Israel Shuts Gaza Border Crossing Amid Flare-up After Coronavirus Lull

Launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza across the border resume, combining with other incidents to make residents in southern Israel wary of a military escalation

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A tank in the Gaza border area on August 10, 2020.
A tank in the Gaza border area on August 10, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Israel announced late Monday it would shut the Kerem Shalom crossing on its border with the Gaza Strip, in response to the resumption in recent days of cross-border attacks.

After a lull of several months amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in the region, Palestinians in Gaza have resumed launching incendiary balloons across the border fence, leading Israelis living near the border to fear a new security flare-up.

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The Defense Ministry said that as of Tuesday morning, only "vital humanitarian aid" and fuel would be allowed through the Kerem Shalom crossing, "following recurring acts of terrorism... which violate Israel's sovereignty."

Over the past week, the army has attacked a few Hamas targets in Gaza, as it has on previous occasions of balloons being launched.

The balloon launches began around a year and a half ago, when Gazans started holding weekly demonstrations along the border.

They had started tapering off before the coronavirus pandemic hit, stopping almost completely afterward. There has also been very little rocket fire.

Yet over the last several days, several balloons have been launched from Gaza, causing explosions and fires in woods and agricultural lands. According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, around 1,000 dunams (about 250 acres) have been destroyed so far .

'We keep coming back to this'

Ilanit Swissa of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, a few kilometers away from Gaza, said her 10-year-old daughter has become increasingly fearful. Now, Renana wants her mother to stand guard over her in the shower.

“It’s happening because she feels that things are heating up,” Swissa said. “The balloons are a trigger, and she’s already looking ahead.”

A fire in the Gaza border area on August 7, 2020.
A fire in the Gaza border area on August 7, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

For the past three years, Renana has been receiving treatment at a center in the area to help her deal with the security situation. But “the noise it makes overhead is enough to frighten her,” Swissa said.

“It’s hard to digest the fact that this is resuming,” said Sagit Dabush, the head of Kibbutz Carmia’s emergency response team. “Every time, your body tenses up anew, and so does your psyche. It’s exhausting and frustrating. It’s hard to believe that we keep coming back to this situation over and over.”

The three kibbutzim bordering Gaza – Erez, Carmia and Nir Am – have been the balloons’ main targets in recent days, as the launchers take advantage of the prevailing winds blowing the balloons across the border.

Incendiary balloons have also started fires near Kibbutz Be’eri and in the Kissufim forest in recent days. On Monday, the fire and rescue service said balloons had started four fires in the Eshkol Regional Council, but the council itself reported 25 fires.

A few days ago, an incendiary balloon was found in the Arad industrial zone, which is dozens of kilometers from Gaza. And on Monday, one was found in the city of Ofakim.

So far, the number of the balloon launches has been small compared to what it was at its peak. But there have also been other incidents that show things are heating up in the area.

On Sunday, for instance, Gazans shot at Israeli soldiers who had come to evacuate civilian workers building a new border fence after the workers reported hearing gunfire. And last week, a rocket was fired at Sderot, though it was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Hamas sources told Haaretz on Saturday that the resumption of balloon launches was intended to send a message to Israel and the international community that Gaza is fed up with the absence of progress toward improving conditions in the territory.

“They said there were understandings and agreements on advancing projects, mainly in the field of infrastructure and on the humanitarian level, but everything seems to be stuck,” one senior Hamas official said. All Gaza has gotten so far, he added, is $100 grants to the poor from Qatar, and that isn’t enough.

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