Israel hits Gaza with air strikes for second time in three days

Action comes after militants send incendiary balloons into southern Israeli farmland

A Palestinian street vendor sells baby clothes in Gaza City on Thursday near the rubble of a building that was destroyed by last month’s Israeli air strikes. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

A Palestinian street vendor sells baby clothes in Gaza City on Thursday near the rubble of a building that was destroyed by last month’s Israeli air strikes. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images

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Israeli air strikes hit several sites in Gaza on Thursday night for the second time in three days, after Palestinian militants sent incendiary balloons into farmland in southern Israel for the third day in a row.

There were no reported casualties in either Israel or Gaza, but the exchange raised the spectre of a return to full-scale conflict for the first time since an 11-day air war ended nearly a month ago.

The Israeli army said it had targeted military compounds and a rocket launching site near Gaza City and Khan Younis, two of the biggest cities in the strip, shortly before midnight Thursday. A Hamas-linked media outlet in Gaza reported hits on sites near Gaza City and Khan Younis, as well as in Jabalia, a town in the north of the strip.

About an hour later, early on Friday, sirens sounded in areas of southern Israel close to Gaza, a warning that the Israeli military said was prompted by gunfire from militants in Gaza, not rockets, which might have led to an even more forceful Israeli response.

The Israeli air strikes followed attempts by militants in Gaza to set fires in Israeli farmland surrounding the strip. Militants sent balloons attached to incendiary devices over the perimeter fence. Eight fires were reported Thursday, in addition to scores earlier in the week.

Analysts and diplomats are sceptical that either Hamas or Israel wants a repeat of the war in May. Israel’s new government is barely a few days into its term, while Hamas is still counting the cost of the damage caused last month. The chief of staff of the Israeli army, Aviv Kochavi, is still planning to visit counterparts in the United States this weekend.

But while the exchanges on Thursday and into Friday stopped short of a full-scale escalation, they underscored the fragile nature of the ceasefire that followed the air war in May.

The new Israeli government does not want to appear weak and is trying to differentiate itself from Binyamin Netanyahu’s administration, which it replaced on Sunday. Mr Netanyahu tended to ignore the balloons, whereas his successors want to show that the balloons will be met by a military response.– New York Times