targeted the holy city of Jerusalem on Friday with rocket fire as Israel and the Islamist group Hamas inched closer to all-out war.
It marked the first time in 21 years that air raid sirens rang in Jerusalem, a crowded ancient city that had long been thought to be off-limits since it includes many Arab residents and some of the world’s most sacred holy sites to Muslims and Jews.
Hamas’ military wing claimed responsibility for what it said were homemade rockets aimed at Jerusalem. Earlier in the day, the military wing said it was aiming for Israel’s parliament.
Israeli media reported that the projectiles fell well short of their target, landing in open areas in Gush Etzion, a West Bank settlement about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. No damages or injuries were reported.
“It is a bit of a surprise,” said Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Middle East studies at Ashkelon Academic College. “We always thought Jerusalem was the safest place because they wouldn’t dare target the holy city.”
Militants also tried again – but failed -- to hit Tel Aviv, another heavily populated Israeli city.
Hamas also claimed it shot down an Israeli aircraft Friday evening, though Israeli military officials would not comment on the report. In Gaza City, mosque loudspeakers heralded what they characterized as a great victory for Palestinians. On its Twitter account, the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, claimed that Israel was shelling the area of the wreckage to prevent Palestinians from reaching it.
The Palestinian rocket attacks followed a heavy Israeli air assault on Gaza Strip – the worst in four years - targeting several hundred sites, military officials said.
By Friday evening, the Palestinian death toll since Wednesday was 23 people, including 11 civilians, Gaza hospital officials said. Three Israelis were killed in a rocket attack on southern Israel on Thursday.
With the escalation in violence, chances of an Israeli ground assault seemed to rise. The Israeli defense minister said Friday that he had called up 16,000 reservist soldiers of the 30,000 authorized this week by the government. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said he believed a ground invasion could be launched in a matter of days if the rocket attacks do not stop.