Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza in retaliation for incendiary balloons in first flare-up since May truce

Israeli airstrikes struck Gaza in the early hours of Wednesday in retaliation for incendiary balloons that crossed into the country from Hamas-controlled territory - an exchange that highlights the fragility of a cease-fire in the region and poses a first test for Israel’s new government.

Israeli jets struck military compounds allegedly belonging to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, according to an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) statement.

Hamas “is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip, and will bear the consequences for its actions,” the IDF said. It said Israel was “prepared for any scenario, including a resumption of hostilities.”

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the airstrike.

Israeli authorities said that incendiary balloons launched into Israeli communities near the Gaza border sparked 20 fires on Tuesday and another four fires on Wednesday, according to Israeli media.

Israel does not typically respond to incendiary balloons with airstrikes. The IDF announced that the sites hit were not “high-quality” Hamas targets, according to Israeli media.

Late into Tuesday night, Palestinians demonstrators threw improvised explosive devices at Israeli troops and torched tires at the border fence separating Gaza from Israel.

Alon Hagi, former secretary general of Kibbutz Beeri told Kan radio on Wednesday that since the conclusion of the conflict last month, many Israelis living near Gaza expected an eventual escalation in violence.

“Yesterday afternoon, children were playing in a playground when all of a sudden there was a tremendous explosion over their heads, and they all ran to the bomb shelter in tears,” said Hagi. “Dealing with this is going to require the use of force and diplomacy to resolve this conflict.”

Israel and Hamas have had a cease-fire since May 21, an agreement that followed 11 days of violence that left more than 240 Gazans - including 65 children - and 13 residents of Israel dead. While the worst communal violence in Israel has subsided since the Egypt-brokered accord took place, tensions remain high.

Tuesday’s launch of balloons came as at least hundreds of ultranationalist demonstrators bearing Israeli flags marched into Jerusalem’s Old City, with some youths chanting, “Death to Arabs!” and “May your village burn.”

Police had moved the procession to avoid the Muslim quarter of the city. Hamas called on Palestinians to “resist” the parade, which celebrates Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. Another march earlier this year, which was followed by Hamas rocket attacks, helped spark the recent 11-day conflict.

Foreign minister Yair Lapid condemned displays of extremism during Tuesday’s march, writing on Twitter that the “fact that there are extremist elements for whom the flag of Israel represents hate and racism is revolting and unforgivable.”

“It is incomprehensible that people can hold the Israeli flag in one hand and shout ‘Death to Arabs’ at the same time,” he added. “This isn’t Judaism or Israeliness, and it is definitely not what our flag symbolizes. These people are a disgrace to the nation of Israel.”

“The Zionist bombing of the Gaza Strip is a failed attempt to stop our people’s solidarity and resistance with the Holy City, and to cover up the unprecedented state of confusion for the Zionist establishment in organizing the so-called ‘flags march,’” said Hazim Qasem, a Hamas spokesman. “Our people and their valiant resistance will continue to defend our rights and sanctities until the occupier is expelled from our entire land.”

The airstrikes on Gaza came hours after IDF generals met to discuss the previous conflict.

“The situation in the Palestinian arena is volatile and we are preparing for the possibility of resumed hostilities,” said IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, according to an IDF news release.

The escalation also posed a significant challenge to the new government three days after Israel’s parliament replaced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in power for 12 years, with Naftali Bennett.

Before he took charge, Bennett made comments equating incendiary balloons to rocket strikes, according to the Jerusalem Post. He has expressed support for increased Jewish control over the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known by Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s contested Old City.

The Palestinian Authority mission to the United Nations condemned Israel’s strikes on Twitter.

“After today’s provocative March of Israeli flags in occupied #Jerusalem, Israel is NOW bombing #Gaza (1:00 am local #Palestine time),” it tweeted. “It appears that [Israel] once again has violated international law and broken the terms of the ‘ceasefire.’”

Israel’s air force targeted at least one site east of the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, according to the IDF.

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The Washington Post’s Hazem Balousha in Gaza, Miriam Berger in Washington and Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.