Police sappers called in Ashkelon as suspected balloon-borne bomb found

Discovery comes hours after sirens sounded in false alarm in Yated, east of the Strip, and a day after mortar shells were fired into southern Israel

Suspected explosive device found attached to balloons in the city of Ashkelon, February 5, 2020 (Israel Police)
Suspected explosive device found attached to balloons in the city of Ashkelon, February 5, 2020 (Israel Police)

Police sappers were scrambled in the coastal city of Ashkelon on Thursday after a suspected explosive device was found tied to a bunch of balloons.

Police called on the public to alert authorities to any suspicious-looking objects and refrain from approaching them.

The past week has seen near-daily rocket and mortar attacks and dozens of balloon-borne explosive devices launched from the Gaza Strip toward southern Israel, generally landing in or near communities closer to the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Rocket sirens blared in the community of Yated in the Eshkol region in southern Israel near the Gaza border earlier on Thursday morning in what the military said was a false alarm, hours after mortar shells were fired toward the area from the Strip, prompting retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets in the enclave.

The military said it was investigating what triggered the false alarm. In the past such incidents have occurred due to explosions or gunfire near the border, which were picked up by Israeli sensors.

Illustrative: Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, November 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

On Wednesday night, Palestinian terrorists in the Strip fired at least two mortar shells at southern Israel, which apparently struck an open field in southern Israel. No damage or injuries were reported.

Shortly after midnight, Israeli aircraft responded by hitting Hamas tunnel infrastructure in southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces said, adding that this was in response to both the mortar attack and to a number of balloon-borne explosive devices that were flown into southern Israel from Gaza throughout Wednesday.

“We understand that Hamas is letting these things happen in the past few weeks, especially with the balloons, as well as looking the other way while others fire rockets and mortar shells,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said Thursday.

Israeli defense officials believe that the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group is trying to increase pressure on Israel in a bid to extract greater concessions in ongoing ceasefire negotiations.

Zilberman said the IDF was using a combination of both military strikes and civil sanctions to counter these near-daily attacks.

“We won’t allow this situation with the balloons to continue,” he said.

Zilberman said the overnight airstrikes targeted one piece of underground infrastructure in Gaza City and a logistic tunnel in southern Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on January 19, 2020. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told some municipal leaders in the Gaza area that Israel could launch extensive military operations in the Palestinian enclave — before the upcoming Knesset elections if necessary — should Palestinian terrorists continue firing rockets and launching balloon-borne explosive devices at southern Israel.

Netanyahu told the council chairmen that while Israel was making significant efforts to ensure calm in the area, the military was ready for an operation in Gaza if needed, according to Hebrew media reports.

The prime minister only met with southern municipal leaders who are members of his Likud party, sparking fury among the mayors who were not invited to the meeting.

Earlier Wednesday, the Israeli military announced it was reducing the size of the Gaza fishing zone by a third in light of the continued rocket fire and arson attacks.

“Following security consultations, it has been decided today (Wednesday), to restrict the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip from 15 nautical miles to 10 nautical miles, starting from 4 p.m. until further notice,” the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians — known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — said in a statement.

Israel routinely restricts the Gaza fishing zone in response to terrorist activities in the Strip, which some human rights groups decry as a form of collective punishment.

Suspected explosive device connected to a bunch of inflated latex gloves flown from Gaza, February 5, 2020 (Israel Police)

The military most recently imposed limits on the fishing area in December following a rocket attack from the Strip.

In a video posted to social media, staff at a kindergarten in the south of the country rushed children were heard rushing children to safety on Wednesday as they spotted a suspected bomb-carrying balloon from the Gaza Strip floating toward their play area.

Tensions between Israel and Gaza have been steadily rising over the past two weeks, after several months of relative calm following a major round of fighting in November. Fears have mounted in recent days of an escalation of violence in Gaza and the West Bank following the release last week of a US peace plan that is seen as heavily favoring Israel.

In one of the rocket attacks last week, a 3 -week-old Israeli infant was seriously injured after she was accidentally dropped as her mother ran into a bomb shelter.

In response to the launches, all of which have struck open fields in southern Israel, the IDF has conducted airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.

Late last month a senior Hamas official said the recent uptick in number of  balloons was a signal to Israel to accelerate unofficial “understandings” meant to ease the blockade on the territory ruled by the terror group.

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