Liberman accuses Hamas of sending kids to launch incendiary balloons from homes

Defense minister says Israel should stop targeting ‘pawns’ and instead hit those giving them orders; justifies freeze on fuel shipments into Gaza

Illustrative: Incendiary balloons are flown toward Israel during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops east of Gaza City, along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, on July 13, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Illustrative: Incendiary balloons are flown toward Israel during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops east of Gaza City, along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, on July 13, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday accused the Hamas terror group of sending children to launch incendiary balloons from their homes in the Gaza Strip, saying Israel would “act accordingly.”

Liberman said Jerusalem would adopt a new policy in dealing with the flaming balloons and kites that have been routinely sent flying over the border in recent months, burning large swaths of land in Israeli territory.

“The kite operators are launching them from homes, and deliberately sending small children,” the defense minister told reporters. “We are forced to make our considerations. We need to target those who send the balloon launchers, not the pawns.”

In recent days, balloons have been found farther and farther from the Gaza Strip, landing as far away as the southern city of Beersheba.

Liberman also justified his decision Wednesday to freeze all fuel and gas shipments into Gaza through the main goods crossing into the Palestinian enclave until further notice.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference on July 19, 2018. (Flash90)

Israeli officials said Wednesday the closure of the Kerem Shalom Crossing would continue until further notice, as firefighters battled seven brush fires near the Gaza border caused by incendiary balloons, according to fire and rescue officials.

“We don’t intend to play ping-pong with the Strip,” he said. “There was an Egyptian request and we accepted it; we made half a step and enabled gas and fuel shipments [last week]. But there was a commitment by Egypt that there wouldn’t be any tensions on the border fence. Since these things are continuing, I decided to also close the Strip to gas and fuel.

“Until the kite terrorism and the tensions at the fence completely stop, that is what will be left — food and medicine,” Liberman warned. “I hope the public will pressure the Hamas leadership to understand that there are far better alternatives to only having electricity four hours a day. Rehabilitation will only happen in exchange for demilitarization.”

Israel closed the crossing on July 9 in response to ongoing violence from Gaza, mostly in the form of constant airborne arson attacks via kites and balloons bearing incendiary devices, regular riots along the security fence and occasional mortar and rocket fire.

Trucks are seen at the gate of the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main passage point for goods entering Gaza, in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, on July 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Initially, only food, medical supplies and fuel were allowed through. On July 16, Israel further limited the transfer of goods through the crossing, halting the flow of gas and diesel fuel into the Strip and sparking concerns that the move could have a severe impact on the coastal enclave’s already-strained hospitals. Then, at Egypt’s request, fuel was allowed in starting July 24.

The Gaza Strip has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that the two countries say is meant to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the Strip, as it has often attempted to do.

Since March 30, southern Israel has experienced many fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons. Over 7,000 acres of land has been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Over the past two weeks, Liberman and other Israeli officials have signaled that Israel is prepared to go to war in order to stop the day-to-day violence along the Gaza border.

An illustrative photo of a firefighter extinguishing a fire in a field near the Gaza Strip that was sparked by a flaming object flown from the Palestinian enclave, on June 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman made his Thursday remarks during a visit to the Patriot missile battery in northern Israel that was used to shoot down a Syrian fighter jet that entered Israeli airspace.

On Monday, the Syrian government regained control of the frontier with the Israeli Golan Heights for the first time in seven years, after Islamic State-linked jihadists gave up their last pocket of territory in the area. The breakthrough capped a six-week-long bloody campaign to retake the southwest corner of the country.

Addressing the tensions near Israel’s northern border, Liberman said that “as far as we are concerned, the situation is returning to what was before the [Syrian] civil war, meaning there is a clear address, accountability and a central leadership.”

“It is in [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s interest that the situation stays as it was before the civil war,” Liberman warned. “He too understands what happens if it doesn’t. We hope nobody will try us. We are not looking for friction, but we will know how to respond to any provocation and challenge, from Syria and Lebanon, and also from Gaza.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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