IDF strikes Gaza balloon launchers amid uptick in border violence

Palestinian said injured in raid; cross-border arson attacks spark four fires in southern Israel; Netanyahu warns Hamas rulers of ‘powerful’ response if unrest continues

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 aircraft on Sunday carried out a strike on a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons toward Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, the army said.

Reports in Palestinian media said a Gazan man was injured in the Israeli strike in Beit Hanoun in the northern part of the Strip.

Also Sunday, four fires, sparked by the incendiary devices launched over the border, raged in southern Israel.

The airstrike and continued arson attacks came as Israel’s high-level security cabinet met for four hours on Sunday afternoon to discuss swirling tensions in Gaza.

The rising border tensions peaked on Friday amid heavy rioting at the fence separating Israel from Gaza. Seven Palestinians were killed, including three who breached the border fence and ran toward IDF soldiers during the chaotic unrest.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a sharp warning to Gaza’s ruling terror group Hamas earlier on Sunday, suggesting Israel could be on the brink of a wide-scale military offensive if violent riots along border fence persist.

Palestinians carry tires as smoke billows from burning tires at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on October 12, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“Hamas hasn’t understood the message,” Netanyahu told ministers and reporters at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday morning.

“If they don’t stop the attacks they will be stopped in another way, which will be painful. Very painful,” he added, suggesting that Israel was on the brink of a full-blown military operation against Gaza’s rulers.

“We are very close to a different kind of activity that will include very powerful blows,” the prime minister threatened. “If Hamas has any brains, it will stop.”

On Saturday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman halted all fuel deliveries into the Gaza Strip in response to the violence, which has included near-daily rioting on the border and the launching of incendiary devices into Israel.

“Until violence in the Gaza Strip stops entirely, including the launching of incendiary balloons and the burning of tires near Israeli communities, the supply of fuel and gas to the Gaza Strip will not be renewed,” Liberman said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on October 14, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Yedioth Ahronoth/Pool/Flash90)

The suspension comes just days after a United Nations-brokered a $60 million deal to supply the territory with Qatari-bought fuel came into effect, in a bid to alleviate conditions in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Since March, Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, has orchestrated near-weekly protests along the fence, which have seen repeated violent clashes between Palestinian rioters and IDF troops. Some 155 Palestinians have been killed, according to AP figures; Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the dead were its members.

The protests have also seen Palestinians sending incendiary devices attached to balloons into Israeli territory, sparking fires that have scorched over 7,000 acres of land and caused millions of shekels in damage.

On Friday, Israel said 14,000 Palestinians thronged the border fence areas, burning tires and throwing rocks, firebombs and grenades at soldiers stationed atop earth mounds on the other side of the barrier.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said seven Palestinians were killed in the clashes, and another 140 were injured by live fire.

Israeli trucks carrying diesel fuel enter Kerem Shalom cargo crossing on the Israel-Gaza border, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

In the most serious incident, the IDF said soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Palestinians who blew a hole in the border fence and rushed an army post.

Israel fears further deterioration in Gaza could lead to another war on the southern border, and facilitated the Qatari fuel delivery hoping it would help ease months of protests and clashes.

Both Israel and Egypt enforce restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from arming or building military infrastructure.

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