Bureij (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – As the colorful balloons floated into the evening sky of Gaza, there was a piercing crackle of gunfire.
A few moments earlier, the balloons had been launched by a group of masked young Palestinian men huddled near the Al-Bureij refugee camp.
They attached explosives to the weapon before driving them towards Israel.
Israeli troops along the border tried to lower the device, but the balloons continued to float.
Explosives tied to balloons and dragons first appeared in Gaza as a weapon ruled by the Islamist group Hamas during intense protests in 2018 when the devices drifted across the border daily and thousands of fires in Israeli farms and communities caused.
The Palestinians at the time said they wanted to promote constant fear and misery among the Israelis as a punishment for the debilitating 13-year blockade of the Jewish state in the Gaza Strip that the United Nations identified as the main cause of increasing poverty in the Strip.
Israel blamed Hamas for the balloon attacks, which ended after both sides reached secret deals to ease the blockade in exchange for calm.
But hostilities have increased again since US President Donald Trump released his controversial Middle East peace plan last month.
The plan sparked outrage among the Palestinians, who saw it as a wish list for Israel’s goals.
As tensions increased, Gazans once again aimed rocket fire and mortars at Israel, which usually struck back in the Strip with air strikes on Hamas positions.
And along with traditional weapons, the Gazans again sent air-laden balloons across the border.
“We are not afraid and will return to balloons despite threats to attack,” Abu Hamza, one of the young men preparing the equipment, told AFP.
– “create victims” –
Like many other things in the Gaza Strip, the weapon of balloons is the work of many political groups.
The young men in Al-Bureij camp said five large groups were involved in balloons, including ideological divisions.
Hamas, its ally Islamic Jihad and three other militant parties have special balloon launching units, the smallest of which has around 180 members.
But Israel blames Hamas for all hostile actions that come from the Gaza Strip.
Tensions have eased somewhat since Monday, when a delegation from Egypt, a longstanding mediator between Hamas and Israel, visited Gaza to negotiate calm.
But even when the Egyptian delegation was in town, the men in the tent inflated balloons and prepared explosives.
Group leader Abu Malek said the fire part of the weapon was “Yassin,” a 900-gram device named after Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was murdered by Israel in 2004.
He told AFP that Israeli kibbutzes (agricultural collectives) are a regular target and that the devices can reach Beersheba, about 50 kilometers (31 kilometers) from Gaza.
“We launch this missile to claim victims among soldiers and in homes,” he said.
Israel has sometimes attempted to attack the balloon assembly teams with air strikes or tanks, but this is difficult because the groups move quickly and the Israeli armed forces could potentially enter Gaza.
In December Israel presented a prototype of a laser called “Light Blade” that could prove effective against balloons. However, it is not clear when the technology will be ready for use.
– “Rudimentary devices” –
Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya told journalists that there was no official decision to resume ballooning after the fragile ceasefire.
The young people decided to “independently launch balloons to pressure the (Israeli) garrison to end its blockade,” he said.
Abu Hamza of the militant group of Salah al-Din descendants told AFP that his faction had independently decided a month ago to resume the attacks.
Palestinian political analyst Jamal Al-Fadi said the balloons “infuriate Israel because they are rudimentary and not traditional weapons.”
But he said he expected the balloons to stop if Egypt gave a lasting calm.
In the meantime, they continue to fly. On Thursday afternoon, Israeli media reported that several balloons had swum to the Israeli city of Sderot, landed near a school, and panicked residents had fled to bomb protection rooms.
Abu Hamza confirmed that his group would receive instructions from the military and political leaders.
“When a decision comes to stop it, we stop it,” he said.