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Israel Targets Hamas Sites, Closes Gaza Crossing After Incendiary Balloon Attacks Resume
Masked Palestinians prepare flammable objects before attaching them to balloons to be flown toward Israel, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 8, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel Targets Hamas Sites, Closes Gaza Crossing After Incendiary Balloon Attacks Resume

Only humanitarian goods and fuel will be let in

The relative truce in Gaza is teetering on the edge after several Israeli military strikes targeted Hamas sites before dawn on Wednesday. This came in response to the launching of fire balloons this week that had caused more than a dozen blazes near the border, which also led Israel to close the Kerem Shalom crossing on Tuesday.

In a statement, the Israeli military said that “warplanes, military helicopters and tanks hit a number of Hamas targets in Gaza,” including underground infrastructure and monitoring centers for the Islamist group.

Balloons dispatched from Gaza ignited more than 60 additional fires in nearby Israel on Tuesday. “The Kerem Shalom crossing will be closed to the passage of all goods, except for basic humanitarian goods and fuel,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said on Monday.

Kerem Shalom, one of three active border crossings into the Strip, is used by trucks carrying goods to Gaza from Israel and Egypt. The Erez crossing from Israel and the Rafah crossing from Egypt are used for pedestrian traffic.

Construction materials are among the goods that will not enter the Strip during the border closure.

Hazem Qassem, a spokesperson of Hamas − the Islamist movement that rules Gaza − told The Media Line that the Israeli announcement constituted “a real crime” that would aggravate the humanitarian situation in the Strip.

“This is dangerous behavior that violates international law and international humanitarian law,” Qassem said. “The occupation [i.e., Israel] bears full responsibility for the exacerbation of the situation in the Gaza Strip, due to its siege that has continued for more than 14 years.”

When asked about the fire balloons, he stressed that they came as a “popular act.”

“It is a response from the people to the continuing, unjust siege on the Strip and to Israel’s reluctance to implement the measures it pledged to the mediators,” Qassem said.

For years, Hamas has demanded a total end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

In 2019, Israel eased restrictions on the flow of materials into the enclave – including tens of millions of dollars in Qatari cash – and it reportedly greenlighted additional development projects there. However, Palestinians claim that Israel did not keep to all of the understandings reached under Egyptian mediation and a UN umbrella.

Husam Dajni, a Gaza-based writer and political analyst, explained to The Media Line that the resumption of the balloon attacks came as a reaction to the “catastrophic national situation” in the Strip, caused by the blockade “and the repeated Israeli refusal to permit a maritime port in Gaza, in addition to a [new, Qatari-financed] industrial zone and an airport.

“Israel did not − except for allowing the entry of the Qatari funds – keep to the understandings agreed upon, which were supposed to be implemented in three stages,” he added.

Dajni said that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was very difficult and the health sector was suffering amid a global pandemic. “If the coronavirus spreads widely here, it will be a complete catastrophe, one unlike anywhere else.”

Therefore, Palestinian youth resorted to using “other tools,” as a reaction, he said. “The balloons are not rockets; the guys here use them as a way to express themselves and to protest their unfair reality. Israel inflates their effect to the Western world.”

Israel’s use of collective punishment violated international law, Dajni said.

“Israel is punishing everyone in the Strip but not Hamas. This will drag the area to more violence and instability, and not for the first time, and this method of collective punishment has yet to result in anything positive,” he said.

Gunmen in the Strip first employed incendiary balloons in 2018, and they have burned thousands of acres of fields in southwestern Israel. In the winter of 2019, they generally attached flammable materials to balloons; in warmer months, they used Molotov cocktails, sometimes tying them to kites rather than balloons.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a unit of the Israeli Defense Ministry, stressed on Tuesday that the launching of the incendiary balloons and the violation of the security calm would first and foremost harm the residents of the Gaza Strip.

“Economic growth as well as the attempts to improve the civilian situation of its residents [will suffer]. The IDF and the State of Israel will react forcefully and in an uncompromising manner to any violation of our sovereignty and to any threat imposed to our citizens,” COGAT’s press release continued.

“Hamas is fully accountable for all that is done in the Gaza Strip, as well as for actions launched from Gaza against Israel. Hamas will, therefore, have to deal with the consequences of the violence committed against the citizens of Israel,” COGAT said.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, told The Media Line that Israel did not intend to implement all the measures needed to make the lives of Gazans easier while Hamas refused to provide any details on the Israelis who were captive in the Strip.

“Hamas can’t expect Israel to do everything needed toward the betterment of Gaza, without giving Israel the information it needs about its citizens,” he said.

Three Israeli men are reportedly being held in Gaza: Avera Mengistu, Hisham al-Sayed and Jumaa Abu Ghanima. All of them suffer from mental illness and entered the Strip separately and on their own. Mengistu is a Jew of Ethiopian descent; Sayed and Abu Ghanima are Bedouin. The bodies of two slain soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, have also been held as bargaining chips in Gaza since 2014.

Amidror said that Israel would not commit itself to any measures toward Gaza, other than the entry of the Qatari money, until Hamas committed to providing the details needed about these missing Israelis.

The arson balloons were dangerous and constituted more than a “reaction,” he said.

“I could kill you right now and say it was just a message. … If Hamas thinks that it can attack Israel without Israel retaliating, it is mistaken,” Amidror said.

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