IDF said to threaten major action if Gaza incendiary balloon attacks persist

IDF said to threaten major action if Gaza incendiary balloon attacks persist

Security officials have sought to avoid escalation of hostilities in Gaza to keep army’s attention focused on tense north, but pressure to act mounting

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers watch a wheat field that caught fire next to kibbutz Nahal Oz along the Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers watch a wheat field that caught fire next to kibbutz Nahal Oz along the Israel-Gaza border, May 14, 2018 (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The Israeli army has reportedly notified Hamas in recent days that if the incendiary kite and balloon attacks from the Gaza Strip don’t cease, Israel will respond with major military action.

The threat comes amid a period of increased tension between Israel and the Gaza-ruling terror group. On Monday, Israel announced it was shutting down the Kerem Shalom border crossing — the Strip’s main crossing for commercial goods — in response to the endless 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.

The IDF has sought to avoid an escalation of hostilities on the southern front despite the attacks, but according to the Haaretz daily, the political pressure to act has been building as the economic and psychological harm caused by the fires takes its toll.

Israeli officials have conveyed this to Hamas through an intermediary, and said a significant Israeli response was inevitable if the current situation continued, the paper reported.

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

Two IDF assessments are at the heart of the ongoing Israeli decision not to launch a significant military operation against the kite and balloon launchers. First, the IDF believes that another round of war with Gaza would not end quickly, and may drag Israeli soldiers into bloody ground combat inside Gazan cities.

Second, according to the Haaretz report, the IDF believes Hamas may be seeking such a conflict in the expectation that at its conclusion there would be enormous pressure on both Israel and Egypt to ease their blockades of the Strip and allow renewed economic activity that could help stabilize Hamas’s rule.

The IDF is also concerned about splitting its attention between hostilities in Gaza and the sensitive and potentially explosive situation in the north, as pro-Assad forces near the Israeli Golan Heights and Iran continues its efforts to entrench its military presence in Syria.

For these reasons, the army is said to believe that dragging Israel into an extended conflict with Gaza would be far more costly than any damage inflicted by the southern fires.

But growing anger from residents of southern Israel may force the hand of the political echelon, officials say.

The army is now examining options for a significant and painful military response against Hamas that would be pinpoint enough not to spark a full-fledged war, the report said.

The report comes a day after an Israeli drone fired two missiles toward a group of Palestinians flying incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, according to Palestinian media.

This was the second such airstrike in less than 24 hours.

The IDF confirmed that one of its aircraft fired at a cell that had launched balloons toward Israel from northern Gaza. No injuries were reported in the airstrike, which the official Palestinian Wafa news outlet said occurred near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

Multiple Palestinian news outlets, including Wafa, reported that Israel conducted two strikes on Thursday, one near Beit Hanoun and a second east of the city of Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip.

An IDF spokesperson denied the Palestinian reports, saying he was “only familiar with one airstrike.”

The southern Israeli Eshkol regional council reported that a number of incendiary and booby-trapped balloons had been flown into the area throughout Thursday morning.

A banana field that was damaged by a fire sparked by an incendiary balloon from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israel Eshkol region on July 12, 2018. (Eshkol Security)

In one case, a kibbutz banana field sustained considerable damage after an incendiary balloon landed, sparking a fire, an Eshkol spokesperson said.

“In addition, throughout the morning, a number of suspicious balloons were spotted and neutralized inside the region,” she said.

A balloon launched from the Gaza Strip that landed inside the southern Israel Eshkol region, reading, ‘When life here is like death, we’ll keep living near the fence,’ on July 12, 2018. (Eshkol Security)

At least one large cluster of dozens of balloons made its way into Israel. One balloon, carrying what appeared to be a small incendiary device, had a message taped to it in Hebrew and Arabic, reading: “When life here is like death, we’ll keep living near the fence.”

It was not immediately clear if these balloons were launched by the same group that was targeted by the IDF strike.

On Wednesday, incendiary kites and balloons sparked 19 fires of varying sizes in Israel, according to local government officials. Fifteen of them occurred in the Eshkol region, which abuts the southern Gaza Strip. The other four occurred in the Sha’ar Hanegev region, which lies to the northeast of the coastal enclave.

In response, the Israeli military conducted an airstrike against a group of Palestinians it said was launching incendiary balloons toward Israel from the southern Gaza Strip, east of the city of Rafah. There, too, no injuries were reported.

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.

After shuttering Kerem Shalom, 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.

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

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