Israel Fires on Targets in Gaza as Palestinian Riots Continue

GAZA (Reuters) -
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An explosion is seen following an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip, Friday night. (Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Israeli air and ground forces fired on the Gaza Strip Friday, as the military said its troops had come under fire from Gaza terrorists.

The military said aircraft and tanks hit eight Hamas positions in Gaza after its forces had been shot at and had explosive devices hurled at them along the border. More airstrikes pounded Gaza as darkness fell, in what the military described as a “wide-scale attack against Hamas.”

Israeli media said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was holding discussions with cabinet colleagues and military chiefs about the escalation of hostilities during the long-running Palestinian riots on the Israel-Gaza border.

Four Palestinians were killed Friday. Hamas claimed three of the dead as members of its group; the fourth was a civilian, according to local residents and medics said. At least 120 Palestinians were wounded.

Earlier Friday, Hamas defied Israeli calls to stop launching incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip, as Israel’s defense minister threatened to order a military offensive to stop them.

Fires caused by flame-carrying Palestinian kites and helium-filled balloons have ravaged tracts of farmland in Israel in recent months. The tactic has become popular during the months-long Gaza border protests known as “The Great March of Return,” in which more than 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces.

Israel has vowed to stop the kite attacks, even at the risk of a wider conflict. But Khalil Al-Hayya, Hamas’s deputy chief in Gaza, said on Friday that the kites would continue to fly.

“In the face of Zionist threats, we say the resistance will continue, the marches will continue and its tools will continue to vary and take different forms, including the kites,” he said.

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Israeli firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire ignited by a Palestinian kite, Friday. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

Visiting the Israeli town of Sderot on Friday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated Israeli demands that Hamas stop the kite fliers.

“We are trying to be balanced and responsible, but Hamas’s leaders are forcing us into a situation in which we will have no choice but to embark on a broad and painful military operation,” Lieberman said. “I think responsibility will fall entirely on Hamas’s shoulders, but I’m sorry to say that ordinary Gazans will have to pay the price.”

Hayya also said on Friday that Hamas was holding two Israeli soldiers that Israel had declared killed in action during the 2014 war in Gaza.

He said they would only be returned as part of a deal similar to that in 2011 which saw a captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, released in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel.

“Your soldiers are still in our hands … The occupation will not see them until they pay the price, just like they did for Shalit,” Hayya said.