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Could Israeli air strikes on Gaza trigger another round of violence?

Surge of violence poses early test for Israel’s fragile new coalition government

Israeli air strikes hit Gaza early this morning in retaliation for incendiary balloons that crossed into the country from the Palestinian territory.

After Israeli police also fired rubber bullets on Palestinians attempting to disrupt a right-wing nationalist march in Jerusalem, the limited strikes served to “highlight the fragility of a ceasefire in the region and pose a first test” for the new coalition government, The Washington Post says. 

The outbreak of direct hostilities has raised “the spectre of renewed violence in the region” just weeks after the most serious fighting in years, The Wall Street Journal reports, laying down the challenge for Naftali Bennett’s two-day-old coalition government to “figure out how to prevent renewed tensions from escalating”.

Fragile peace

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement that they struck a series of targets in Gaza after incendiary balloons launched from the Hamas-held territory sparked a number of fires in southern Israel. 

The IDF said the strikes targeted military compounds belonging to Hamas, claiming in a statement that the group “is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip, and will bear the consequences for its actions”.

WAFA, the official Palestinian News Agency, also confirmed that the strikes hit Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip, and another site south of Gaza City, adding that “material damage” occurred but that there were no casualties.

Israel and Hamas agreed a ceasefire on 21 May following 11 days of violence that left more than 240 Gazans, including 65 children, and 13 residents of Israel dead. However, “while the worst communal violence in Israel has subsided since the Egypt-brokered accord took place, tensions remain high”, The Washington Post says.

The launch of incendiary balloons yesterday came after hundreds of Israeli ultranationalists had marched into Jerusalem’s Old City with some chanting “death to Arabs!” and “may your village burn,” according to the Associated Press. 

Hamas had called on Palestinians to “resist” the event, which marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also condemning the scenes, writing on Twitter that the “fact that there are extremist elements for whom the flag of Israel represents hate and racism is revolting and unforgivable”.

“Scores of stone-throwing Palestinians took part in running street battles with Israeli security forces” in an effort to disrupt the march, The Wall Street Journal says, with at least 33 people injured, including a 14-year-old boy who was hit by a rubber bullet, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

“The march was seen as the first major test for Israel's new government”, CNN says, with Bennett previously calling on Benjamin Netanyahu to take a “tougher stance against Hamas and the launching of incendiary balloons”.

But while calling for escalation may win political points in opposition, Bennett must now avoid triggering “a new spiral of violence like the one that rattled Israel last month”, The Wall Street Journal adds.

On the throne

Prior to the march, Bennett’s key coalition partner, leader of the United Arab List, Mansour Abbas, warned that the protest could trigger further violence, describing it as “an attempt to set the region on fire for political purposes”.

The march organisers were also “former allies turned political enemies” of Bennett who previously served as CEO of a Jewish settler company, but “has drawn ire from Israel’s right-wing population” for forming a government including Abbas’s Arab party in order to oust Netanyahu, The Wall Street Journal says.

Israeli police “moved the procession to avoid the Muslim quarter of the city”, but that the events still ended in IDF strikes on Gaza evidences that the potential for escalation poses “a significant challenge to the new government”, The Washington Post says.

Bennett has previously “made statements in the past warning that incendiary balloons would be treated like rockets”, The Jerusalem Post reports, and in opposition also voiced his belief that Jews should have greater control over the al-Aqsa mosque compound, known by Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s contested Old City.

But in office, he now faces the challenge of avoiding violence that could easily spiral, outstripping “the worst violence in years between Israel and Hamas” last month, CNN says.

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