‘Balloon Units’ in Gaza promise more fires after nationalists march in Jerusalem

Hamas-linked units launch more incendiary devices in response to overnight air strikes

Hours after Israel carried out overnight air strikes on Gaza in response to incendiary balloons floated out of the blockaded strip, Palestinian armed factions on Wednesday afternoon launched more towards Israel.

Palestinian factions launched the incendiary balloons, causing at least 20 fires in Israel, in response to a contentious nationalist flag march in Jerusalem that reignited tensions after the recent 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Tuesday night’s balloons and retaliatory air strikes were the first since the May 21 ceasefire ended the latest round of fighting between the sides.

At least 280 Palestinians were killed and at least 13 people died in Israel, including a soldier.

The strip’s Health Ministry said there were no casualties in Gaza after the Israeli strikes on Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades of Hamas in Khan Younis in the south of the strip.

The Israeli military said it responded to “arson balloons” and its “fighter jets struck military compounds belonging to the Hamas terror organisation".

It said that it was preparing for any scenario “including a resumption of hostilities, in the face of continuing terror activities from the Gaza Strip".

Incendiary balloons or kites are home-made attempts to start fires in the farmland around Gaza.

It was a common tactic of Palestinian armed groups and youth in the strip during mass border protests known as the March of Return in 2018 and 2019, and led Israel to ban imports of party balloons to the coastal enclave.

Ahfad An Nasser, a member of one of Gaza’s Balloon Units, said they launched more on Wednesday, with one carrying the name of Mai Affana, a Palestinian woman killed by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank earlier in the day, after what they said was an attempted car-ramming and knife attack.

Abu Hothaifa, a member of Islamic Jihad’s Balloon Unit, took part in launching the flaming balloons towards Israel on Tuesday.

"Firing the balloons is a response for the provocation from the flag march", he told The National.

“We are warning the Israeli occupation [not to] violate Jerusalem or Al Aqsa Mosque."

Jewish nationalists on Tuesday marched through occupied East Jerusalem and chanted anti-Arab slogans.

Palestinians consider the annual parade a provocative assertion of Israeli control over the territory, which they seek for the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The march followed months of rising tensions in the holy city over the heavy-handed policing of Muslim communities during Ramadan and a pending court case over the right to live in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Settlers claim ownership, while Palestinians say it is an attempt to occupy their lands and displace them.

The conflict in May was sparked by Israeli police storming Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem before another Jewish flag march to celebrate the capture of the city in 1967 and later annexation – a move not recognised by much of the world.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said that despite the truce to end the recent fighting, they would continue to confront what he said were provocative actions by Israel.

“Insisting on provocative behaviour in Jerusalem city, by the new government and settlers, shows disregard for the feelings of all Islamic and Arab nations all over the world,” he said.

The latest incidents came days after a new coalition government, led by right-wing nationalist Naftali Bennett, took office, ending the rule of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years.

The new government is a mix of nationalists, leftists, centrists and a small Islamist party, and is divided over questions of Israeli sovereignty and the peace process.

The UN and the US called for restraint before the march, which Mr Bennett's new government authorised.

Police fired stun grenades at Palestinians to clear the route and set up blockades around the Old City.

Hani Alakkad, a political analyst in Gaza, told The National  that the Jerusalem march was "a provocation and hate march against Muslim and Christian Palestinians".

“The settlers who organised the march were waiting for a response from the resistance [Hamas], but when there was no response they started to chant phrases inciting hatred against Arabs and Muslims,” he said.

Videos showed groups of young men at the march dancing and singing “Death to Arabs”.

“Bennett wants to create division among the resistance cause across Palestine … wants to do whatever he wants without a response from the Palestinian resistance in Jerusalem or in Gaza,” Mr Alakkad said.

Mr Bennett previously likened the flaming balloons to Hamas rockets.

Highlighting the political division within the new Cabinet, Yair Lapid, who assembled the new government, tweeted that he believed the march needed to be allowed.

But Mr Lapid said: "It's inconceivable how you can hold an Israeli flag and shout, 'Death to Arabs' at the same time."

Mansour Abbas, whose conservative Arab party Raam is vital to the coalition, called Tuesday's march a provocation that should have been cancelled.

Palestinians say they do not expect to see a shift in policy with the new government.

"I don't think any new Israeli government will be different from the previous one. Any Israeli government will have the same targets and bring more suffering for Palestinians," Samer Almahalawi, 30, a Gaza resident, told The National.

“Israeli occupation continued its provocative actions against our holy places and we awaited the response from the resistance, especially when they declared that they would take action if our holy places were touched.”

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