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Bennett on Gaza strikes in response to arson balloons: ‘Things have changed’

PM declares Israel not looking to fight but will retaliate against any violence; also says new government looking to aid Strip ‘without suitcases of dollars’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowed Sunday that Israel will continue to respond forcefully to any further attacks from Gaza, after the military struck Hamas targets following arson attacks from the enclave that caused fires in southern Israel.

“I again clarify here: things have changed,” Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.

He added: “Israel is interested in calm and has no interest in harming Gaza residents, but violence… will be met with a strong response.”

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the strikes late Saturday targeted a rocket launcher and weapons factory belonging to Hamas, the Islamist terror group that controls the Gaza Strip. The Hamas-run Health Ministry said there were no casualties.

Israeli warplanes also bombed a Hamas weapons factory in Gaza overnight Thursday-Friday in response to at least four fires in Israel caused by incendiary balloons. The previous wave of arson attacks, more than two weeks previously, also met with an Israeli response.

The retaliatory strikes by the new government indicate a policy shift from that of the previous one led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which did not always respond to arson balloon launches with airstrikes. Bennett had long urged a tougher response to the attacks before replacing Netanyahu as premier last month.

Masked Palestinian members of the Islamic Jihad terror group launch incendiary balloons from Gaza toward Israel on June 15, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/FLASH90)

“We are also working on a solution to allow humanitarian assistance to Gaza residents, without suitcases of dollars,” Bennett said Sunday, referring to the money that Qatar has provided the Strip in recent years.

“The suitcases of dollars are something we inherited and need to stop,” he added.

Bennett’s comments came after a Palestinian newspaper on Sunday reported the United Nations had agreed to take responsibility for the disbursement of the Qatari funds in Gaza. Quoting unnamed Palestinian sources, the Al-Quds daily said Israel was on board with the move as long as the flow of the money was monitored to ensure it was not diverted to Hamas.

Sources close to Hamas were quoted saying the terror group had no objections to such a step as long as the cash was distributed.

A Hamas-appointed government employee in Gaza signs a document to receive 50 percent of her long-overdue salary from funds donated by Qatar, while others wait in line, at the main Gaza Post Office, in Gaza City, December 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

With Israel’s approval, Qatar has in recent years distributed hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to enable Hamas to pay for fuel for Gaza’s power plant, pay civil servants and provide aid to tens of thousands of impoverished families.

However, the Qatari payments have not resumed since the 11-day military conflict between the Israeli military and Gaza-based terrorists in May, with Israel refusing to allow the money into the Strip until Hamas releases two civilians and two bodies of IDF soldiers that it has been holding captive.

Egypt also opposed restarting the Qatari payments, insisting that a new mechanism be used to transfer them to Gaza so that they do not reach Hamas.

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