Tensions along one of the Middle East’s volatile borders continued to escalate this week, with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip firing rockets and the Israeli military unleashing aerial assaults, while incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza ignited yet more fires in Israeli territory.
No casualties were reported in Israel, according to army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, who told journalists that, while one home was directly hit by a rocket, “the vast majority” of the 200,000 Israelis living in bordering communities spent the night in bomb shelters. Gazan authorities said two people were lightly wounded by the Israeli strikes.
Over the course of the night, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted seven of 45 rockets, the military said.
At least five projectiles fell within Israeli communities, two landing near a community center and one next to a kindergarten where children later arrived for the last day of the school year, officials said. The kindergarten, “the second to be struck by mortars launched from Gaza in the past two weeks, has a reinforced ceiling,” Conricus said.
In response, Israeli fighter jets hit 25 targets belonging to Hamas, the militia that governs the Palestinian territory.
The night-long salvo followed two Israeli air force strikes against infrastructure belonging to Hamas on Tuesday. One of the targets, the Israeli military revealed on its Twitter feed, was a previously unreported Hamas “underground training compound.”
The Israeli strikes came in response to an ongoing wave of burning balloons and kites being launched from Gaza into Israel.
On Tuesday, Israeli authorities battled more than 20 “arson fires,” as Conricus called them, that were set by the balloons and kites.
More fires broke out Wednesday. At least twice Israeli aircraft “fired shots near a group of Palestinians who were launching arson balloons from the southern Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” the army said.
Hamas lauded the rocket launches into Israel, calling them “a legitimate right for our resistance," and a rival Gaza-based militia, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, said in a statement that “the time of Israel acting freely in Gaza has come to an end.”
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, said, "The message of the bombardment is confirmation that the Palestinian resistance is the one who sets the rules of engagement in its own way."
In a statement announcing its strikes, the Israeli army accused Hamas of targeting Israeli civilians and said the organization “is dragging the Gaza Strip and its civilians down a continually deteriorating path. Hamas is responsible for everything that transpires in the Gaza Strip and will bear the consequences for deliberately targeting its terror at Israeli civilians.”
Conricus added the booby-trapped kites and balloons to what he called “a shameful list” of Hamas attempts to harm Israel, ranging from “terror tunnels through which they try to infiltrate into Israel” to Hamas inserting armed militants into otherwise civilian protests.
The escalating clashes are causing political reverberations in Israel. On Monday, Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit said flaming devices launched at Israel from Gaza were a “legitimate military target,” but refrained from addressing the legality of firing at those behind the launches.
“A balloon is an innocent and nice thing, but if it is used for fighting it becomes a legitimate military target,” he said, at a legal gathering in Jerusalem.
In a morning radio interview, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and member of the opposition, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of accommodating Hamas and extending the status quo.
“Netanyahu’s messaging to Hamas, telling them, ‘If you’re quiet we won’t shoot,’” is contributing to the worsening situation, she said.
Referring to the current visit to the Middle East by President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, and the presidential envoy to peace negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, she said that “the Americans are starting to hear from other Arab nations,” who also hope to isolate Hamas and provide for the basic humanitarian needs of Gaza’s population of about 2 million people.
“Israel needs to return to a diplomatic process immediately to disarm the Gaza Strip, help the population and completely isolate Hamas,” she said.
Meeting with members of the public, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a centrist coalition rival of the prime minister, said, “Hamas wants to embroil us in an international incident. They’re using children and citizens.”
On the other hand, he said Israel “as a sovereign state cannot accept this constant drizzle of rockets as if it were a prosthesis, something unpleasant that you live with.”
Netanyahu’s Cabinet is divided about a possible response to the kites in view of what appears to be a new strategy adopted by Hamas: to respond with rocket fire even to nonlethal Israeli reprisals.
Hardliner Naftali Bennett, the education minister, called for kite-fliers to be shot like any other armed attacker.
This drew a sharp response from Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant, a centrist. “Inexperience in using force leads to a power trip,” he told Israeli journalists. “It would be a serious mistake to fire at an 8-year-old child, especially intentionally.”
On Twitter, Bennett came close to accusing Galant, a retired general who once commanded Israel’s Southern Command, which borders Gaza, of siding with the enemy. “The shooting terrorists are not 8 years old. That’s false propaganda being spread by our enemies. You should shoot anyone who fires at your family and your people and dispatched incendiary and explosive balloons. It’s so clear that I can’t believe I have to explain it. Restraint leads to escalation.”
There is no end in sight to the intensification of violence. On Wednesday, following Israel’s second strike near a kite production line, Hamas issued a statement saying, “We are not interested in starting a war but Israel is mistaken if it thinks we won’t respond to its bombings.”
In a later statement, a group of Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza, including Hamas, said it planned to respond to “shelling with shelling” and “will not allow the enemy to impose its aggressive reckonings on our people.”