IDF fires warning shot at Gazans preparing ‘fire balloons’, launches airstrike
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Hamas threatens to send 5,000 fire kites, balloons at Israel

IDF fires warning shot at Gazans preparing ‘fire balloons’, launches airstrike

Palestinians say missile launched by Israeli drone caused no injuries, in second such incident in less than a day

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

Incendiary balloons being launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip in May 2018. (Screen capture: Quds news)
Incendiary balloons being launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip in May 2018. (Screen capture: Quds news)

The Israeli military fired a warning shot at a group of Palestinians who were preparing to launch an incendiary helium balloon toward Israel from the central Gaza Strip on Thursday afternoon, followed by another airstrike on “infrastructure” to prepare the arson devices.

“A short while ago, an aircraft fired a warning shot at a cell that was preparing to launch incendiary balloons in order to drive them away,” the military said in a statement.

A short while later, the Israel Defense Forces said it carried out an airstrike in the same area. The army identified the target as “infrastructure,” but would not elaborate.

According to media reports, the “infrastructure” was an outdoor facility that was being used by the cell to inflate the balloons and make the incendiary devices.

“We view the use of incendiary balloons and kites very seriously and will continue to act to prevent their use,” the army said in a statement.

This was the second time in less than 24 hours that Israel shot at Gazans as they attempted to start fires in Israeli territory with airborne arson devices.

There were no reports of injuries in either of the Israeli strikes.

Palestinian protesters fly a kite with a burning rag dangling from its tail to during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Hamas’s “kite unit” on Thursday threatened to send 5,000 kites and balloons into Israel on Friday for the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the Hamas-affiliated Shehab news agency reported.

According to the outlet, the Israeli warning missile was fired by a drone at the would-be balloon launchers, who were operating east of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip, near the security fence.

A video footage posted to social media showed the Israeli strike from the ground. A loud explosion can be heard as the missile hits a concrete structure in the area, and a cloud of dust and smoke can then be seen.

After the warning shot is fired, a number of what appear to be gunshots could be heard, apparently from Palestinian shooting at the drone.

Palestinian media also reported that a fire broke out nearby in Bureij, apparently sparked by one of the incendiary balloons that the Palestinian men were preparing to send into Israel.

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of kites and helium balloons bearing flammable materials, and occasionally explosives, into Israeli territory, sparking near-daily fires.

Illustrative: Firefighters extinguish a fire in a wheat field caused by kites flown by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip into Israel, May 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli aircraft also fired at a group of Palestinians in the central Gaza Strip who were preparing to send a incendiary kite into Israeli territory late Wednesday night.

On Saturday, an Israeli aircraft for the first time attacked a group of three Gazans preparing a store of balloons that Palestinians have been using to send incendiary devices over the border during Gaza protests, the army said.

No injuries were reported in the strike near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The IDF said the aircraft fired “a warning shot.”

This method of firing warning shots from drones appeared to be a new tactic that the military was looking to adopt in order to counter the threat posed by these kites and balloons, which have have burned thousands of acres of farmland, forests and nature reserves in the regions around the Gaza Strip, according to Israeli officials.

An IDF operator holds up his drone and remote control on June 7, 2018, in a field burned by ‘fire kites’ from the Gaza Strip. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The military has sought to counter these kites and balloons with teams of soldiers operating drones. Israeli officials have deemed the drone program a success, but it has not provided a perfect solution.

Israeli officials have been split on how to treat the Palestinians who launch these balloons and kites.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has called on the military to shoot on sight anyone flying these so-called “terror kites.”

However, a senior officer in the army’s Southern Command last week said that while the military considers these arson attacks to be serious, they represent “a different kind of danger.”

The Tax Authority estimated that the damage will cost upwards of NIS 5 million ($1.4 million).

Israeli firefighters extinguish a fire in a field in southern Israel, caused by kites flown by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip on June 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed withholding tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority to pay for the damage, though critics are skeptical of the plan as the kites and balloons are being launched from Gaza, where the PA has limited control.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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