Israel responds to "arson balloons" with airstrikes on Gaza in 1st flare-up since cease-fire


/ CBS/AFP

Gaza City — Israel carried out airstrikes on the Gaza Strip early Wednesday after militants in the Palestinian territory sent incendiary balloons into the south of the country. It was the first flare-up between the two sides since a major conflict in May in which hundreds were killed.

The strikes were also the first under Israel's new coalition government headed by Naftali Bennett, who took over on Sunday after ousting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and they came as more than 1,000 ultranationalist demonstrators bearing Israeli flags poured into Jerusalem's flashpoint Old City on Tuesday, with scores of police deployed and international monitors urging calm.

Israel responds to "arson balloons" with airstrikes on Gaza in 1st flare-up since cease-fire
Flames are seen after an Israeli airstrike hit a purported Hamas target in Gaza City, Gaza, June 15, 2021. Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty

According to Palestinian sources, Israel's air force targeted at least one site east of Khan Yunis in the south of the Gaza Strip, which is home to some two million people.

An AFP photojournalist in Khan Yunis saw the explosions.

The Israeli Defence Force said that in response to the "arson balloons," its "fighter jets struck military compounds belonging to the Hamas terror organization."

Israel responds to "arson balloons" with airstrikes on Gaza in 1st flare-up since cease-fire
A small fire burns in a field after Palestinians in Gaza sent incendiary balloons over the border between Gaza and Israel, Near Nir Am, southern Israel, June 15,2021. AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

It added that "facilities and meeting sites for terror operatives" in Khan Yunis were targeted. There was no immediate indication of casualties.

The IDF added that it was "prepared for any scenario, including a resumption of hostilities, in the face of continuing terror activities from the Gaza Strip."

Local firefighters said the incendiary balloons — usually consisting of Molotov cocktail-like devices attached to helium balloons — caused around 20 fires in southern Israel. Palestinians have resorted to the balloon attacks, which rely on wind carrying the imprecise devices over the border, for years. 

The violence is the first flare-up between Israel and Palestinian militants since a cease-fire came into place in May, ending 11 days of heavy fighting that killed 260 Palestinians, including some fighters, the Gaza authorities said. In Israel 13 people were killed, including a soldier, by rockets and missiles fired from Gaza, the police and army said.

Fragile Israel and Hamas cease-fire holding 02:15

"Flag march" stokes tension

In annexed east Jerusalem, more than one thousand people took to the streets in a delayed and controversial march by nationalist and far-right activists. The U.S. and United Nations had called for restraint before the march, which Bennett's new administration had authorized to take place.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata noted that a similar march last month helped trigger the 11-day military conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza. The fragile cease-fire that ended that flare-up has held for about three weeks but as D'Agata said, tensions have remained high, and the Israeli military has warned that it's prepared to resume fighting if necessary.

A Hamas spokesman said Palestinians would continue to defend their rights and sites sacred to them.

With tensions high, Israeli police were deployed in heavy numbers, blocking roads and firing stun grenades and foam-tipped bullets to remove Palestinians from the main route of the march on Tuesday.

Israel responds to "arson balloons" with airstrikes on Gaza in 1st flare-up since cease-fire
Far-right Israelis dance with Israeli flags as they march near Damascus Gate during the "flag march," June 15, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. AMIR LEVY/Getty

Medics said 33 Palestinians were wounded and police said two officers were injured and 17 people arrested.

The demonstration triggered protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and prompted rebukes and warnings from Israel's allies.

The so-called March of the Flags celebrates the anniversary of the city's "reunification" after Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it, a move not recognized by most of the international community.

Tuesday's demonstration was originally scheduled for early May but cancelled twice amid police opposition and threats from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.

Israel responds to "arson balloons" with airstrikes on Gaza in 1st flare-up since cease-fire
Police officers clash with Palestinian as they force Palestinians out of Damascus Gate area before the far right flag march on June 15, 2021 in Jerusalem, Israel. AMIR LEVY / Getty Images

Throngs of mostly young religious men sang, danced and waved flags at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, that was cleared of its usual Palestinian crowds.

Some chanted "Death to Arabs" before others quieted them.

Early challenge for new government

The march comes just two days after Netanyahu was ousted after 12 straight years in power, toppled by an ideologically divided coalition including, for the first time in Israel's history, an Arab party.

Bennett is himself a Jewish nationalist but Netanyahu's allies accused the new premier of treachery for allying with Arabs and the left.

Netanyahu era ends as new prime minister swor... 01:50

Some demonstrators on Tuesday carried signs reading "Bennett the liar".

Yair Lapid, the architect of the new government, tweeted he believed the march had to be allowed but that "it's inconceivable how you can hold an Israeli flag and shout, 'Death to Arabs' at the same time."

Mansour Abbas, whose four-seat Raam Islamic party was vital to the coalition, called Tuesday's march a "provocation" that should have been cancelled.