Israel strikes Gaza in response to incendiary balloons

Israeli air force launching air strikes on Gaza City on June 16, 2021.
Israeli air force launching air strikes on Gaza City on June 16, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

GAZA CITY, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES (AFP, REUTERS) - The Israeli air force launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip early Wednesday (June 16) after militants in the Palestinian territory sent incendiary balloons into southern Israel, security sources and witnesses said.

The airstrikes and balloons marked the first major flare-up between Israel and Gaza since a ceasefire on May 21 ended 11 days of heavy fighting that killed 260 Palestinians, according to Gaza authorities, and 13 people in Israel, the police and army there said.

According to Palestinian sources, Israel's air force targeted at least one site east of the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.

An AFP photojournalist in Khan Younis saw the explosions.

The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked Hamas armed compounds in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis and was "ready for all scenarios, including renewed fighting in the face of continued terrorist acts emanating from Gaza".

The strikes, the military said, came in response to the launching of the balloons, which the Israeli fire brigade reported caused 20 blazes in open fields in communities near the Gaza border.

Around 1,000 apartments, offices and shops were destroyed in the latest round of fighting in May in Gaza, an impoverished enclave of two million controlled by the Hamas Islamist group.

Wednesday's strikes were Israel's first against Gaza since a new coalition government took over on Sunday night, ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power.

A Hamas spokesman, confirming the Israeli attacks, said Palestinians would continue to pursue their "brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites" in Jerusalem.

Hours earlier, thousands of flag-waving Israelis congregated around the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City before heading to Judaism's holy Western Wall, drawing Palestinian anger and condemnation.

The US and UN had called for restraint before the march, which the government of new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had authorised.

Police deployed heavily, blocking roads and firing stun grenades and foam-tipped bullets to remove Palestinians from the main route.

Medics said 33 Palestinians were wounded and police said two officers were injured and 17 people were arrested.

Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it in a move that has not won international recognition, regards the entire city as its capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state that would include the West Bank and Gaza.

Prior to Tuesday's march, Israel beefed up its deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system in anticipation of possible rocket attacks from Gaza.

But as the marchers began to disperse after nightfall in Jerusalem, there was no sign of rocket fire from the enclave.

The procession was originally scheduled for May 10 as part of "Jerusalem Day" festivities that celebrate Israel's capture of East Jerusalem.

At the last minute, that march was diverted away from the Damascus Gate and the Old City's Muslim Quarter, but the move was not enough to dissuade Hamas from firing rockets towards Jerusalem, attacks that set off last month's round of fighting.