Israel strikes Hamas sites over fire balloons, after ‘March of Flags’
GAZA/TEL AVIV – Israeli aircraft struck Hamas sites in Gaza on Wednesday after incendiary balloons were launched from the Palestinian enclave in the first such attacks since a fragile ceasefire ended 11 days of deadly fighting last month.
The violence poses an early test for the government of new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose patchwork coalition came to power on Sunday on a pledge to focus on socioeconomic issues and avoid sensitive policy choices towards the Palestinians.
An Egyptian-mediated truce that halted fighting between Israel and Gaza militants did not immediately appear to be threatened by the flare-up, with the overnight Israeli airstrikes giving way to calm by morning.
Al Arabiya TV channel reported Wednesday that the Bennett government called on Egypt to help keep the situation under control.
There were no reports of casualties on either side.
The overnight violence follows a march in East Jerusalem on Tuesday by Jewish ultra-nationalists that had drawn threats of action by Hamas, the ruling militant group in Gaza.
Israel’s 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 military said the strikes came in response to the launching of balloons laden with incendiary material, which the Israeli fire brigade reported caused 20 blazes in open fields in communities near the Gaza border.
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.
But analysts suggested Hamas refrained from firing rockets around the march and after the Israeli strikes to avoid an escalation in Gaza, which was devastated by May’s aerial bombardment.
“It (the ceasefire) is very fragile. The current calm may give the Egyptians a chance to try and cement it,” said Talal Okal, an analyst in Gaza.
Israel’s Army Radio reported that Israel had informed Egyptian mediators that direct Hamas involvement in the balloon launch would imperil long-term truce talks. Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report.
— Jerusalem flashpoint —
Hours before the overnight strikes, thousands of Israeli far-right nationalists marched in a flag-waving procession through East Jerusalem on Tuesday, an event that reignited tensions with Palestinians and posed an early challenge to Israel’s new government.
Last month, Israeli-Palestinian confrontations in contested Jerusalem helped trigger 11 days of cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group.
On Tuesday, Israeli police in riot gear and on horseback cordoned off areas leading to the walled Old City’s flashpoint Damascus Gate, clearing the area to Palestinians before the marchers arrived.
Dancing and singing “the people of Israel live”, the crowd of mostly religious Jews, many carrying blue and white Israeli flags, filled the plaza in front of the gate, usually a popular social gathering spot for Palestinians.
Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem in a 1967 war and later annexed it against UN resolutions, 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.
At least 27 Palestinians were injured in clashes in East Jerusalem with Israeli police firing stun grenades, the Palestine Red Crescent ambulance service said.
But the violence was not as extensive as many had feared.
In an apparent effort to avoid friction with Palestinians during the march, a police-charted route kept participants from going through the Damascus Gate, the main entry to the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and home to shrines sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The marchers took a more peripheral route instead to Judaism’s sacred Western Wall, singing nationalist songs that echoed in alleyways where Palestinian merchants had shuttered their shops.
Yair Lapid, Bennett’s foreign minister and main partner in the governing coalition that ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister, condemned chants of “Death to the Arabs” from some of the marchers.
“That’s not Judaism, and that’s not being Israeli, and it is certainly not what our flag symbolises,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Tuesday’s march was originally scheduled for May 10 as part of “Jerusalem Day” festivities that celebrate Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
At the last minute, that march was diverted away from the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter, but the move was not enough to dissuade Hamas from firing rockets towards Jerusalem.