image Photo: Flash90

Bennett gov’t retaliates for Gaza violence

The IDF launched strikes on Hamas sites in Gaza overnight after incendiary balloons flown from the Palestinian enclave sparked a wave of fires in Israel.

“Fighter jets attacked Hamas military complexes that served as camps and meeting places for terrorist operatives in the Khan Yunis and Gaza Brigades. Terrorist activity was clearly seen in the attacked compounds,” said a statement from the Israeli military.

“The attack was carried out in response to the launching of incendiary balloons into Israeli territory. The IDF is prepared for all the scenarios, including the resumption of hostilities, in the face of continued terrorist operations from the Gaza Strip,” stressed the IDF.

The Palestinian fire terrorism caused at least 26 separate blazes in open fields near western Negev communities by the Gaza border yesterday, including 15 in a forest near Kibbutz Be’eri. Another device attached to a balloon exploded mid-air above a kindergarten in Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council.

The escalation marks the most significant violence since a fragile ceasefire ended 11 days of deadly fighting between the two sides last month. It also presented the first, early test for the government of new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, whose coalition came to power on Sunday on a pledge to focus on socioeconomic issues and avoid sensitive policy choices towards the Palestinians.

Bennett in the past demanded that Israel respond with extreme force to Palestinian fire attacks. “The south is on fire… and the government’s policy of not eliminating terrorists who launch explosive balloons is life-threatening and detrimental to deterrence,” he said in June 2019, insisting “If explosive balloons were flying over houses in Tel Aviv or a missile was fired at it, the IDF would stop it” in March of the same year.

“Going forward the basic equation must change. We will not accept any breaches of our sovereignty,” stressed Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz after the conclusion of Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, underscoring that “We cannot return to the previous reality, and this campaign was designed to change it.”

An Egyptian-mediated truce that halted the fighting between Israel and the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror groups in Gaza does not immediately appear to be threatened by the flare-up, with the overnight Israeli Air Force (IAF) transitioning to calm by this morning.

There were no reports of casualties on either side.

Jerusalem has reportedly informed Cairo mediators that any direct Hamas involvement in the fire terrorism would imperil long-term truce talks, according to Israel’s Army Radio, although officials have not immediately confirmed this.

Hours before the overnight strikes, thousands of flag-waving Israelis congregated around the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City before heading to Judaism’s holy Western Wall, drawing Palestinian anger and condemnation, as well as threats of action by the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza.

The controversial event is traditionally held on Jerusalem Day, in commemoration of the city’s reunification after Israel captured the eastern side from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. This year’s march, however, came to abrupt halt on 10 May, when Gaza terrorists fired a barrage of rockets that marked the start of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a broad intelligence briefing ahead of today’s scheduled parade in Jerusalem, attended by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Police Commissioner Yaakov “Kobi” Shabtai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Deputy Director of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), head of the military intelligence directorate, and head of the policy bureau at the Israeli Ministry of Defense (IMoD).

“We warn Israel, the mediators and the entire world against allowing the march in Jerusalem to proceed towards the al-Aqsa mosque – and hope this clear message is received – so that Thursday does not become a day like May 11, when the first rockets from Gaza targeted the center of Israel,” said senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya.

The event was reinstated as one of the last acts in office by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 6 PM local time this evening. In efforts to avoid friction with Palestinians, Israeli police blocked streets near the Damascus Gate entry into the Old City – the site of violent clashes during recent Muslim observance of Ramadan.

New Public Security Minister Omer Barlev greenlighted the event, saying that in a democracy, citizens have the right to demonstrate.

“We will march, thousands of us, with flags where we’re told. Anywhere we’re told not to march – we won’t march,” Matan Peleg, one of the march organizers, told Israel’s Army Radio.

Palestinians nevertheless assailed the march as a “provocation,” and declared a “Day of Rage” in Gaza and the West Bank. Both Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas‘s Fatah faction had called on Palestinians to flock to the Old City to counter the march.

“We warn of the dangerous repercussions that may result from the occupying power’s intention to allow extremist Israeli settlers to carry out the Flag March in occupied Jerusalem,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared there would be an “explosion” if the parade went ahead, with unrest extending beyond Jerusalem to the Palestinian territories.

The IDF ordered the deployment of additional Iron Dome air defense batteries to Israel’s south yesterday and went onto high alert following threats by Hamas to resume rocket fire at Israel if the parade went forward.

“We are preparing for renewed fighting,” warned IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi, cautioning that Israel’s response to attacks from Gaza would be more punishing than during the May conflict.

Several hours before the event was due to start, about 30 Palestinians clashed with IDF troops near the border fence with Gaza. According to the Israeli army, one rioter was lightly wounded after being shot in the leg.

Hamas later claimed credit for Israel’s decision to reroute the parade, issuing a statement last night that, “The resistance and its decisions forced Israel to change the route of the flag parade away from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, change civilian routes and bolster the deployment of Iron Dome systems. This is proof of our deterrence and success in forcing a new equation on Israel.”

A Hamas spokesman also vowed that Palestinians will continue to pursue their “brave resistance and defend their rights and sacred sites” in Jerusalem.

Analysts suggest, however, that the Islamist group refrained from firing rockets – both in response to the parade and the IDF airstrikes – to avoid a further escalation in Gaza, which was devastated by May’s aerial bombardment.

“It (the ceasefire) is very fragile. The current calm may give the Egyptians a chance to try and cement it,” Gaza analyst Talal Okal told Reuters.