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GAZA CITY – The Israeli military said early Wednesday it carried out air strikes in the Gaza Strip after officials said the Hamas militant group sent fire balloons from the Gaza Strip to southern Israel in the first outbreak of hostilities since an 11-day air war between Israel and Hamas ended last month.
The Israeli military said it had “attacked the Hamas terrorist organization’s military facilities that were used as facilities and meeting points for terrorists from the Hamas Khan Yunis and Gaza Brigades”. Palestinian news reports said one of the attacks caused property damage, but there were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza, a densely populated urban area.
The Day of Mounting Tensions marked the first test of a new Israeli coalition government that stood just three days after its term in office. It began when the government allowed a far-right Jewish march through the Palestinian territories of Jerusalem on Tuesday evening to retaliate against objections from Arab and left-wing parties in the coalition and despite threats from Hamas.
The march was a scaled-down version of a broken-off far-right procession originally scheduled for last month that cited Hamas to justify launching rockets on Jerusalem on May 10, sparking the recent aerial warfare between the militants and Israel.
Gaza has barely recovered from the fighting last month, which, according to the United Nations, killed at least 250 Palestinians and 13 Israeli residents, damaged more than 16,000 houses in Gaza and fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel as militants in the Gaza Strip. Serious reconstruction has yet to resume and Israel and Egypt, which control access to Gaza, are still withholding important financial and material aid.
Some analysts believed these factors prevented Hamas from launching large-scale rocket attacks on Tuesday after the provocative Jewish procession through Jerusalem, an annual event known as the flag march. Hamas frequently releases incendiary balloons in southern Israel, and they are typically less destructive than missiles, although they sometimes scorch large swaths of farmland and land near homes.
Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, who was sworn in on Sunday, has taken a tough stance against the launch of these balloons in the past, criticizing a previous administration for its lack of response.
A few months before his appointment as Secretary of Defense in 2019, Mr Bennett wrote in a tweet that those who launched the balloons were “terrorists” to be killed. According to Ynet, an Israeli news site, he also said earlier that year that the balloons were life-threatening and damaged the Israeli deterrent against Hamas. “An explosive balloon is like an anti-tank missile,” he said, adding, “whoever fires one is a terrorist trying to murder Israelis and must be hit.”
The new administration is under enormous pressure from the right to crack down on Hamas – both internally from Mr Bennett and his Yamina party, and externally from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Some members of the coalition insisted that any blockade of the flag march would give way to threats from terrorists.
“Israel cannot be hostage to a terrorist organization,” said Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, in a radio interview on Tuesday. “As for Hamas, it tells Israel what to do in Jerusalem – it has to be shown that it did not win here.”
For right-wing and many centrist members of the Alliance, including Mr Bennett, the flag march is a matter of national pride: a celebration of their democratic right to pass through the territories of Jerusalem conquered by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which Israel now forms part of considered undivided capital. Every year thousands of protesters can be seen waving Israeli flags as they walk to the Western Wall, a holy place in Judaism. However, it was canceled in May because of the rocket fire from Gaza.
One of the final acts of Mr. Netanyahu’s government was to postpone this year’s canceled march to Tuesday, with its route being diverted from some of the most sensitive parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. The decision was confirmed by Omer Bar-Lev, the new center-left minister for public security, in praise of his new right-wing allies.
“I congratulate the Minister of Public Security, Omer Bar-Lev, on his decision to hold the flag dance.” tweeted Nir Orbach, a radical right-wing member of the coalition who almost left the alliance before the vote of confidence. “The flag dance is part of the culture of religious Zionism and is held regularly. It doesn’t have to be a political dance or proof of government, it has to be an expression of joy. “
But for Arab and left-wing members of the coalition, it was a provocative gesture. It offends Palestinians who do not celebrate the conquest of East Jerusalem, which is still considered occupied in the world, and who hope that one day it will become the capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinian families living on the march route often board up their homes and businesses in anticipation of abuse and violence by the protesters.
That year, the Palestinians believed that the decision to allow protesters to pass the Damascus Gate, a prominent entrance to the Old City, and dance in an adjacent square that is central to Palestinian community life in East Jerusalem is, was measured with double standards. The police had closed the square to Palestinians for much of the Islamic month of Ramadan, a decision that helped to exacerbate the tensions in the city that formed the backdrop to the Gaza War.
“They open to their people and they close to mine,” said Samer Barusi, a 67-year-old Palestinian who lives near the marching route, which he said shows that between the new government and the one it is running has replaced, there is hardly any difference.
“It’s like the difference between Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola,” said Barusi.
Demonstrators waving Israeli flags streamed past the Damascus Gate, many of them singing: “The nation of Israel is alive”. A few younger protesters shouted threats to the Palestinians, including “Death to the Arabs!”
Yair Lapid, the government’s new foreign minister, later said the government was right to allow the march, but condemned the protesters’ rhetoric. “It is incomprehensible how it is possible to hold the flag of Israel in your hand and shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ at the same time,” said Lapid wrote. “That is neither Judaism nor Israelism, and that is certainly not what our flag represents.”
Before the march, the government sent conciliatory messages to Arab leaders in Israel and to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Egypt, which often mediates between Israel and Hamas, and made it clear that Israel was not seeking to escalate, officials said. One of the new restrictions on the march was that only small, well-guarded groups of mostly teenage girls and women were allowed to walk through the Muslim quarter of the old town.
Police maintained a strong presence and forced Palestinian residents off the route for much of the afternoon, with the exception of people who own or work in the area. Several passers-by were arrested by officers. Was a Palestinian filmed beaten by officers as they evacuated the area to make way for the demonstrators.
Mansour Abbas, the leader of Raam, an Arab-Islamist party within the coalition, said he had not raised the march issue with Mr Bennett.
“If we argue about anything, there is no doubt that this coalition is falling apart,” Abbas said in a radio interview on Tuesday. But he still condemned the parade, saying it should never have taken place.
“The flag march in Jerusalem is a wild provocation, composed mainly of shouts of hate and calls for violence and an attempt to set the region on fire for political reasons,” he said. “The Minister of Public Security and the police should have canceled it.”
Before the march, it was clear to the opponents that they feared a further escalation of the fighting with Hamas.
The main United Nations envoy in the region, Tor Wennesland, warned increasing tensions and called on all sides to “avoid any provocations that could lead to another round of confrontation”.
The US State Department on Tuesday banned its employees from entering the Old City of Jerusalem.
Intercommunal violence between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and across Israel formed the backdrop to the recent war, and some feared a resurgence.
Hamas had threatened a violent response but indicated that it might not resort to such drastic means as rocket fire.
“What is certain is that we cannot remain silent in the face of the flag march, which is deeply provocative and part of the occupation’s domestic policy,” said Mohammad Hamada, a spokesman for the militant group. “If the crew wields this arrogance, we have several options ahead of us. Armed resistance from Gaza is not the only option. We have the fronts in Jerusalem and in the West Bank, where we can participate in popular resistance. But we do not rule out armed resistance either. “
Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman contributed to the coverage.