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Analysis

Message in a balloon: Hamas threatens violence unless Israel allows Qatari aid

Amid now-resolved dispute over delayed entrance of Doha-purchased fuel into Gaza, terror group gives apparent approval for arson attacks along the border

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Masked Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists prepare incendiary balloons east of Gaza city, to launch across the border fence towards Israel on June 15, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Masked Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists prepare incendiary balloons east of Gaza city, to launch across the border fence towards Israel on June 15, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

In the context of the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas have developed several methods of communication to circumvent their official lack of direct contact. One of the terror group’s preferred means of getting a message across to Israel has been balloon-borne incendiary devices.

Since the practice of launching them began in 2018, such arson attacks have come to serve as an initial, limited way of indicating to Israel that Hamas is serious about its demands — now, as in the past, for Qatari aid to enter the Strip — and that it is willing to escalate tensions, potentially to the point of combat, in order to see them fulfilled.

Throughout the day on Sunday several balloons sparked brushfires in southern Israel, which were quickly extinguished by Israeli firefighters.

The balloons are typically not launched directly by Hamas operatives, but by smaller groups on the border. However, as Hamas maintains strict control over the frontier, it has to give at least tacit approval for the arson attacks, if not explicitly order them.

In response, Israel cut the Gaza fishing zone by half, from 12 nautical miles to six, and launched a series of late-night airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Strip.

The Israel Defense Forces said warplanes hit several buildings on a Hamas military base, as well as unspecified “infrastructure and utilities used for activities” of the terror group. It noted the base was located “adjacent to civilian sites, including a school,” without providing details.

According to the Hamas-affiliated al-Resalah newspaper, Israeli planes bombed areas west of Gaza City, before striking to the east of Khan Younis. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qasim mocked Israel’s airstrikes as a “failed attempt to show its own impotent power and restore its army’s battered image after it was shaken” during the latest round of fighting between the two sides in May.

“The noble resistance is ready to deal with all options, nor will it allow the occupation to impose its equations,” said Qasim, referring to the balance of deterrence between Hamas and Israel.

Bonfires in southern Israel allegedly sparked by incendiary balloons launched by Gaza-based terror groups on Sunday, July 25, 2021. (Credit: Moshe Brochi)

The exchange came amid a delay in the entry of Qatari-purchased fuel into Gaza on Sunday — it was allowed in on Monday morning, according to Israel — and wider frustration within Hamas over Israel’s refusal to allow in greater quantities of reconstruction materials and aid money following the 11-day conflict between Israel and terror groups in the Strip.

Israel has refused to allow major reconstruction of the Gaza Strip beyond what Defense Minister Benny Gantz has described as “basic humanitarian aid” levels unless Hamas returns Israeli civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed and the remains of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who have been held captive by the terror group in the Strip.

“The Hamas terror group in Gaza needs to understand: We are determined. If Hamas wants reconstruction and economic development, the time has come that it takes concrete steps to maintain the calm, to halt the rearmament and to return the boys home,” Gantz said last month.

Under its policy, Israel initially restricted imports to Gaza to only the most critical humanitarian aid, like food, fuel and medicine, but expanded them during times of calm to include raw materials for certain critical industries in Gaza, notably textiles. Israel was reportedly planning another such easing of its blockade on Gaza for this week, prior to the balloon attacks.

The United Nations and the United States oppose the policy, arguing that Israel should separate the issue of Gaza reconstruction from the captives.

Israel and Hamas have for years been conducting indirect negotiations in Cairo — with the UN and Egypt, among others, acting as go-betweens — in an attempt to strengthen the fragile ceasefire between them. But when an impasse is reached, Hamas routinely tries to break through by ramping up pressure with low-level attacks on the border.

Thus, as Israel seeks to establish a new normal in Gaza by limiting the type of material, aid and goods that can enter the Strip, as a form of pressure for the return of the civilians and fallen soldiers, balloon types of attacks will likely persist.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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