GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Incendiary balloons Palestinians launched from the Gaza Strip recently were a signal to Israel to accelerate unofficial “understandings” meant to ease the crippling blockade on the Hamas-ruled territory, a senior official from the terror group said Tuesday.
The resumption of flammable balloons and other explosive devices flown across the border broke a month of calm that has largely prevailed since Hamas suspended its weekly protests along the Israeli-Gaza frontier.
The quiet is meant to bolster an informal truce between Israel and Hamas being negotiated by international mediators.
Speaking to journalists, Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya accused the Israelis of moving too slowly.
He said the balloons had been launched by disgruntled individuals, not Hamas. But he said his group was “satisfied” with the launches and is ready to send more “if the occupation doesn’t pick up the message.”
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, seized control of the territory in 2007 from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The blockade, combined with Hamas mismanagement, has devastated the local economy.
After three wars and dozens of smaller skirmishes, the bitter enemies have been working through Qatari, Egyptian and UN mediators to reach a series of “understandings” that would ease the blockade in exchange for guarantees of quiet. Al-Hayya said Hamas expects Israel to allow in more medical supplies, unlimited trade between Gaza and the world, help create more jobs and extend Qatari payments for electricity and poor families.
The incendiary balloons have not caused injuries on the Israeli side, but were responsible for a large number of wildfires that devastated brush and agricultural fields near the Gaza border. Last week, an Israeli military helicopter struck a Hamas post in Gaza in response to the resumption of the launches.
The UN’s Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, called the renewed balloon launches “concerning and regrettable” in a briefing to the Security Council on Tuesday. “These actions are a risk to the civilian population,” he said.
For the past 20 months, Hamas organized weekly demonstrations along the fence demanding an end to the blockade. Dubbed the “March of Return,” the demonstrations also called for an end to the blockade.
The protests often turned violent, including burning of tires, throwing of explosives at IDF troops on the border and launching of hundreds of incendiary balloons that torched large swaths of Israeli farmland. Over 200 Palestinians, mostly unarmed, were killed by Israeli fire during the marches and hundreds of others were badly wounded storming the fence. Israel drew criticism from rights groups and at the UN for allegedly using excessive force to prevent the protesters from crossing into Israel. Israeli officials said the troops acted appropriately when faced with violent attacks and attempts to breach the border.
Hovering around 50%, Gaza’s unemployment rate is one of the world’s highest and most of its 2 million people rely on humanitarian assistance.