JERUSALEM — The Israeli military on Sunday said it carried out four airstrikes targeting Palestinians launching burning kites and balloons into southern Israel.
No one was injured in the strikes, but it marked an escalation in Israel's response to a phenomenon that has wreaked havoc on fields and nature reserves in southern Israel in recent weeks. Burning kites set fields ablaze in more than a dozen locations on a hot, windy, dry Saturday.
The army said two of the airstrikes targeted vehicles and infrastructure in the Gaza Strip belonging to Palestinians involved in launching "arson balloons" or kites.
Gazans began flying kites with burning rags attached to them during mass protests against the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory. Israeli troops have fired on the protesters, killing more than 120 Palestinians since the weekly demonstrations began on March 30.
Most of the casualties, who also include some 3,800 wounded by gunfire, have been unarmed, according to Palestinian health officials. The Israeli military says militants have endangered civilians by using the protests as cover to carry out attacks and to try to breach the border fence.
The Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, has led the protests. Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for the fires.
While Israel has been mostly successful in thwarting militant infiltration attempts and rocket fire, it has struggled to stop the low-tech kites drifting into its territory.
A parliamentary committee last week said the fires have destroyed more than 6,000 acres of land, causing some $2 million in damage. Israel says it plans to deduct from tax funds it collects for the Palestinians to compensate farmers.
The military says its drones have been able to shoot down more than 90 percent of the kites and flaming balloons, and that it will continue targeting them.
Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett compared the kites to rockets, and said the response to them should be the same. "We should not wait until Israeli citizens are hurt and only then wake up," he said.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli police evicted Jewish settlers from 10 homes they had built in violation of Israeli law.
Israel captured the West Bank along with east Jerusalem in the 1967 war and today about 600,000 settlers live in those areas. Most of the international community considers settlements to be either illegal or illegitimate.
Israel's Supreme Court often rules that structures built illegally have to be evacuated and demolished. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 11 officers were wounded in scuffles and that police arrested six protesters.
Also Sunday, Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency announced that it uncovered a Hamas cell operating in the West Bank city of Nablus in April that it said was plotting carry out a series of attacks in Israel and the West Bank. The agency said it arrested over 20 members of the group.