Hamas official warns will reduce, not stop, balloon-borne bombs — report

Terror group official tells Lebanese paper calm will return to region after Israel meets its demands, days after Israeli defense official said such attacks would end

Masked Palestinians prepare to release an incendiary device near Gaza's Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Masked Palestinians prepare to release an incendiary device near Gaza's Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

A Hamas official told a Lebanese newspaper on Saturday that the terror group has decided to reduce the number of incendiary balloons launched toward Israel, but not stop them entirely.

The Lebanese pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper, citing an unnamed Hamas official, said that the number of launches would be reduced after Israel met the group’s demands.

The report came after an Israeli defense official told reporters Thursday that Hamas had “sent messages to Israel that they’d decided unilaterally to stop launching balloons and rocket fire at Israel.”

The southern area has seen weeks of tension and unrest along the Gaza border, with dozens of explosive and incendiary devices being launched each day in some cases, as well as rocket and mortar fire from the Strip.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device floats after being released near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, along the Israel-Gaza border fence, on February 10, 2020. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

In exchange for the cessation of such attacks, the official said, Israel would end the retaliatory sanctions it put in place against Palestinians in the Strip, specifically the revocation of some 500 permits allowing businessmen out of Gaza and a restriction of the fishing zone to 10 nautical miles from the usual 15.

“Tonight and the coming weekend will serve as a test of stability,” the defense official said in a statement.

A bunch of balloons carrying a suspected explosive device from the Gaza Strip landed in the Israeli town of Netivot Friday morning. Police sappers were called to dispose of the hazard. Nobody was hurt in the incident.

Thursday saw a number of balloon-borne incendiary devices explode over Israeli communities near the Gaza border, including one that detonated above a school.

The potential breakthrough came after the Egyptian military and the United Nations intervened this week, sending in delegations on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, according to Palestinian reports.

Al-Akhbar, citing unnamed sources in Palestinian terror groups, reported on Tuesday that the Egyptian delegation had conveyed a message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hamas in which he demanded “a return to calm.”

The sources told the daily that Netanyahu’s message, which the Egyptian delegation received from Israeli security officials in Tel Aviv on Sunday, included a threat that Israel would “deliver a major blow to Hamas with American and international cover” if calm is not restored.

This week, Israeli politicians publicly threatened a harsh military response if attacks from the Gaza Strip continued.

“I want to make this clear: We won’t accept any aggression from Gaza. Just a few weeks ago, we took out the top commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and I suggest that Islamic Jihad and Hamas refresh their memories,” Netanyahu said, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.

“I won’t lay out in detail all our actions and plans in the media, but we’re prepared for crushing action against the terror groups in Gaza. Our actions are powerful, and they’re not finished yet, to put it mildly,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem on January 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett similarly issued a warning to Hamas leaders in Gaza, warning that Israel would take “lethal action against them” if their “irresponsible behavior” didn’t cease.

“We won’t announce when or where. This action will be very different from those taken in the past. No one will be immune. Hamas faces a choice: choose life and economic prosperity, or choose terror and pay an unbearable price. Their actions will determine [which it will be],” he said.

No Israelis have been injured directly by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives. In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians. However, last month, a group of three Palestinians armed with explosives crossed the security fence into southern Israel from Gaza and, once surrounded, attacked a group of Israeli soldiers, who returned fire, killing the trio.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group was trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in the ceasefire negotiations.

Fears have also mounted in recent weeks of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last month of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel and which Palestinian leaders have rejected.

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