JERUSALEM: Israel closed its goods crossing with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday after militants in the Hamas-run territory fired rockets into the Mediterranean and launched waves of incendiary balloons into the Jewish state.

The Kerem Shalom crossing will be closed until further notice to all traffic except humanitarian equipment and fuel, COGAT, the defence ministry unit that oversees the crossings, said in a statement prior to the closure. The move comes in response to “continued launching of incendiary balloons” from Gaza, it added.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement, “In the south, Hamas is continuing to enable explosive balloon attacks to be launched into the State of Israel. We are not prepared to accept that and have closed the Kerem Shalom border crossing as a result.” Israeli fire services in the south of the country reported 60 fires caused by balloons on Tuesday alone, without recording any casualties.

“There will be a very heavy price for the balloon terrorism. We shall not tolerate it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to an air force base on Tuesday.

Hamas denounced the Kerem Shalom closure as an “aggressive” move that testified to Israel’s “insistence on laying siege” to Gaza, and said it could cause further worsening of the humanitarian situation in the coastal strip.

The Palestinian territory has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007.

Explosives tied to balloons and kites first emerged as a weapon in Gaza during intense protests in 2018, when the makeshift devices drifted across the border daily, causing thousands of fires in Israeli farms and communities.

Recent balloon attacks into Israel have triggered retaliatory strikes against Hamas positions.

Hamas fired several rockets into the sea on Monday after repeated exchanges of fire with Israel in recent days, Palestinian security sources and eyewitnesses said.

The rockets were a “message” to Israel to let it know that armed groups in Gaza will not “remain silent” in the face of an Israeli blockade and “aggression”, a source close to Hamas said.

As the Kerem Shalom crossing closed, the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt opened for the first time since April, after it was closed a month earlier in a bid to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Traffic in both directions was to be permitted for three days, allowing Gazans to leave the crowded, poverty-stricken strip for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

According to the World Bank, around 53 percent of Gaza’s population lived below the poverty line before the novel coronavirus crisis.

That number could rise above 60 percent due to economic fallout from the pandemic, it has said. Hamas and Israel have fought three wars since 2008.

Despite a truce last year, backed by the UN, Egypt and Qatar, the two sides clash sporadically with rockets, mortar fire or incendiary balloons.

Palestinian analysts say fire from Gaza often aims to pressure Israel to give the green light for the transfer of Qatari financial aid into the strip.

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2020

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