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Concerns of a regional conflict on Israel's borders seem to have eased

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Scenes of Israeli police raiding Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque set the stage for a regional conflict this week. There was an outburst of militant rocket fire into Israel and, yesterday, Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and Lebanon and two deadly attacks in the West Bank and Tel Aviv. We're joined now from Tel Aviv by NPR's Daniel Estrin.

Daniel, thanks so much for being with us.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us about that raid and the kind of impact it had and details about the violence that followed.

ESTRIN: Well, when Israeli police raided the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they were trying to clear out men who had barricaded themselves there. And the images that came out of that were shocking. Police were standing over Palestinians on the floor of the mosque, beating them repeatedly with clubs. This is what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE YELLING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: You hear a woman saying, oh, God, oh, God. And these jarring images spread throughout the region on social media. And what followed was rocket fire from Gaza and, surprisingly, also from Lebanon. Israel retaliated. And then, yesterday, two British Israeli sisters were killed. They were reportedly 16 and 20 years old. There was a - their car was shot in the occupied West Bank. And then a 35-year-old Italian tourist was walking on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv near the beach. Palestinian rammed his car into him and some British tourists, and he was killed. So now Israel has called up extra police and military. And there are a lot of diplomatic efforts to try to bring calm because this had been expected to be a volatile time.

SIMON: Yeah. And what in particular has had people so concerned about escalation now?

ESTRIN: Well, remember, you know, during Ramadan, we have seen in the past Israeli police use force against crowds at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and it's caused war. This is one of the holiest mosques in Islam for Palestinians. It also symbolizes Israel's expanding occupation, a creeping takeover, of Palestinian areas. You have nationalist Jewish activists visiting this site more and more. It's the site of the ancient Jewish temple.

And there was a small fringe group of Jewish nationalist activists who were calling to carry out a Passover goat sacrifice at that spot. Of course, that didn't happen. But the rumors spread, and Palestinians gathered in the mosque overnight to confront the Jewish visitors. They barricaded themselves with fireworks and rocks. And that's why police said that they wanted to evacuate those worshippers, and that's when the police raided the mosque.

But, you know, there are other factors here. We have a far-right security minister in charge of Israeli - the Israeli police. So there have been concerns of more police force in harshly acting against Palestinians. You have protests against Israel's plan to weaken the judiciary that make a lot of people concerned that Israel's enemies could see this as a great time to strike. And then, there was this surprising rocket fire from Lebanon, which made a lot of people worried about a multifront conflict dragging in Hezbollah and Iran.

SIMON: Daniel, what does it feel like there on this weekend of Ramadan, Passover and Easter?

ESTRIN: Yeah, Scott, it's just really dizzying because - I mean, I was just out on the Tel Aviv boardwalk and saw the pieces of the car that carried out that deadly car ramming last night. And people are laying flowers and lighting memorial candles. And at the same time, you have people out celebrating. You know, it's a lively time here, too. But tonight, Israelis will be back demonstrating in Tel Aviv against this government's plan to overhaul the judiciary. It's been a very controversial plan. And all eyes are going to be on the Al-Aqsa Mosque to see if there is more Israeli police use of force there that could draw the region into a wider war.

SIMON: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.