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Israel says hit by more ‘arson balloons’ after striking Gaza

Gaza City – Palestinian militants again launched incendiary balloons from Gaza yesterday, hours after Israeli strikes in response to earlier cross-border fire attacks, the first flare-up since hundreds were killed in last month’s conflict.

The air strikes on the Palestinian enclave of Gaza were the first under Israel’s new government headed by Naftali Bennett, whose ideologically disparate coalition on Sunday ousted long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A fire department spokesman told AFP that teams were tackling “four fires started by balloons launched yesterday afternoon from the Gaza Strip”, marking a second consecutive day of such fires.

Tensions also rose again in the occupied West Bank, where the Israeli army said they shot a Palestinian woman, alleging she had attempted to ram soldiers with a car and then stab them.

The renewed violence came a day after Jewish ultranationalist demonstrators poured into Jerusalem’s flashpoint Old City, where scores of police clashed with Palestinians to clear a route for the procession.

Tensions in east Jerusalem, culminating in Israeli police repeatedly clashing with Palestinian worshippers in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, were the trigger for last month’s 11-day conflict between Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas and Israel.

The Israeli military said that in response to “arson balloons” sent into Israel on Tuesday, its “fighter jets struck military compounds belonging to the Hamas terror organisation” early Wednesday.

There was no indication of any casualties.

Israel’s military added that it was “prepared for any scenario, including a resumption of hostilities,” in the event of further attacks from Gaza.

‘Lessons learnt’

The violence is the first between Israel and Hamas since a ceasefire took effect on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting that killed 260 Palestinians including some fighters, according to Gaza authorities.

In Israel, 13 people were killed in last month’s conflict, including a soldier, by rockets and missiles fired from Gaza, the police and army said.

Bennett yesterday met army chief Aviv Kochavi, and the two discussed “the lessons to be learnt from the operation in the Gaza Strip” in May, according to a statement by the premier’s office.

In the West Bank yesterday, a Palestinian woman was shot after attempting to drive into Israeli soldiers in a car and attack them with a knife near Hizma, south of Ramallah, the military said.

The Palestinian health ministry said the woman died of her wounds.

Official Palestinian news website Wafa identified the woman as Mai Afana, 29, from the town of Abu Dis, just outside Jerusalem.

But her uncle Hani Afana told AFP that the family rejected the claim that the young mother had tried to kill Israeli soldiers. She “took this road by mistake,” and “did not attempt to carry out an attack,” he said.

The previous day saw more than a thousand Israelis bearing their national flag take to the streets of east Jerusalem in a delayed and controversial march by nationalist and far-right activists.

Both the United Nations and the United States had called for restraint before the march, which Bennett’s new government authorised.

‘Provocation’

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 later annexed it, a move not recognised by most of the international community.

With tensions high, Israeli police were deployed in numbers for the delayed march, blocking roads and firing stun grenades and foam-tipped bullets to disperse Palestinians from the route.

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

The march triggered protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and prompted rebukes and warnings from Israel’s allies.

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

Some chanted “Death to Arabs” before others persuaded them to stop.

The march came just two days after Netanyahu was ousted following 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.

Yair Lapid, the centrist architect of the new government, tweeted that 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.”

Arab Israelis — descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land when the state of Israel was created in 1948 — make up around 20 per cent of the Israeli population.

Mansour Abbas, whose Islamic conservative party Raam is vital to the new coalition, called Tuesday’s march a “provocation” that should have been cancelled. — AFP

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