Israeli warplanes and tanks attacked Hamas targets in southern Gaza early Tuesday after terrorists in Gaza sent dozens of incendiary balloons toward Israel, sparking at least 36 fires in towns bordering the coastal enclave.
The Israel Defense Forces said it hit Hamas military posts and underground infrastructure in response to the balloon attacks.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
On Monday, a senior Hamas official told the pro-Hamas channel Palestine Today that the surge in violence would continue until their demands on lifting the blockade were met.
“It is our right to break this siege,” Ismail Radwan said.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade on Gaza since Hamas ousted the Palestinian Authority in 2007, in order to prevent it importing weapons for attacking Israel and material used to construct fortifications and underground tunnels. Israel also frequently tightens restrictions in response to violence from the Strip.
Also Monday, four members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were killed in an apparent bomb-making accident in the Gaza Strip.
After explosions were reported in a PIJ military wing compound in the northern Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, Palestinian media initially attributed the explosions to Israeli Air Force strikes. But Hebrew media, citing Israeli security officials, denied any Israeli connection to the incident, adding that it appeared to have been a “work accident.”
The terror group subsequently announced that four of its fighters, Iyad Jamal al-Jidi, Muataz Amir al-Mubid, Yahya Fareed al-Mubid and Yaaqoub Zaydieh were killed in the blast during “preparations to remove the criminal entity from our occupied land.”
In recent days the IDF has responded to the dozens of arson balloons and intermittent rocket fire with near-nightly reprisal raids on Hamas targets in the Strip, bombing underground infrastructure, weapons production facilities, cement factories used to make parts for tunnels, and observation posts along the border.
The situation in the Gaza Strip was poised to become even more volatile as Hamas announced Monday that it had identified four new cases of the coronavirus, the first not caught in the quarantine centers located along the border of the coastal enclave for those entering the Strip.
Unsure how the four family members managed to contract the virus, Hamas declared a 48 hour lockdown over the entire enclave in an effort to identify the source of the outbreak and contain it.
The 36 fires caused by airborne arson attacks in southern Israel on Monday followed 28 others on Sunday and 35 fires the day before, according to the fire department.
Earlier on Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened to step up Israeli retaliations if the balloon-based attacks from the Gaza Strip persisted. Israel has seen hundreds of fires sparked by suspected balloons lofted from Gaza over the past month, as well as over a dozen rocket attacks and sniper fire, raising tensions on the border.
“The heads of Hamas need to know: When balloons explode on our side, the explosions on their side will be much more painful,” Gantz said, during a visit to an Iron Dome anti-missile battery in southern Israel.
Israel has also shuttered its only commercial crossing into the Gaza Strip, allowing only food, medication and humanitarian aid. Israel has also closed the fishing zone around the coastal enclave.
On Monday, a coalition of Gaza-based terror groups threatened to attack Israeli forces if the ban on fishing — a major industry in the Strip — continued.
“We will not allow the enemy to behave horribly towards our people’s fishermen and encroach upon their livelihoods and rob them. We will defend them and work to protect them,” said the so-called Joint Operations Room.
Earlier on Monday, the London-based Arabic-language daily, Asharq al-Awsat, reported that the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, was visiting Qatar this week in a bid to secure a ceasefire agreement with the Hamas terror group.
According to the newspaper, Halevi led a delegation to Doha that included a number of other senior officials from the military, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, and the National Security Council. They were tasked with setting terms for a ceasefire deal that would be presented to Hamas’s leadership in Qatar, including the head of the terror group’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh.
The IDF refused to comment on the report.
Hamas is under immense international pressure from Qatar, Egypt, and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov to halt its attacks, alongside pressure from the Gazan public, which is getting only three to four hours of electricity per day after becoming used to more than three times that amount, after Israel ended fuel imports in response to the violence.
The uptick in violence along the border is thought to be linked to demands for increased cash transfers from Qatar into the Strip, where around 60 percent of the population is unemployed.
Judah Ari Gross and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.