A suspected balloon-borne explosive device, apparently launched from the Gaza Strip, landed in an Israeli Air Force base in southern Israel on Monday, as Israel’s defense minister threatened to ratchet up retaliatory strikes over an ongoing stream of airborne arson attacks from the Palestinian enclave.
A police sapper was called to the scene to neutralize the device, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Throughout the day, balloons carrying incendiary devices sparked at least 36 fires in southern Israel. A number of other suspected explosive devices also landed in the area, forcing the surrounding areas to be closed off until sappers could safely remove them. These suspected bombs launched were found in the town of Sderot and in a community south of the city of Ashkelon, police said.
Airborne arson attacks also caused 28 fires on Sunday, and 35 fires the day before, according to the fire department.
Later on Monday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz threatened to step up Israeli retaliations if these balloon-based attacks from the Gaza Strip persisted. Israel has seen hundreds of fires sparked by suspected balloons lofted from Gaza over the past month, as well as over a dozen rocket attacks and sniper fire, raising tensions on the border.
“The heads of Hamas need to know: When balloons explode on our side, the explosions on their side will be much more painful,” Gantz said, during a visit to an Iron Dome anti-missile battery in southern Israel.
The defense minister visited the battery alongside the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Air Defense Division, Brig. Gen. Ran Kochav.
“I am here at one of the air defense sites deployed in the south. Everyone is doing a great job protecting the southern communities and Israel’s air space. We are unwilling to accept any rockets, any explosive balloons or any defense violation. As long as it lasts – we will continue to act and continue to respond,” Gantz said.
According to Fire and Rescue Services, the 36 blazes sparked on Monday were all brought under control by firefighters, soldiers, volunteers, teams from the Jewish National Fund, security coordinators for local communities and — in some cases — firefighting aircraft from the Israeli Air Force.
“Most of the fires were small and did not present a threat [to nearby communities],” the fire department said.
Fire inspectors investigated the 36 blazes that occurred in the Eshkol and Sha’ar Hanegev regions adjacent to the Gaza Strip and determined that they were caused by balloon-borne incendiary devices, according to Fire and Rescue Services.
The IDF has conducted near-nightly reprisal raids on Hamas targets in the Strip, bombing underground infrastructure, weapons production facilities, cement factories used to make parts for tunnels, and observation posts along the border.
In the predawn hours of Monday morning, Israeli warplanes and tanks attacked Hamas targets in Gaza in response to the balloon-based arson attacks launched against Israel the day before, the army said.
The IDF said it attacked “military posts and underground infrastructure of the Hamas terror group in southern Gaza.”
Israel has also shuttered its only commercial crossing into the Gaza Strip, allowing only food, medication and humanitarian aid. Israel has also closed the fishing zone around the coastal enclave.
At least one fishermen who attempted to break the ban was fired upon by Israeli forces, a security source confirmed to The Times of Israel. So far no injuries have been reported.
On Monday, a coalition of Gaza-based terror groups threatened to attack Israeli forces if the ban on fishing — a major industry in the Strip — continued.
“We will not allow the enemy to behave horribly towards our people’s fishermen and encroach upon their livelihoods and rob them. We will defend them and work to protect them,” said the so-called Joint Operations Room.
Earlier on Monday, the London-based Arabic-language daily, Asharq al-Awsat, reported that the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, was visiting Qatar this week in a bid to secure a ceasefire agreement with the Hamas terror group.
According to the newspaper, Halevi led a delegation to Doha that included a number of other senior officials from the military, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, and the National Security Council. They were tasked with setting terms for a ceasefire deal that would be presented to Hamas’s leadership in Qatar, including the head of the terror group’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh.
The IDF refused to comment on the report.
Hamas is under immense international pressure from Qatar, Egypt, and UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov to halt its attacks, alongside pressure from the Gazan public, which is getting only three to four hours of electricity per day after becoming used to more than three times that amount, after Israel ended fuel imports in response to the violence.
The uptick in violence along the border is thought to be linked to demands for increased cash transfers from Qatar into the Strip, where around 60 percent of the population is unemployed.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.