IDF fires at 2 Gaza cells launching incendiary balloons

3 Palestinians reportedly injured in initial strike, 1 in second; incident comes amid increase in number of devices launched from Strip

This picture from March 22, 2019, shows balloons carrying a make-shift drone-shaped object flying over the border with Israel east of Gaza City, after it was launched by Palestinians during clashes along the security fence. (Said Khatib/AFP)
This picture from March 22, 2019, shows balloons carrying a make-shift drone-shaped object flying over the border with Israel east of Gaza City, after it was launched by Palestinians during clashes along the security fence. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The Israeli military said on Saturday its aircraft launched a pair of strikes at Palestinian cells flying incendiary balloons from the southern Gaza Strip into Israel.

“IDF aircraft attacked a short time ago a terror cell that launched balloons rigged with explosives from southern Gaza toward Israeli territory,” the military said in a statement Saturday afternoon. A subsequent statement said “an additional terror cell” was struck.

Three Palestinians were injured in the initial strike, according to reports, and one was said injured in the second strike. Images on social media showed a motorcycle said to have been damaged by Israeli fire.

Recent weeks have seen an uptick of incendiary balloons launched from the coastal enclave, after a drop-off in attacks following an unofficial truce between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group in November.

The launch of incendiary and explosive devices into Israel tied to kites and helium-filled balloons became a common tactic in violent protests along the Gaza border over the past year, burning thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves, and killing livestock and other animals.

No Israelis have been injured by the recent balloon attacks, though damage was caused to a home in the Eshkol region last month.

Saturday’s strike came a day after several thousand Palestinians took part in violent protests on the Gaza-Israel border, throwing explosive devices and rocks at Israeli soldiers who responded with tear gas and occasional live fire. Palestinians said two people were killed.

Also Friday, a balloon carrying an incendiary device launched from Gaza set a blaze between homes in the nearby Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am. The fire was extinguished and there were no reports of injuries. Another blaze was started near Kibbutz Be’eri.

In riots along the barrier Friday, Palestinians tried to destroy the border fence in several places, but were pushed back by the Israeli soldiers. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said two Palestinians, an 18-year-old and a 29-year-old, were killed by live fire, and 55 were wounded.

The border clashes are part of the “March of Return” protests, a series of regular demonstrations and violent riots along the border fence that have been held since March 30, 2018.

Israel says the demonstrations are orchestrated by Hamas, which vocally supports them, sending free buses to the border and providing food and internet to participants — as well as money for those injured in them — in order to provide a cover for the organization’s nefarious activities along the security fence, including infiltration attempts, the planting of explosives and attacks on Israeli soldiers.

Their organizers have said the protests aim to achieve the “return” of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now part of Israel, and pressure the Jewish state to lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave.

Israeli officials hold that the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character. They also maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip.

Last week was the first time in nearly a year that there were no Gaza protests.

Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, is planning a major march on Saturday, March 30 to mark one year since the start of the protests, amid Israeli concerns over potential major violence.

Palestinians wave Palestinian flags as they try to climb the security fence on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, east of Gaza City, on March 22, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

On Thursday, an Israeli tank struck a Hamas military post in the southern Gaza Strip, hours after an airborne explosive device apparently launched from the Palestinian enclave exploded in Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces said the tank strike was in response to “exceptional” violent rioting by Palestinians along the border fence, as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and explosive devices toward Israel throughout the day.

Israel as a policy holds Hamas responsible for all violence coming from Gaza, which the Islamist terror group seized from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in a violent coup in 2007.

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