Multiple arson balloons launched from Gaza; IDF hits Hamas post in response

Multiple arson balloons launched from Gaza; IDF hits Hamas post in response

Balloon attacks follow Tuesday’s incendiaries that sparked a fire, burning grasslands in Eshkol region; IDF says one of its aircraft hit launch area

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

A cluster of balloons carrying what appears to be a cardboard model of a drone that was launched from the Gaza Strip touches down in southern Israel on February 20, 2019. (Eshkol Security)
A cluster of balloons carrying what appears to be a cardboard model of a drone that was launched from the Gaza Strip touches down in southern Israel on February 20, 2019. (Eshkol Security)

Arson balloon attacks continued for a second day on Wednesday, as at least three balloons launched from the Gaza Strip landed in Israel or exploded en route, according to one Gaza-bordering local council.

In response, IDF aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians launching the incendiary devices, the Israeli military said Wednesday evening, calling the target a Hamas post from which the airborne devices were launched.

No injuries were reported in the strikes east of the el-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

A large bundled cluster of balloons carrying a cardboard model of a drone landed in a field in the Eshkol region on Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson for the local council said. It was one of the largest airborne devices to reach Israel from the Palestinian territory in months.

Police sappers were called to remove the drone, the Eshkol spokesperson said.

A short time earlier, another balloon with a suspected explosive device was found in an agricultural field in the Eshkol region, which borders Gaza, the local government said.

Police sappers were called to the scene and removed the device.

Also Wednesday, a balloon from Gaza exploded in the air nearby. It is not clear what caused the airborne explosion, though it appears to have been something other than the balloon itself, as the sound was heard by fieldhands working nearby.

A balloon carrying a suspected explosive device from the Gaza Strip touches down in southern Israel on February 20, 2019. (Eshkol Security)

Earlier, a security guard outside a kindergarten in the village of Amikam shot several bullets at a balloon passing by the kindergarten in an attempt to bring it down before it reached the facility. Police units who reached the scene discovered it was an ordinary balloon and posed no danger to the surroundings.

The spate of arson balloon launches followed a Gazan balloon launch on Tuesday that sparked the first brush fire in southern Israel in months.

The blaze burned grasslands in a wooded area outside the community of Kibbutz Kissufim in the Eshkol region. It was quickly extinguished, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Initially, the Eshkol Regional Council said the cause of the fire was not immediately known, but it was later confirmed to have been sparked by arson devices from Gaza, a fire department spokesperson said.

A second blaze that was sparked in the Eshkol region around the same time was found to have been an intentional controlled burn, and not the result of a Palestinian incendiary device, according to the fire department.

Grasslands burned in a fire sparked by a balloon carrying an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on February 19, 2019. (Fire and Rescue Services)

In addition, a helium-filled condom with a suspected explosive device attached to it was found outside another community in the Eshkol region.

In response to the fire, Eshkol Mayor Gadi Yarkoni called on Israelis to question political candidates about how they planned to combat these airborne arson attacks.

“Currently candidates for the Knesset are making statements, tweeting, attending parlor meetings and conferences, and asking for your votes, I call on voters, all citizens of the State of Israel: Ask them — what are your proposals for Gaza and against the terror of balloons?” Yarkoni said in a statement.

The Tuesday balloon attacks came as dozens of Palestinians took part in riots along the northern border of the Gaza Strip, across from Kibbutz Zikim, the army said.

Demonstrators burned tires, threw rocks at soldiers and attacked the security fence. In one case, rioters attempted to throw an explosive device across the border, but it failed to clear the fence and landed inside Gaza, the military said.

Israeli troops responded with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire.

Palestinians climb the security fence along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, during clashes east of Gaza City, on February 15, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, 20 people were injured in the clashes.

On Monday night, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip also rioted along the border with Israel, throwing dozens of explosive devices at the security fence and apparently sparking false reports of a mortar attack.

At least seven Palestinians were injured by Israeli gunfire in the Monday clashes, according to the Strip’s health ministry.

Monday’s nighttime clashes came a day after an IDF soldier was moderately injured in clashes along the northern Gaza border and two days after an attack lightly wounded a Border Police officer, the army said.

The IDF believes Hamas or the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terror group in Gaza, could attempt to draw Israel into a war by conducting an attack along the border — an anti-tank missile strike, an ambush from an undiscovered tunnel, or a similar psychologically significant attack.

IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, whose tenure began last month, ordered the military to update operational plans for fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Since last March, the Gaza border has seen large-scale weekly clashes on Fridays, smaller protests along the northern Gaza border on Tuesdays, and periodic flareups between the Israeli military and Palestinian terror organizations.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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