GAZA CITY/JERUSALEM: Israel’s army launched new airstrikes on Sunday against Hamas positions in Gaza and closed the fishing zone around the Palestinian enclave in response to rockets and firebombs sent into Israeli territory.
The Israeli measures came after a week of heightened tensions, including clashes on Saturday evening along the Gaza-Israeli border, the army said.
Dozens of Palestinian “rioters burned tires, hurled explosive devices and grenades toward the security fence and attempted to approach it,” an Israeli Army statement said.
Long simmering Palestinian anger has flared further since Israel and the UAE on Thursday agreed to normalize relations, a move Palestinians saw as a betrayal of their cause by the Gulf country.
In the days before the UAE deal was announced, Israel had carried out repeated night-time strikes on targets linked to Hamas, which controls Gaza.
The army said the strikes were in response to makeshift firebombs attached to balloons and kites sent into southern Israel, causing thousands of fires.
Israel said there were 19 such Palestinians attacks on Saturday alone, in addition to two rockets fired from Gaza, which were intercepted by its Iron Dome defense system.
Israel responded with strikes on several Hamas targets including “a military compound used to store rocket ammunition,” the army said.
Defense Minister and alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz charged that Hamas’s refusal to stop the attacks is preventing Gazans from living “in dignity and security.”
If Sderot, the southern Israel town most affected by the balloon attacks, “isn’t quiet, then Gaza won’t be either,” Gantz said.
Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi said Israel needed to deal forcefully with “terrorists ... who try to murder us and our children.”
But a durable solution also required providing better economic opportunities “to help civilians on both sides,” including Palestinians in Gaza, Davidi said.
Israel also closed the Gaza Strip’s offshore fishing zone on Sunday following a night of cross-border fighting with Palestinian militants, the most intense escalation of hostilities in recent months.
After Saturday’s clashes, Israel’s military decided “to entirely shut down the fishing zone of the Gaza Strip, immediately and until further notice, starting this morning (Sunday),” a military statement said.
Gaza fisherman Yasser Salah said he was out on the waters early Sunday and was “surprised” to learn from an Israeli patrol that the coastal sea area was “completely closed.”
“We did nothing,” said Salah. “We don’t get involved in politics. We are fishermen who live off what we catch in the sea.”
Israel has also closed its Kerem Shalom goods crossing with the Gaza Strip.
Despite a truce last year backed by the UN, Egypt and Qatar, the two sides clash sporadically with rockets, mortar fire or incendiary balloons.
The Gaza Strip has a population of 2 million, more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
The IDF said Hamas “is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it, and will bear the consequences for terror activity against Israeli civilians.”
Dozens of Palestinians took part in the protests. The military said the protesters “burned tires, hurled explosive devices and grenades toward the security fence and attempted to approach it.”
The Gaza health ministry said Israeli gunfire at protesters wounded two Palestinians.
Israel holds Hamas, the Islamist militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, responsible for all attacks emanating from the Palestinian territory.
Incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip have caused extensive damage to Israeli fields in recent days. It comes as Hamas, like other Palestinian factions, denounced the UAE for agreeing to formal ties with Israel.
Following a meeting on Sunday with the top army brass, Gantz said in a statement that Israel “will respond forcefully to any violation of sovereignty until complete quiet is restored in the south. If Sderot isn’t quiet, Gaza won’t be either.”
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power in an armed coup in 2007. Israel has fought three wars with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the years since.
The two sides have largely upheld an informal truce, and fighting has ceased almost entirely since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.