Flaming Gaza balloons ignited fires throughout the South on Thursday, threatening to break the fragile informal truce between Israel and Hamas in advance of anticipated border riots on Friday.
Under the terms of the truce believed to be in play between the IDF and Hamas, the weekly Gaza border riots must remain peaceful.
The organizers of the protests, known as the March of Return, called on Palestinians to continue the weekly protests near the border, including this Friday.
The protests will be held under the banner of “Compassion and Solidarity,” the Commission for the March of Return and Breaking the Siege – which is in charge of the protests – said in a statement.
Dozens of fires broke out in the South after incendiary balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip, a situation made more dire by the extreme heat wave that hit the country. Fires raged in the Sha’ar Hanegev region as well as near Sderot, Be’eri and Nahal Oz.
Palestinian media reported that the Sons of Zouari group admitted to having launched hundreds of the arson balloons.
Sons of Zouari – which refers to Hamas’s chief drone expert and engineer Mohammad Zouari, who was assassinated in Tunisia in 2016 – has launched thousands of incendiary devices into Israel over the past year.
In the early months of the March of Return clashes, the group pledged to expand the range of its airborne Molotov cocktails to up to 40 km. from the Gaza Strip.
Speaking in New York on Wednesday, US special envoy Jason Greenblatt told the UN Security Council that Hamas and Islamic Jihad must be pressured to keep the peace with Israel, after incendiary balloons, launched from Gaza earlier in the day, caused 11 fires in southern Israel.
In response to those balloons, Israel restricted the Gaza fishing zone to 10 nautical miles, one day after extending it to 15 nautical miles. A 15-nautical mile fishing zone is believed to be a condition of the informal truce. Both Israel and Hamas have dismissed reports of such an informal truce.
“We must all speak loudly and clearly and say that these attacks upon Israel, which are perpetrated by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whether by rockets, incendiary balloons or other methods, must end,” Greenblatt told the UNSC.
He called on the council to declare Hamas a terrorist group for its actions against both Israelis and Palestinians.
Greenblatt blasted Hamas and PIJ for continuing to use civilians in Gaza, including children, as human shields, and for having siphoned off “the scarce resources of the people of Gaza to build their terror arsenal, while preventing donor aid from reaching the people. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are to blame for the suffering of the people of Gaza.”
Greenblatt spoke during the UNSC’s monthly debate on the Middle East. He noted that “both Hamas and Islamic Jihad target Israeli communities, including hospitals and schools, in a cynical attempt to extract concessions from Israel. Nothing can be meaningfully fixed until they renounce terror and cease their acts of violence and their vow to destroy Israel. When will the Security Council say this out loud? When will we clearly reject this terrorism?”
Also addressing the Security Council was UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov, who said the UN and Egypt are working with all parties to ensure that calm is maintained.
“While the situation has now stabilized, it remains very tense,” Mladenov said. “One thing is clear: these dangerous cycles of escalation and de-escalation are not sustainable in the future.”
Mladenov “condemned in the strongest terms the launching of rockets from Gaza into Israel, particularly the targeting of civilian population centers,” and he also called on Israel “to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from using lethal force against protesters, except as a last resort.”
Mladenov urged both Israel and Hamas to take steps to reduce tensions, solidify the calm and commit to the understanding that has been established over the last few months.
“UN and Egyptian teams will continue to work intensely with all sides in order to use the window of opportunity to provide assistance to the people of Gaza and further reduce the risk of conflict,” Mladenov said.
The international community, he said, has worked to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, with $112 million mobilized to increase electricity produced by the Gaza power plant, create temporary jobs and for health services.
In May, Qatar pledged $480m. of which $180m. is for Gaza, $250m. is for loans for the Palestinian government in the West Bank, and $50m. is for grants for projects in the West Bank.
Some of the funding will allow the UN to provide fuel to help increase Gaza’s electricity supply through the end of the year, Mladenov said.
Turning to the West Bank, the UN special coordinator said that for the third consecutive month, the Palestinian Authority has refused to accept the tax revenues Israel has sent. The PA has refused the money to protest Israel’s decision to withhold from the monthly payments the PA pays to terrorists and their family members.
Without those funds, Mladenov said, the PA’s survival remains at risk.
“Both parties should implement their bilateral agreements and avoid taking unilateral actions that undermine the stability of the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “We must ask ourselves: how many more years will Palestinians in Gaza be forced to live on pittance from the international community, under the control of Hamas, and suffer from Israeli closures? How many more years will Israelis be forced to run for shelters as rockets launched by Palestinian militants in Gaza rain down indiscriminately from above?”
Mladenov also gave a nod in the direction of the US economic workshop on behalf of the Palestinians scheduled for next month in Bahrain, but said that such steps were limited without a political resolution.
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