Israel strikes Gaza again in retaliation for fire balloons

Latest flare-up piles pressure on fragile truce which ended 11 days of heavy fighting in May

GAZA CITY • Israeli jets have launched fresh air strikes on Gaza after militants in the Palestinian territory again sent incendiary balloons into southern Israel, the army and AFP journalists said.

The fire balloons and air strikes overnight on Thursday are the latest violence heaping pressure on a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers that came into place on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting.

"Over the past day, arson balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory," Israel's military said in a statement.

"In response... fighter jets struck military compounds and a rocket launch site belonging to the Hamas terror organisation."

AFP journalists in the Palestinian enclave also reported hearing explosions, which the army said hit sites in both Gaza City and Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza, home to some two million people.

Soon after the strikes, Hamas militants opened fire with heavy machines guns towards the Jewish state, as Israeli warning air raid sirens rang out.

Palestinian militants in Gaza launched balloons for a third day running on Thursday, according to Israeli firefighters battling the blazes sparked by the devices.

The balloons are basic devices intended to set fire to farmland and bush surrounding Gaza.

After the first wave of fire bombs sparked blazes on Tuesday, Israel's military launched a retaliatory wave of strikes early on Wednesday. Then, as the balloons continued, the air force launched a second round of strikes overnight Thursday to yesterday.

This week's air strikes on Gaza were the first under Israel's new government headed by Mr Naftali Bennett, whose ideologically disparate coalition on Sunday ousted long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel army chief Aviv Kohavi gave orders late on Thursday to "increase the IDF's (Israeli Defence Forces) readiness and preparedness for a variety of scenarios including a resumption of hostilities", the army statement read.

"The IDF will continue to strike military capabilities and infrastructure belonging to the terror organisation, and holds the Hamas as responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip," it added.

The new exchanges of fire come as Egypt tries to consolidate the ceasefire it helped broker.

The conflict killed 260 Palestinians including some fighters, according to Gaza authorities. In Israel, 13 people were killed, including a soldier, by rockets fired from Gaza, the police and army said.

Egypt and the United Nations are hoping to support the reconstruction of Gaza following a war that saw whole tower blocks reduced to smoking rubble and key infrastructure smashed.

The densely crowded Mediterranean enclave has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007.

Israeli army chief Kohavi is due to visit the United States today for talks. He is the first top Israeli official to do so since Mr Bennett's coalition took office on Sunday.

Mr Kohavi will visit the US military's Central Command in Florida, with items on the agenda to include Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas and Israel's arch foe Iran, as well as Hizbollah, the Teheran-backed Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim group.

He will also discuss "common security challenges", an army statement said, including issues "related to the Iranian nuclear threat, Iranian regional entrenchment in the Middle East, (and) Hizbollah's force build-up efforts".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2021, with the headline 'Israel strikes Gaza again in retaliation for fire balloons'. Subscribe