Hamas-backed Palestinian activists on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip launched a new wave of incendiary balloons into Israel, further raising tensions after a night of Israeli airstrikes on the seaside territory.
The enemy sides this week have engaged in their heaviest cross-border fighting since an 11-day war in May. In the occupied West Bank, meanwhile, officials said a Palestinian teen was killed in a clash with the Israeli military.
The May war between Israel and Hamas militants ended with an inconclusive Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. Since then, Gaza's Hamas rulers have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in efforts to cement the truce. Hamas wants Israel to lift a stifling blockade on Gaza, while Israel has demanded the return of the remains of two soldiers, in addition to two captive Israeli civilians, Hamas is believed to be holding.
Hamas-backed activists have launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel several times in recent weeks, setting fires on the other side of the border. On Saturday, they held a violent demonstration along the Israeli border fence.
During the demonstration, a militant next to the fence pulled out a pistol and shot an Israeli sniper in the head at point blank range. The Israeli remains in critical condition. Some two-dozen Palestinians were also hit by Israeli fire.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it was beefing up its forces along the Gaza border and conducting extensive exercises. The army said that it would “act aggressively” against any militant activity along the fence.
Early on Tuesday, Israeli warplanes carried out a series of airstrikes on Hamas targets in response to incendiary balloons. The Israeli military said that Hamas fired machine guns into Israel, drawing an additional airstrike. No casualties were reported on either side.
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But by the afternoon, the activists were launching the balloons again. “Our message is clear and explicit. This siege must be broken,” said one of the activists, who identified himself as Abu Omar. “We will not be intimidated by any threats.”
The violence has complicated the cease-fire efforts by Egypt, which closed its border with Gaza on Monday because of difficulties in the cease-fire talks. It also has threatened to overshadow a visit to Washington by Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who is scheduled to meet President Joe Biden at the White House on Thursday.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections. The blockade restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza and has crushed the local economy. Israel has tightened the blockade since the war, holding up deliveries of much-needed reconstruction materials.
Last week, Israel said it had reached an agreement with the Gulf country Qatar to resume monthly aid payments to Gaza's poorest families. The payments are to resume in the coming weeks, providing some relief to impoverished Gaza.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinian authorities said a 15-year-old boy died after being shot in the head during clashes with soldiers in the northern city of Nablus. The Israeli military said soldiers were carrying out an arrest raid in the Balata refugee camp when they came under attack from nearby rooftops by Palestinians who fired guns and threw large stone blocks.
The military said soldiers opened fire at a person they said was about to drop a large object on them. It was unclear whether the teen, identified as Imad Hashash, was the same person.
Associated Press writer Jack Jeffery reported from Ramallah, West Bank.