Israeli helicopter gunships and tanks attacked at least three sites in the Gaza Strip early Wednesday in response to a rash of airborne arson attacks that sparked more than 60 fires in Israel, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The IDF said its forces targeted “a military base, underground infrastructure and observation posts belonging to the Hamas terror group.”
The Hamas-linked Al-Resalah news said Israeli aircraft fired several missiles at “agricultural land” east of Rafah in southern Gaza, and two Hamas observation posts in central Gaza were shelled.
There was no immediate reports of casualties.
The IDF said the strikes were in response to the arson attacks over the last week and noted that Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the territory.
The strikes came hours after Israeli leaders threatened Gaza’s Hamas rulers that Israel would take “forceful” action if the airborne arson attacks were not brought under control.
Balloon-borne incendiary devices launched from the Gaza Strip sparked at least 60 fires in southern Israel throughout the day, according to firefighters. Officials said most were small fires, but some caused damage.
Tensions on the Gaza border have intensified in recent days, with balloon-borne incendiary devices igniting a number of fires across southern Israel. The Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip, has also threatened to renew rocket fire and there have been a number of small fire exchanges. No injuries have been reported.
“In the south, Hamas is allowing the continued launching arson and explosive-carrying balloons into Israel,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during a tour of a Home Front command center. “We are not prepared to accept that and we closed the Kerem Shalom crossing as a result. They would do well to stop disturbing the security and quiet in Israel. If that doesn’t happen, we will need to respond, and forcefully.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also took a threatening tone as he toured the Hazor air force base in the center of the country, accusing Iran of being behind the Gaza balloon attacks.
“I want to say to all of Iran’s forces, including in Gaza, there will be a very heavy price for the balloon terror,” Netanyahu said. “We will not suffer this, we will act and exact a heavy price. We have done it in the past and we will do it now.”
The comment appeared to be a reference to the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad terror group. While Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from the Strip, it has also increasingly targeted Islamic Jihad over the last year.
Authorities said they were battling a large blaze in the Eshkol region, near the Gaza border, forcing the evacuation of a number of Bedouin families living in the area.
A number of smaller fires were also reported in the area Tuesday morning, and Monday saw over a dozen blazes ignited by suspected Gazan balloons, as well as reports of possible balloon-borne bombs exploding over the city of Sderot.
In response to the fires, Israel announced Monday it was shutting the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing into Gaza, halting all goods but fuel, humanitarian products and food.
On Tuesday Hamas called the closure of the commercial crossing an aggressive action and a crime for which the Jewish state “bears all consequences and repercussions.”
Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoun said the “use of tools and forms of struggle to express a state of anger” is a natural result of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The practice of launching balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Gaza Strip toward Israel has waxed and waned over the past two years, with an uptick since the end of last week.
Gantz, who is also alternate prime minister and was IDF chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war, has previously urged taking a sterner hand to deter balloon and other attacks from Gaza, though without specifying what action he recommends.
Gantz was reviewing work to set up a command center to oversee the army’s efforts in combating the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The military is to be given responsibility for epidemiological tracing and contacting those who may have been exposed to virus carriers. The center is to come online in the coming days.
Also on Tuesday evening, the IDF issued a denial of Palestinian media reports that claimed Israeli soldiers fired toward a group of young Palestinian men in al-Bureij camp in the central Gaza Strip.
Hamas-linked Safa News published undated footage of the incident, showing the balloon launchers crouching on the ground as gunshots could be heard in the background.
The Kan public broadcaster later aired footage of a laser system to intercept the balloons that was deployed near the Gaza border. It was unclear whether the system would be immediately operational.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 11, 2020
Leaders of communities near the Palestinian enclave have demanded the government and military take action to stem the launches.
“We have no deterrence against Gaza. A Palestinian who wants to launch a balloon ought to think 100 times before doing so but he does not think even once because he knows there won’t be a firm reaction,” said Ofer Lieberman, the agriculture director at Kibbutz Nir Am near the Gaza frontier.
Israel has in the past launched air strikes against suspected balloon launchers, though the military, already dealing with a threat on the northern border, appears to be wary of allowing violence on the Gaza border to snowball.
While the Israeli government has said that it holds Hamas responsible for any and all violence from the Gaza Strip, rights groups call Israel’s practice of shutting border crossings with Gaza a form of collective punishment.
Rights group Gisha released a statement Tuesday calling the closure “inappropriate and illegal,” while also condemning the balloon attacks.
Kerem Shalom is the only commercial crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Tensions along the Gaza border have risen over the past week, reportedly due to delays in the implementation of an ongoing ceasefire agreement between the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group and the Israeli government.
Reports Tuesday said Israel was working to get Qatar to continue sending cash to Gaza in a bid to east tensions with Hamas.
Agencies contributed to this report.