Israel strikes Gaza in response to incendiary balloons

Israel carried out air strikes on the Gaza Strip early Wednesday after militants in the Palestinian territory sent incendiary balloons into the south of the country, in the first flare-up between the two sides since a major conflict killed hundreds last month.

Tension spilled over to the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli army said they shot a Palestinian woman after she attempted to attack soldiers.

The Gaza strikes were the first under the new coalition government headed by Naftali Bennett, who took over on Sunday after ousting longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The uptick in violence came after more than a thousand Jewish ultranationalist demonstrators bearing Israeli flags poured into Jerusalem’s flashpoint Old City on Tuesday, with scores of police deployed and international monitors urging calm.

According to Palestinian sources, the Israeli air force targeted at least one site east of Khan Yunis in the south of the Gaza Strip.

An AFP photojournalist in Khan Yunis saw the explosions.

The military said that in response to the “arson balloons”, its “fighter jets struck military compounds belonging to the Hamas terror organisation”.

It said “facilities and meeting sites for terror operatives” in Khan Yunis were targeted. There was no indication of any casualties.

The military added that it was “prepared for any scenario, including a resumption of hostilities, in the face of continuing terror activities from the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli firefighters said the incendiary balloons caused around 20 fires.

The violence is the first flare-up between Israel and Palestinian militants since a ceasefire took effect on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting that killed 260 Palestinians including some fighters, the Gaza authorities said.

In Israel, 13 people were killed, including a soldier, by rockets and missiles fired from Gaza, the police and army said.

– Restraint –

In the West Bank on Wednesday, a Palestinian woman was shot after attempting to ram Israeli soldiers with her car and attack them with a knife, the military said.

The Palestinian health ministry said the woman later died of her wounds. 

The incident took place near Hizma, south of Ramallah, with official Palestinian news website Wafa identifying the woman as Mai Afana, 29, from the town of Abu Dis, just outside Jerusalem.

The previous day saw more than a thousand Israelis take to the streets of annexed east Jerusalem in a delayed and controversial march by nationalist and far-right activists.

Both the United Nationas and the United States had called for restraint before the march, which Bennett’s new government had authorised.

With tensions high, Israeli police were deployed in numbers, blocking roads and firing stun grenades and foam-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians from the route. 

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

The march triggered protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and prompted rebukes and warnings from Israel’s allies.

The so-called March of the Flags celebrates the anniversary of the city’s “reunification” after Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it, a move not recognised by most of the international community.

Tuesday’s demonstration was originally scheduled for early May but cancelled twice amid police opposition and threats from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.

Throngs of mostly young religious men sang, danced and waved flags at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, which was cleared of its usual Palestinian crowds. 

Some chanted “Death to Arabs” before others persuaded them to stop.

– ‘Provocation’ –

The march comes just two days after Netanyahu was ousted after 12 straight years in power, toppled by an ideologically divided coalition including, for the first time in Israel’s history, an Arab party.

Bennett is himself a Jewish nationalist but Netanyahu’s allies accused the new premier of treachery for allying with Arabs and the left.

Some demonstrators on Tuesday carried signs reading “Bennett the liar”.

Yair Lapid, the architect of the new government, tweeted he believed the march had to be allowed but that “it’s inconceivable how you can hold an Israeli flag and shout, ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time.” 

Mansour Abbas, whose Islamic conservative party Raam is vital to the coalition, called Tuesday’s march a “provocation” that should have been cancelled.


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