Israel strikes Hamas sites in Gaza after renewed arson balloon attacks in south

After incendiary devices spark 2 fires on Friday and Saturday, the military targets a rocket launcher and a weapons factory in Palestinian enclave

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Israeli warplanes struck a Hamas rocket launcher and a weapons factory in the Gaza Strip Saturday night in response to a wave of arson balloon attacks launched at Israel from the coastal enclave over the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Amid the strikes, Gaza-based terror group members fired machine guns toward southern Israel, which did not set off alerts, according to the military. Palestinian media reports said the gunfire was aimed at Israeli aircraft. There were no reports of injuries or damage from the gunfire.

The army said in a statement that the targeted site in the airstrike was used by the terror organization to manufacture weapons, and released an infographic showing its location.

“The strikes were made in response to the arson balloons fired towards Israeli territory. The IDF will continue to respond firmly against terror attempts from the Gaza Strip,” the army said.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry said there were no casualties in the Israeli airstrikes.

The incendiary balloons launched from Gaza on Saturday sparked one fire near a town along the southern border, on the second day of such attacks since the military last struck targets in Gaza, in response to previous arson balloon attacks on southern Israel.

Between Thursday night and early Friday morning, Israeli warplanes bombed a Hamas weapons factory in Gaza, in response to at least four fires caused by incendiary balloons on Thursday.

An image released by the IDF showing a Hamas site targeted in airstrikes on July 3, 2021 after incendiary balloon devices spark fires in southern Israel. (IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

Thursday’s fires broke more than two weeks of quiet since the last wave of arson attacks.

In June, arson balloons launched by Hamas operatives caused some 20 fires in Israeli communities near Gaza. Israel Defense Forces planes struck a wide range of Hamas military targets throughout the Gaza Strip, responding to the attacks in less than a day.

The response by the new government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, indicated a shift in policy from the previous one, which did not always respond to arson balloon attacks with airstrikes.

Last month’s arson balloons and counterstrikes were the first since the 11-day war that Israel fought against Gaza terror groups in May. They took place amid Israel’s decision to allow far-right activists to proceed with a flag march through the Old City of Jerusalem, which Palestinian groups branded as a provocation.

Supporters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group prepare balloon-borne incendiary devices to launch toward Israel, east of Gaza City, on June 15, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

For the past three years, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, mostly linked to Hamas and other terror groups, have launched thousands of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices into southern Israel, causing widespread fires and significant damage to agricultural fields, nature reserves, and private property.

Hamas has used the launching of incendiary devices to pressure Israel to move ahead with reconstruction efforts in the Strip.

Bennett, who replaced former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 13, had long urged a tougher response to arson balloons, saying in previous years that they should be treated the same as rockets, and that attacks on southern Israel should receive the same response as attacks targeting central Israel.

In 2018, for instance, Bennett — then the education minister — called for the IDF to try to kill all those launching attack balloons from Gaza, a proposal that was opposed by then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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