IDF opens fire near Gazans flying incendiary balloons into Israel

In separate incident, soldiers shoot and then detain Palestinian man who the army says tried to breach security fence with wire-cutters and a bottle of flammable liquid

Illustrative: Gazans load balloons with flammable material to be flown toward Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Illustrative: Gazans load balloons with flammable material to be flown toward Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

An Israeli drone fired toward a group of Palestinians flying incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the southern Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian media.

No injuries were reported in the airstrike, which was said to have occurred east of the city of Rafah.

The Israeli military confirmed that one of its aircraft fired at a cell that had launched balloons toward Israel from the southern Gaza Strip.

This was the first such strike by the IDF against Palestinians sending airborne arson devices into Israel in two weeks.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, incendiary kites and balloons sparked 19 fires, of varying sizes, in southern Israel, according to local government officials.

Fifteen of them occurred in the Eshkol region, which abuts the southern Gaza Strip. The other four took place in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, which lies to the northeast of the coastal enclave.

In a separate incident, also east of Rafah, Israeli soldiers shot and detained a Palestinian youth who the army said tried to breach the Gaza security fence with a pair of wire-cutters and a bottle full of a flammable liquid.

The military said the suspect was “trying to damage security infrastructure and harm IDF soldiers.”

The official Palestinian Wafa news outlet, citing local sources, said the man was injured by a live round fired by Israeli troops near the border. His condition was not immediately known.

The Hamas-affiliated al-Rai news outlet reported that the suspect was part of a group of four people who were “near the border.” The others fled back toward the Gaza Strip.

A set of wire-cutters and a bottle of flamable liquid that the military found in the possession of a Palestinian man who tried to cross into Israel from the southern Gaza Strip on July 11, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The wire-cutters and flammable liquid were found in his possession, the army said.

The detained suspect was handed over to the Shin Bet security service for questioning.

In recent months, a number of Palestinians have broken through the security fence and set fire to military posts near the Gaza security fence or to the equipment being used to construct an underground barrier around the coastal enclave.

The two border incidents came amid a period of increased tension between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terrorist group. On Monday, Israel announced it was shutting down the Kerem Shalom border crossing — the Strip’s main crossing for material goods — in response to a never-ending stream of incendiary and explosive kites and balloons that have been flown into southern Israel, sparking fires that have burned thousands of acres of land and caused millions of shekels in damages.

A balloon loaded with incendiary material is flown towards Israel by Palestinians east of Gaza City on June 29, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Over the past three months, weekly clashes have also taken place on the Gaza border, with Israel accusing Hamas of using the demonstrations as cover to carry out attacks and attempt to breach the security fence.

“We will double our efforts against Hamas,” Netanyahu said on Monday.

The prime minister said that the Kerem Shalom closure will be coupled with “other measures that I won’t go into.”

Immediately after Netanyahu spoke, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that Kerem Shalom would be closed to all commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The army said humanitarian aid, notably food and medicine, would still be allowed into Gaza, but would require special permission from the military liaison, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, to the Palestinians.

According to IDF, the idea of closing Kerem Shalom was proposed by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and was approved by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Workers load medical supplies onto a truck bound for the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom Crossing on May 13, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The military said the closure would continue so long as Palestinians persist in launching incendiary kites and balloons into Israel.

“In light of this situation in which the Hamas terror group is taking advantage of the residents of the Strip and launching incendiary and explosive kites and balloons at the communities in the Gaza periphery… these steps are being taken,” the army said.

“If this phenomenon continues, these steps will continue and even get worse,” the IDF added.

The only cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel has been subject to a strict blockade by both Israel and Egypt for the past 11 years, meant to prevent terrorist groups from bringing weapons into the Strip.

The crossing has been closed a number of times in the past three months after sustaining damage from fires set by Palestinian protesters, but not as a punitive measure.

The Kerem Shalom border crossing between Gaza and Israel is torched for the third time in weeks by Palestinian rioters (Israel Defense Forces)

Rioters first attacked the crossing on May 4. They broke through the gates and, apparently believing they were in Israeli territory, set fire to the fuel lines, according to Israeli officials. In actuality, they were on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

A week later, following a violent demonstration along the border, vandals entered Kerem Shalom and significantly damaged the fuel terminal, as well as a conveyor belt used to bring raw construction materials into Gaza and two other belts used to transport animal feed.

In addition to closing the crossing, the army said it was prematurely ending the temporary extension to the permitted Gaza fishing zone, which had allowed fisherman to sail up to nine miles from the coast in order to take advantage of the summer fishing season.

“The fishing zone will return to a range of six miles,” the army said.

The Israeli military accused the Hamas terrorist group of encouraging Palestinians to launch incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza into Israel.

“The Hamas terrorist group is responsible for everything done in the Gaza Strip and for all the consequences of it. Hamas is dragging the residents of the Strip into the abyss,” the army said. “The IDF will continue to act as necessary to preserve the security interests of the State of Israel.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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