Israel strikes Gaza for 3rd straight night after balloons start 100 fires

Israel strikes Gaza for 3rd straight night after balloons start 100 fires

Government reportedly conveys message that Qatari aid won’t be allowed into Strip as long as attacks by terror groups continue

Illustrative: A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli airstrike at Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, after Palestinian terrorists fired two rockets toward Israel, June 27, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Illustrative: A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli airstrike at Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, after Palestinian terrorists fired two rockets toward Israel, June 27, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Israel launched airstrikes against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for the third night in a row early Friday, the military said, as the government was said to be planning to step up its response to a spate of attacks using balloon-borne arson and explosive devices launched from the Strip into Israel in recent days.

The overnight attack on sites used by Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the enclave, was the fourth such operation since the start of the week.

It came just hours after Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize ties in a landmark US-brokered deal. That agreement has been strongly rejected by the Palestinians, who called it a “betrayal” of their cause, including their claim to Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The Israel Defense Forces said a Hamas aerial defense post, observation posts and underground infrastructures had been hit on Friday. There were no reports of casualties.

“Over the last week, explosive and arson balloons have been launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” the army said in a statement. “In response, a short while ago, IDF fighter jets, attack helicopters and tanks struck a number of Hamas military targets in the Gaza Strip.”

A similar attack the previous night caused no reported casualties but was said to have left an unexploded missile inside a UN-run school compound in a refugee camp.

Dozens of blazes have been reported this week in southern Israel, as makeshift firebombs attached to bunches of balloons or kites set agricultural fields and brush alight.

Israeli workers from the Nature and Parks Authority try to extinguish a fire caused by an incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip, near Kibbutz Be’eri, on August 13, 2020. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

According to the Israel Fire and Rescue Service, 21 blazes were started Thursday by the Gazan attacks, compared with 24 on Wednesday and 60 on Tuesday. It was the eighth day in a row that fires broke out in southern Israel as a result of the incendiary balloons.

The total number of reported fires this week is now more than 100. Officials said most were small fires, but some caused damage.

The Haaretz daily reported Friday that Israel has been sending a message that it won’t allow the transfer of a monthly sum of $30 million from Qatar to Gaza unless the spate of incendiary balloon attacks doesn’t stop.

The report, which did not cite a source, added that the Qatari envoy himself is “not thrilled” to go to the Strip until the escalation is over.

Palestinian analysts say attacks from Gaza often aim to pressure Israel to give the green light for the transfer of the Qatari financial aid into the Strip.

Terror groups in the Strip have threatened additional violence if there are delays in the implementation of an unofficial ceasefire with Israel, notably the distribution of Qatari aid money. The head of the Mossad reportedly visited Doha last week to convince the country to continue delivering the funds to Gaza.

In March, Qatar agreed to a Hamas request to extend the payments for an additional six months. But with those transfers slated to expire next month and Qatar mired in the economic ramifications of the pandemic along with the rest of the world, Hamas is reportedly concerned that the payments will cease in September.

On Monday, Hamas fired several rockets into the sea as a warning “message” to Israel, a source close to the terror group told AFP.

Gaza-based media said that airstrikes early Thursday were the most intense response by Israel in the most recent bout of tit-for-tat fire.

Hamas on Thursday condemned Israel’s strikes and sanctions as “dangerous and aggressive behavior,” warning of “consequences” the Jewish state will bear.

In response to the attacks, Israel has already closed its cargo crossing with Gaza and also reduced the territory’s permitted coastal fishing zone.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device float in the air upon release by Palestinians near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, by the Israel-Gaza border fence, on August 12, 2020. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday morning approved barring fuel imports to Gaza following overnight consultations.

Gantz made the decision following recommendations by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, security officials, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians.

“Hamas will have to bear the consequences of the violence committed against the citizens of the State of Israel,” COGAT said in a statement announcing the move.

In 2018, amid weeks of sporadic clashes along the Israel-Gaza border during the so-called Great March of Return protests, Israel suspended the import of fuel multiple times.

On Monday, Israel closed the Kerem Shalom border crossing on the Israel-Gaza border to commercial traffic with exceptions for fuel, food and humanitarian goods.

Fires in southern Israel on August 11, 2020. (Eshkol Regional Council)

On Wednesday, Israel slashed Gaza’s permitted fishing zone in response to the balloon attacks. COGAT said the fishing zone would be halved from 15 nautical miles to eight in response to the balloon attacks.

The restriction on the Gaza fishing zone would remain in place “until further notice,” COGAT said.

Israel has in the past used fishing zone restrictions as a punitive measure against Gaza following attacks or border riots, though critics say the policy is a form of collective punishment borne mostly by people unconnected to the border tensions.

The Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday aired footage of a laser system to intercept the balloons that was deployed near the Gaza border. It was unclear when the system would be used operationally.

Egypt has opened its border crossing for the first time in months this week, relieving some pressure on the Strip. According to Gaza-based journalist Hussein Islayh, 55 tons of cement had been planned to arrive through the Rafah crossing on Thursday.

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.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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