JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli airstrikes hit a militant site in Gaza on Saturday for the second time in as many days, the Israeli army said, after Palestinian militants sent incendiary balloons into Israeli farmland and Palestinian protesters threw stones and explosives at soldiers at the separation fence.
There were no reported casualties from the strikes in Gaza. Earlier Saturday, the Israeli military shot and wounded three Palestinians who were rallying at the separation fence along the Israeli frontier with the crowded enclave. It’s a familiar tactic for Palestinians in Gaza protesting a 16-year blockade imposed by Israel with Egypt’s help. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent the ruling Hamas militant group from arming itself.
It was the latest in a series of violent protests over the past week that has raised the specter of an escalation for the first time since a brief round of conflict last May between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group. It comes at a fraught time, just before the Sukkot festival in Israel next week.
During Sukkot, large numbers of Jews are expected to visit Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The compound, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is often a focal point for violence.
“Our rebellious youth are expressing their anger at the attempts at religious war being waged against our people in Jerusalem,” Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem told local media from the protests, where tires set alight smoldered behind him.
The Israeli army said Saturday it had targeted a post belonging to the territory’s militant Hamas rulers near the separation fence in eastern Gaza where dozens of Palestinians had protested. Hamas-linked media outlets posted photos of militants sending a barrage of balloons attached to incendiary devices over the border from eastern Khan Younis, one of the biggest cities in the strip.
Militants similarly attempted to set fires in Israeli farmland surrounding the strip on Friday after another protest at the perimeter fence left nearly three dozen Palestinians wounded by Israeli fire. Israel also responded with a series of airstrikes late Friday.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has described the protests as spontaneously organized by “rebellious youths” in response to Israeli provocations. Israel has opted for a punitive response, barring about 18,000 Palestinian laborers from Gaza from working in Israel, where they can earn up to 10 times as much money as in Gaza.
The exchanges on Friday and Saturday stopped short of a full-scale escalation. But they underscored the fragile nature of the calm that had pervaded Israel’s border with Gaza for the past several months, even as Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged in the occupied West Bank.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and engaged in numerous smaller battles since Hamas took over the territory.