Tensions along the Israel-Gaza Strip border escalated dramatically on Saturday with an intense exchange of fire between Palestinian militants and Israeli security forces, including Israeli air force strikes inside Gaza, which reportedly targeted underground tunnels which Israel says are designed to launch attacks.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) cited 31 rockets fired from the Strip overnight to which Israel responded with airstrikes on 40 targets including Hamas' battalion headquarters, in a flare-up of hostilities officials are calling the biggest attack since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Amazingly, however, no serious casualties were reported on either side, according to Bloomberg.
Hamas, for its part, claimed 15 sites struck withing Israel, saying in an official statement the rocket launches were meant to "force the enemy to stop the escalation." Both Hamas officials and Palestinian activists say Israeli security has deliberately targeted civilian protesters along the border fence which has left hundreds dead and wounded, which the United Nations is currently investigating.
In response, Israel claims the civilian protesters are being deliberately used as human shields - including women and children - ordered by Hamas military officials to go to the front lines where they know they could be shot. Since March, Gaza officials have counted over 140 Gazans killed almost 2000 wounded by Israeli live fire.
Israeli military statements further said the significant overnight airstrikes on Hamas positions were in response to a series of arson attacks as well as assaults on Israeli solders.
Israeli military footage of the overnight airstrikes:
There's been a significant uptick in so-called 'kite bombs' and 'arson balloons' since early summer. Israeli authorities have attributed a recent spate of fires ravaging farmlands to the low-tech kites and "arson balloons" which have resulted in over 400 fires burning more than 6,000 acres, according to a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
On Thursday, Israeli media reports counted 21 fires originating in a single day due to burning kites launched from Gaza, impacting farmlands in southern Israel.
Since the 'Great March of Return' protests, which started along the Israeli-Gaza border fence in late March, explosive and incendiary devices have been used to target farmlands in southern Israel. Large kites or collections of balloons will typically be released while carrying burning items attached by a long cord. They've also been dubbed 'Molotov cocktail kites' and have become the latest improvised means of getting around Israel's high-tech air defense systems.
In mid-June, Israeli media reported widely on alleged Palestinian plans to launch 5,000 such devices into southern Israel to mark a major Islamic holiday, at which time Israel announced a near total ban on helium entering the Gaza Strip.
According to the Jerusalem Post:
Israel announced that it was limiting the entrance of helium into the Gaza Strip. Helium is used for various medical reasons such as MRI machines.
Israel has said that Palestinians have been using the gas to fill incendiary balloons in order to increase the distance they can travel. The decision to ban the transfer of helium was implemented by Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon following Liberman’s approval.
Israel has also been reportedly experimenting with the use of drones to latch onto the burning kites and guide them away from Israeli settlements, which the IDF says it has done successfully in some cases. On Friday two Palestinians — including a 15-year old — were shot dead for reportedly trying to breach the border in an incident Israeli soldiers said was a broader assault that included grenades, explosives, and rocks.
The latest escalation involving mortars and airstrikes are likely a sign of more to come into the weekend and possibly next week.