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False alarm sounds near border triggered by heavy gunfire

IDF hits targets across Gaza after arson attacks, readies for renewed fighting

Israel threatens fresh campaign as it bombs rocket launchers and Hamas sites after 3rd day of fires sparked by incendiary balloons; Hamas derides ‘theatrics’

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

The Israel launched airstrikes on Hamas targets throughout the Gaza Strip on Thursday night in response to ongoing arson attacks from the enclave, the Israel Defense Forces said. A month after an 11-day conflict raged between Israel and Hamas, with the fragile ceasefire under heavy strain, the army chief ordered the IDF to prepare for a resumption of fighting.

During the Israeli raids, air raid sirens wailed in the Israel community of Kfar Aza near the Gaza border in what the military said was a false alarm, likely triggered by heavy gunfire by Palestinian militants at Israeli aircraft.

At least eight fires were sparked in southern Israel on Thursday, four on Wednesday, and more than two dozen on Tuesday, by balloon-borne incendiary devices launched from the Strip, according to the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services.

According to Palestinian media, one Israeli strike Thursday night targeted a Hamas-controlled building in the Gaza city of Beit Lahiya. Additional strikes were reported on a six-story Hamas-run civil administration building in northern Gaza, a Hamas base near Khan Younis, a site near Gaza City, and agricultural fields allegedly housing underground rocket launchers in southern Gaza. There were no immediate reports of Palestinian casualties.

Confirming it had conducted the strikes, the IDF said the targets included a launchpad near Khan Younis, which could be seen in video footage shared on social media (below), and various other Hamas military sites in the Strip. The military also released its own video footage of the strikes (above).

“The attack was carried out in response to the continued launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli territory,” the military said in a statement.

The attacks were far greater and more forceful than those launched earlier this week in response to similar airborne arson attacks from the Strip and appeared to be the most significant retaliation by Israel to incendiary balloons in the three years since Palestinians began using the tactic.

The raids were also meant to serve as a threat to Hamas of Israel’s willingness to conduct further strikes if attacks persist, officials said.

“Earlier this evening, the chief of staff held a situational assessment in which he ordered a higher level of preparedness and for the IDF to make preparations for a variety of scenarios including a resumption of fighting in response to continued terrorist activities from the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said.

The military added that it held Hamas responsible for all violence coming from the Strip and would “continue to destroy the terror group’s capabilities and infrastructure.”

Hamas meanwhile, dismissed the strikes as Israeli theatrics.

“The occupation bombing of resistance sites is simply meant for show, an attempt by the new government to raise the morale of its soldiers and commanders after it collapsed” in the last round of fighting, said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhum.

He also warned of renewed fighting if Israel “continues to commit idiocies and target our people.”

According to a Channel 13 news report Thursday, an Israeli delegation in Cairo for talks with Egyptian mediators — working to preserve the fragile ceasefire that ended last month’s bout of fighting — has warned that if the balloons continue, Israel could launch a follow-up to the 11-day campaign.

Hamas has repeatedly asserted that the balloons are legitimate “popular action” against Israel and should not be considered a violation of the ceasefire. But Israel rejects such claims, and aims to force Hamas to reconsider the value of its balloon attacks.

For the past three days, terrorists in the Strip have launched balloons carrying incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel, violating  the fragile ceasefire agreement.

After the first day of arson attacks, Israel launched retaliatory strikes on two of Hamas’s positions in the Strip, but it refrained from doing so on Wednesday, after receiving assurances from Egyptian mediators that Hamas would stop the attacks in order to avoid another confrontation.

The balloon-based attacks resumed on Thursday, with at least seven fires started in open areas of the Eshkol region, and another in a field in the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze in southern Israel that was sparked by a balloon-borne incendiary device launched by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, June 15, 2021. (Flash90)

Firefighters, along with IDF units and teams from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, brought the flames under control.

Hamas threatened to attack Israel over the so-called Flag March, a parade by right-wing nationalist Israelis through Jerusalem’s Old City that was held on Tuesday, but the terror group ultimately refrained from firing rockets, though balloons caused 26 blazes in southern border areas that day.

Over three acres of lemon tree fields belonging to Kibbutz Nir Am were burned, along with almost an acre’s worth of clementine trees, according to the Kan public broadcaster. Wheat fields and tangerine orchards were also burned, with over 30 acres of land torched in total.

According to Channel 12 news on Tuesday, Israel also warned Hamas via Egypt that there would be a tough and immediate response to any rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas has reportedly been frustrated by delays in receiving the latest installation of monthly aid it receives from Qatar.

The payment of millions of dollars has not been transferred since last month’s Gaza war, with Israel refusing to allow the money into Gaza until the terror group releases two civilians and two bodies of IDF soldiers that it has been holding captive. Egypt also opposed restarting the Qatari payments, insisting that a new mechanism be used to transfer them to Gaza so that they do not reach Hamas.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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