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Israel strikes Gaza again as militants set fire to Israel

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JERUSALEM Israeli airstrikes hit several areas in Gaza on Thursday night for the second time in three days, as Palestinian militants sent incendiary balloons to agricultural land in southern Israel for the third day in a row.

There were no reported casualties in either Israel or Gaza, but the exchange raised the specter of a full-scale return to conflict for the first time since the end of an 11-day air war nearly a month ago.

The Israeli military said it had targeted military compositions and a missile launch site near Gaza City and Khan Younis, two of the largest cities in the strip, shortly before midnight on Thursday. A Hamas-affiliated media outlet in Gaza reported strikes in places near the city of Gaza and Khan Younis, as well as in Jabalia, a city north of the belt.

About an hour later, early Friday morning, sirens sounded in areas of southern Israel near Gaza, a warning that the Israeli military said was triggered by gunfire fired by militants in Gaza, not by rockets, which could have led to an even stronger Israeli response.

The Israeli airstrikes followed attempts by militants in Gaza to set fires on Israeli farmland around the belt. The militants sent balloons over the perimeter fence that had been attached to the incendiary devices. Eight fires were reported Thursday, in addition to results earlier in the week.

Analysts and diplomats are skeptical that Hamas or Israel wants a repeat of the war in May. The new Israeli government is barely a few days away from its mandate, while Hamas is still calculating the cost of the damage caused last month. Israeli Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi is still planning to visit his counterparts in the United States this weekend.

If there had been an appetite for growth and growth, it would have already happened, said Tor Wennesland, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, in a telephone interview Thursday morning.

But as the exchanges on Thursday and Friday stalled in a full-scale escalation, they underscored the fragile nature of the ceasefire that followed the air war in May.

The new Israeli government does not want to look weak and is trying to differentiate itself from Benjamin Netanyahu, whose administration was replaced on Sunday. Mr Netanyahu tried to ignore the balloons as his successors wanted to show that the balloons would be filled by a military response.

What it was is not what it will be, a Defense Ministry official said this week.

Hamas is reluctant to let the latest behavior by Israeli police and far-right activists in Jerusalem, which many Palestinians found offensive and provocative, pass unchallenged.

Despite mediation by Egyptian and UN officials, Hamas and Israel have not yet concluded a lasting ceasefire agreement.

Reconstruction in Gaza of thousands of homes, clinics, schools and key infrastructure systems has barely begun, with a damage assessment yet to be completed by Egypt and the United Nations. Israel is still blocking imports and exports of most items, including millions of dollars in aid from Qatar, on which Gaza’s economy depends.

For years, an Israeli and Egyptian blockade has restricted entry and exit from Gaza as Israel controls Gaza airspace, water access, cellular records and birth registers, and barred Palestinians from entering agricultural lands at the end of the belt. .

Talks on a new reconstruction agreement have stalled over disputes over the role the Palestinian Authority should play in managing the effort. Hamas ousted authority from Gaza in 2007 and it now administers only parts of the occupied West Bank.

Hamas is also seeking to include in the agreement the release of hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Israel wants Hamas to hand over two missing Israeli nationals and the remains of two Israeli soldiers.

Amid these disagreements and delays, many Palestinians in Gaza are still waiting for some sort of normalcy.

More than 8,000 remain homeless after their homes were destroyed in the war, with some living in the classrooms of a UN-run school in Gaza City.

The war will end when I leave this country, said a homeless young man, Mohammad Gharbain, 36, in a school interview on Wednesday. The war is still going on as long as I am here.

Iyad Abuheweila contributed to the report from Gaza City, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

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