Hamas operatives launch incendiary balloons into Israel

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group on Saturday launched over a dozen of incendiary balloons into Israel, seeking to ratchet up pressure in order to ease a crippling blockade of the territory.

Photos and videos posted online showed masked Hamas-affiliated operatives holding pictures of Gazans killed in recent clashes with Israeli forces while they launched balloons in the direction of Israel.

There were no immediate reports of any fires in southern Israel. Israel’s new government has compared the balloons, which have sparked a series of wildfires in recent weeks, to rocket fire. It often responds to the launches with nighttime airstrikes on Hamas targets.

Hamas has also staged a series of violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks calling for an end to the blockade, which is also conducted by Gaza’s western neighbor, Egypt.

In an angry statement, a Hamas spokesman said Saturday that the Gazan people were determined to “break the siege” and no longer accepted the two countries’ “gradual easing” of the blockade.

Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade when Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, a year after winning a Palestinian election. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas from smuggling weapons into the territory. Critics say the blockade, which greatly restricts trade and travel in and out of Gaza, amounts to collective punishment.

Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, have fought four wars since Hamas took power, most recently an 11-day battle in May.

Egypt, which often mediates between the enemy sides, has been trying to broker a long-term cease-fire since the fighting ended. Israel has agreed to allow the Gulf country of Qatar to resume some aid money to impoverished Gaza families, and on Wednesday Israel began easing the blockade to allow more merchants to cross the border and key construction materials to enter.

But with the Gaza economy in tatters, Hamas has called for much greater concessions from Israel and vowed to step up its activities along the border. Protests over the past two weeks have often turned violent, with one Israeli sniper and three Palestinian protesters, including a Hamas militant, killed in clashes.

Hamas has dismissed Israeli’s loosening of the blockade as inadequate and repeatedly vowed to continue organizing demonstrations until the blockade is further eased. Israel has demanded that Hamas release two Israeli civilians it is holding and return the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers killed in a 2014 war.