Israeli jets bomb Gaza following incendiary balloon launches

Videos posted on social media show people linked to militants launching balloons over border

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Israeli fighter jets and drones carried out airstrikes on what the military said were compounds belonging to Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Sunday night.

The compound that was hit, a building in the semi-rural Khan Younis outskirts of Gaza City, was bombed hours after incendiary balloons were floated over the heavily armed barrier around the enclave. The balloons started at least three fires in the Eshkol region near the border, Israeli firefighters said.

Prior to the airstrikes, photos and videos posted on social media showed Hamas-linked activists launching the balloons. On one of them was written the message: “Time is running out.”

The balloons are basic devices intended to set fire to farmland surrounding the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave.

There were no casualties on either side, but the Israeli military said the compound they hit was near civilian areas that included a school.

The strikes and balloons came two months after an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

The militant group is angry that Israel has done little to ease a crippling blockade on the territory since the fighting ended and over delays in indirect negotiations with Israel to resume Qatari financial aid to Gaza.

In an initial response, COGAT, the Israeli defence body that oversees Palestinian civilian affairs, announced on Sunday that Israel was cutting the fishing zone for Gazan fishermen in half, from 12 nautical miles to six nautical miles.

"The decision was made following the continued launching of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, which constitutes a violation of Israeli sovereignty," COGAT said in a statement.

Hamas was "responsible for all activities within the Gaza Strip and all actions originating in the Gaza Strip directed towards the state of Israel", COGAT said.

"It will therefore bear the consequences for the violence committed against the citizens of the state of Israel."

Reducing the fishing area is a common Israeli response to fire emanating from Gaza.

Israeli media reported at least three fires in southern Israel, breaking a three-week lull in the launching of balloons.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, has compared the balloons to rocket fire and has ordered air strikes after launches in the past.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007. The blockade includes Israeli control over the territory’s coast and airspace.

Updated: July 26, 2021, 9:50 AM