Israel fires on Gazans launching flaming balloons, breaking short period of calm

Hamas-run health ministry says 2 wounded in strike, the first in the Strip since massive Israeli bombardment on Friday after killing of soldier

A Palestinian prepares a balloon that will be attached to flammable materials and then flown toward Israel near the Israeli-Gazan border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 17, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian prepares a balloon that will be attached to flammable materials and then flown toward Israel near the Israeli-Gazan border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 17, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

An Israeli aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel from the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday evening, the army said, breaking two days of relative calm along the border.

The Hamas-run Gazan health ministry said two people were injured in the strike. It listed the injuries as light to moderate.

An incendiary balloon was discovered earlier in the day in the Eshkol region, though it did not start a fire.

As of 8:45 p.m., there had been no fires in southern Israel sparked by airborne arson devices from Gaza, according to a spokesperson for the Fire and Rescue Services southern division.

Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel would react harshly to any violence coming from Gaza.

“We hit Hamas very hard over the weekend and – if it proves necessary – we will hit them seven-fold,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office

The airstrike was the first in Gaza since Israel hit dozens of Hamas targets on Friday, though tanks struck a pair of observation posts Saturday in response to an attempt to breach the border and an incendiary balloon launch.

The Israeli bombardment came after a Palestinian sniper shot dead an IDF soldier, Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi, 20, along the security fence surrounding the coastal enclave — the first Israeli killed in an attack from Gaza since the 2014 war.

Four Palestinians were killed — three of whom were acknowledged as Hamas fighters.

A fireball exploding in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike, July 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Bashar Taleb)

A ceasefire was reached within hours, with many in Israel seeing the speed with which the agreement was reached and the lack of significant counter-attack by Hamas as a sign that the Gaza-ruling terrorist group was not interested in a new all-out war with the Jewish state.

After the Friday airstrikes, Hamas appears to have believed that Israel was prepared to go to war to stop the incendiary kite and balloon attacks from Gaza, along with the recurring violent protests at the border fence. The terror group assessed that such a conflict — the fourth in 10 years — could mean the end of its rule in Gaza, senior defense officials told the Haaretz newspaper.

Israel said it has no interest in engaging in another war with Hamas, but said it will no longer tolerate the group’s campaign of flying incendiary devices into Israel.

Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced that Israel was prepared to remove the punitive economic measures it put in place earlier this month in response to these “fire kites and balloons,” if the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group stopped the airborne arson attacks.

“Yesterday was one of the calmest days, perhaps, since March 30,” Liberman said. “If that situation continues today and tomorrow as it was yesterday, then, on Tuesday, we will revive the regular procedures and also expand the fishing zone to what it was before.”

The defense minister made his comments at the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the only Israeli crossing for commercial goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, which has been closed to everything but shipments of food, medicine and occasionally fuel since July 9.

Soldiers battle a fire at Kibbutz Nahal Oz sparked by a kite loaded with an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Liberman stressed that calm also meant an end to months of kites and balloons carrying firebombs over the border fence from the Palestinian enclave to burn Israeli farming land.

A senior Israeli diplomatic official told Hebrew-language media that Hamas had vowed to halt airborne arson attacks against Israel going forward. But Hamas sources quoted by Israel Radio on Saturday afternoon denied this.

Nonetheless, Saturday and Sunday saw the fewest launches of arson kites and balloons in weeks.

Adam Rasgon and agencies contributed to this report.

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