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Air force shoots at Gazan arson squad, as Liberman threatens war

Palestinian media reports IDF also shelled 2 Hamas positions in central Gaza; defense minister warns Israel ready to fight to stop arson attacks

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. Masked Palestinian men prepare inflated latex condoms loaded with flammable material to be flown towards Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
Illustrative. Masked Palestinian men prepare inflated latex condoms loaded with flammable material to be flown towards Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

An Israeli drone shot at a group of Gazans flying incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Strip on Monday afternoon, according to Palestinian media.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that one of its aircraft targeted a “terror cell” launching arson devices in northern Gaza.

According to the Hamas-linked Shehab news outlet, the group was operating near the border, east of the city of Jabaliya.

There were no injuries immediately reported.

Moments later, Shehab reported that the IDF fired at two observation posts in central Gaza belonging to the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip.

The military would not immediately confirm the report.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018 shows an Israeli Merkava battle tank patrolling along along the border with the Gaza Strip near Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

The airstrike and reported shelling came amid a period of heightened tensions in the coastal enclave, with Israel demanding an end to the arson attacks and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatening a large military operation.

“Is the State of Israel interested in a war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip? The answer is no. Are we deterred from [starting] a campaign in the Gaza Strip? Here too, the answer is no,” Liberman said during a meeting with the IDF’s top brass on Monday morning.

Hamas agreed to a ceasefire with Israel on Friday night, after the IDF bombed dozens of the terror group’s facilities in response to a sniper attack on the border that killed an IDF soldier, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, 20, earlier that evening — the first Israeli killed in an attack from Gaza since the 2014 war.

Four Palestinians were killed in the Israeli strikes — three of whom were acknowledged as Hamas fighters.

That ceasefire has largely held, though there were some low-level clashes and incidents along the border in the intervening days.

A fireball explodes in Gaza City as a result of Israeli airstrikes after an IDF soldier was shot dead on the border, on July 20, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / BASHAR TALEB)

On Sunday evening, an Israeli aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry said two people were injured in the strike. It listed the injuries as light to moderate.

Though some incendiary balloons were found in southern Israel on Sunday and Monday morning, no fires were caused by them, according to the Fire and Rescue Services.

IDF tanks also struck a pair of observation posts on Saturday in response to an attempt to breach the border and an incendiary balloon launch.

On Monday, Liberman said Israel would not tolerate fire kites and border clashes, and claimed the country had “done everything in order to prevent a war in the Gaza Strip.”

“Anything that happens going forward in the Gaza Strip is the sole responsibility of the Hamas leadership,” he said.

Defense Minsiter Avigdor Liberman visits the Kerem Shalom Crossing on July 22, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Sunday, Liberman announced that Israel was prepared to fully reopen the main crossing for goods into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday if the relative calm in the territory persists until then.

“Yesterday was one of the calmest days, perhaps, since March 30,” Liberman said, during a visit to the Kerem Shalom Crossing on Sunday. “If that situation continues today and tomorrow as it was yesterday, then on Tuesday we will revive the regular procedures and also expand the fishing zone to what it was before.”

The Kerem Shalom Crossing, the only Israeli crossing for commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, has been closed to everything but shipments of food, medicine and occasionally fuel since July 9.

Adam Rasgon and agencies contributed to this report.

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