Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett ordered fresh air strikes in the Gaza Strip overnight, after incendiary balloons launched by Palestinian militants Hamas provided an early test for the new premier.
The Hamas balloons came after Bennett’s government allowed rightwing settlers to march to the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem on Tuesday to celebrate Israel’s conquest of the Holy City in the 1967 war. The number of balloons increased as social media carried images of Israeli police on horseback beating back Palestinian youths and throwing stun grenades to keep them hundreds of metres away from the right-wing settlers.
The retaliatory strikes by the three-day-old government were the first such attacks since an 11-day aerial bombardment last month. The Israeli military on Wednesday said it struck “military compounds and meeting sites” overnight. There were no casualties.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and whose balloons caused small fires near the border, did not retaliate with rockets. This suggested that the ceasefire hammered out by Egypt, the US and the UN that ended the conflict in May was holding.
But the flare-up underscored the challenges Bennett inherited from ousted prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His predecessor had endorsed a policy of “quiet for quiet” with Hamas, responding to attacks with limited air strikes. This changed when the militants’ rockets reached deep inside Israel on May 10, triggering the recent conflict.
As education minister in a previous government, Bennett, an ultranationalist tech millionaire, had demanded the military shoot Palestinians lighting incendiary balloons. The balloons, carried into Israel by the sea breeze, start fires in Israel’s agricultural areas surrounding the Gaza Strip.
But Bennett is now in charge of an eight-party coalition, stretching from the far right to the left and reliant on votes from an Islamist Arab party that supports his government. He is also facing pressure from the right wing to prove his ultra-nationalist credentials with a harsher response, and to signal his independence from the Islamist Arab party that supports his government.
“For the first time in Israel, we have a minority Zionist government — it depends on its existence on a party that is part of the Muslim brotherhood just like Hamas,” said retired brigadier general Amir Avivi, who heads Habithonistim, a group of 2,000 former Israeli generals, officers and Mossad operatives that lobby for stronger military action. “If they are the ones who decide whether this government will exist or not, they have a huge political power — and we are worried about Israel’s national security.”
There is no indication that Bennett’s decision to attack was influenced by his coalition partners, and the limited air strikes in response to the balloons are part of an established “escalation ladder” that the Israeli military has followed for years.
Tuesday’s attacks came after the march by rightwing settlers, some screaming “Death to Arabs” and “Let your cities burn,” from West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. The Flag March was cancelled on May 10, after weeks of clashes between East Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli police and just before Hamas fired a round of rockets towards Jerusalem to warn Israel to halt a series of planned expulsions of Arabs and the march. That volley triggered the recent conflict.
The rescheduled march had been re-routed to avoid the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a political decision by Bennett’s government and a concession to his coalition allies. A smaller number of settlers were allowed to approach the old city while Damascus Gate itself was closed to keep them from entering the deserted Muslim quarter.
For Netanyahu’s allies, the decision to change the route was a failure of Bennett’s government. “I personally don’t believe that we should be cancelling something because of threats from terrorists — it’s not like we are telling anybody in Gaza when and where to march,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem deputy mayor, who has championed more Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.
“All of this is ours,” said Orly Hasid, 50, who had travelled from the coast to join the march. “We won the war, so we own this city — the Muslims need to remember this.”