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Israel strikes Gaza Strip in 'retaliation' for incendiary balloons

Israel's military said it had struck Hamas-controlled infrastructure including 'underground infrastructure and observation posts'
Smoke and flames rise after war planes belonging to the Israeli army carried out airstrikes over the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah (AFP)

Israel has carried out multiple strikes in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the launching of incendiary balloons from the besieged enclave in recent days.

The Israeli military said Wednesday it carried out overnight strikes on Hamas targets including "underground infrastructure and observation posts."

"Jets, attack helicopters and tanks struck a number of Hamas targets," a statement said.  

The army said the strikes were "retaliation" for the launching of multiple balloons from the Hamas-run enclave. Fire services in southern Israel said the balloons caused 60 fires on Tuesday alone but reported no casualties. 

Explosives tied to balloons and kites first emerged as a weapon in Gaza during intense protests in 2018, when the makeshift devices drifted across the border daily, causing thousands of fires in Israeli farms and communities.

In the past week, such balloons have been launched three times from Gaza into Israel, each time triggering retaliatory strikes against Hamas positions.

Hamas also fired several rockets into the sea on Monday after repeated exchanges of fire with Israel in recent days, Palestinian security sources and eyewitnesses said.

The rockets were a "message" to Israel to let it know that armed groups in Gaza will not "remain silent" in the face of an Israeli blockade and "aggression", a source close to Hamas told AFP.

Another Hamas official said that they were an attempt to draw attention to stalled efforts to provide aid to the strip.

“They said there were understandings and agreements on advancing projects, mainly in the field of infrastructure and on the humanitarian level, but everything seems to be stuck,” the official told Haaretz.

Border crossing closed

Israel has closed its Kerem Shalom goods crossing with the Gaza Strip in response to the recent balloon launches.

Hamas said the move showed Israel's "insistence on laying siege" to Gaza, and warned it could cause further worsening of the humanitarian situation in the territory.

As the Kerem Shalom crossing closed, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt opened Tuesday for the first time since April.

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Traffic in both directions was to be permitted for three days, allowing Gazans to leave the enclave for the first time since the start of the pandemic. 

The Rafah crossing provides Gaza's sole access to the outside world not controlled by Israel.

The Palestinian territory has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. 

Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.

Despite a truce last year, backed by the UN, Egypt and Qatar, the two sides clash sporadically with rockets, mortar fire or incendiary balloons.

Palestinian analysts say cross-border fire from Gaza is often used as a bargaining tool to secure Israel's green light for the entry of Qatari financial aid into the territory.