Israel launches airstrikes in Gaza Strip

Officials claim Palestinian activists sent incendiary balloons over the border

A Palestinian protester uses slingshots to hurl stones while waving a Palestinian flag as others burn tires during clashes with Israeli security forces along the frontier with Israel east of Gaza City on Friday. (AP/Adel Hana)

JERUSALEM -- Israel carried out a series of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip late Friday after Palestinian activists launched incendiary balloons into Israel as a week of violence along the volatile frontier intensified.

The rising tensions along Israel's front with Gaza came as fighting in the occupied West Bank surged to levels unseen in two decades. In the latest bloodshed Friday, the Israeli army killed a Palestinian militant in the northern West Bank.

For the past week, Palestinian activists have been protesting at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. The protests have turned violent, with demonstrators hurling explosives toward Israeli troops and soldiers responding with tear gas and live fire.

For the first time in the current round of unrest, Palestinian protesters on Friday launched balloons into Israel, blackening large patches of vegetation on the other side of the border. Palestinian health officials said Israeli gunfire wounded 28 Palestinians during protests along the barrier. Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza since 2007, says youths have organized the protests in response to Israeli provocations.

Unrest over the past week has escalated tensions and prompted Israel to bar entry to thousands of Palestinian laborers from the impoverished enclave.

The evening airstrikes struck three military posts belonging to Hamas, the army said. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and engaged in numerous smaller battles since Hamas took over the territory.

On Friday, Palestinian protesters at the border fence said they were demonstrating against recent Jewish visits to a disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem. Jews revere the hilltop compound as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Jewish Temples. Today, it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Under long-standing arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit the site, but not to pray there. But growing numbers of visits -- along with scenes of some Jews quietly praying -- have raised Palestinian fears that Israel is plotting to divide or take over the site. Israel says it is committed to the longstanding status quo.

Earlier Friday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant in the northern West Bank, Palestinian authorities said. The Islamic Jihad militant group claimed the man as its fighter and identified him as 18-year-old Abdallah Abu Hasan.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Hasan was shot in the abdomen by Israeli forces early Friday morning in a Palestinian village north of the West Bank city of Jenin.

The Israeli army said the shooting occurred during a nighttime raid in Kafr Dan, a town near the militant stronghold of Jenin. It said Palestinians fired at soldiers and threw explosives. Soldiers shot back, hitting Hasan.

Around 190 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the start of the year, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Israel says most of those killed have been militants, but youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

At least 31 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks against Israelis since the beginning of 2023.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their hoped-for independent state.