Israeli airstrikes target Gaza sites in first such raids since ceasefire

An Israeli firefighter attempts to extinguish a blaze caused by an incendiary balloon launched by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip (AP)
17:25pm, Wed 16 Jun 2021
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Israeli airstrikes hit militant sites in the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday and Palestinians responded by sending a series of fire-carrying balloons back across the border for a second straight day — further testing a fragile ceasefire that ended last month’s war between Israel and Hamas.

The latest round of violence was prompted by a parade of Israeli ultranationalists through contested east Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Palestinians saw the march as a provocation and sent balloons into southern Israel, causing several blazes in parched farmland. Israel then carried out the airstrikes — the first such raids since a May 21 ceasefire ended 11 days of fighting — and more balloons followed.

The airstrikes targeted facilities used by Hamas militants for meetings to plan attacks, the army said. There were no reports of injuries.

Jewish ultranationalists wave Israeli flags during the Flags March outside Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday (AP)

“The Hamas terror organisation is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip, and will bear the consequences for its actions,” the army said. It added that it was prepared for any scenario, “including a resumption of hostilities”.

By Wednesday afternoon, masked Palestinians sent a number of balloons, laden with fuses and flaming rags, into Israel.

The unrest has provided the first test of the ceasefire at a time when Egyptian mediators have been working to reach a longer-term agreement.

It comes as tensions have risen again in Jerusalem, as they did before the recent war, leading Gaza’s Hamas rulers to fire a barrage of rockets at the holy city on May 10. The fighting claimed more than 250 Palestinian lives and killed 13 people in Israel.

The flare-up has also created a test for Israel’s new government, which took office early this week. The diverse coalition includes several hard-line parties as well as dovish and centrist parties, along with the first Arab faction ever to be part of an Israeli government.

Keeping the delicate coalition intact will be a difficult task for the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags as they stand in the rubble of a building destroyed by an Israeli airstrike last month (AP)

Mr Bennett is a hard-line Israeli nationalist who has promised a pragmatic approach as he presides over a delicate, diverse coalition government.

Though there were concerns the march would raise tensions, cancelling it would have opened Mr Bennett and other right-wing members of the coalition to intense criticism from those who would view it as a capitulation to Hamas.

Mansour Abbas, whose Raam party is the first Arab faction to join an Israeli coalition, said the march was “an attempt to set the region on fire for political aims”, with the intention of undermining the new government.

Mr Abbas said the police and public security minister should have cancelled the event.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military said it was reining in a controversial practice of conducting late-night raids of Palestinian homes in the West Bank aimed at gathering information about the houses and their inhabitants.

The military has in the past defended the practice, known as “intelligence mapping”, as a necessary measure to counter militant groups. But human rights groups say the policy served only to intimidate civilians.

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