More Fires Near Gaza Border Could Cause Irreversible Damage, Israel's Parks Authority Warns

Some 8,000 acres went up in flames due to airborne firebombs flown over the border from Gaza in recent months

A fire raging at the Gaza-border community of Ashalim, September 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Nature reserves and other open spaces near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip stand to suffer irreversible damage if more fires break out in the area, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said Tuesday.

Such blazes have been plaguing the area in recent months due to airborne firebombs being hurled into Israel from Gaza. The last of the fires was in November.

Two-thirds of the 32,000 dunams (8,000 acres) damaged by incendiary devices thrown from the Strip were in nature reserves and forests near the border, the parks authority said. The remaining third is mostly agricultural land.

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The parks authority’s chief scientist, Yehoshua Shkedi, said major damage was not only caused by the fires themselves but also as a result of operations that firefighters carried out there.

In a presentation on Tuesday summarizing the work of the parks authority this year, Shkedi said there were instances in which it would have been better to let a small fire burn rather than risking damage to a larger area from firefighting and the incursion of motor vehicles on the ground.

Israeli firefighters working to put out a blaze in the Be'eri Forest, October 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

“Natural areas in the Eastern Mediterranean have learned to adapt to fires over thousands of years and to recover,” Shkedi explained, “but it’s another story if these fires continue. The areas cannot stand up to waves of damage like that.”

Although the spate of incendiary devices flown from Gaza has stopped, parks authority staff are preparing for the possibility that they would resume, and are getting ready to minimize the damage. The plans include working with firefighting services on what equipment they would dispatch to nature areas and which access routes they would take to reduce the harm that this causes. The parks authority would also work to identify invasive species of plants that might spread into areas where fires had occurred – an invasion which would also prevent the areas from recovering.

In contrast to areas near the border with Gaza, other parts of Israel saw a decline in the number of fires in 2018. In 2016, there were 382 fires in national parks and nature reserves around the country that burned 59,000 dunams of land. This year, if the Gaza border area is excluded, the number has declined to 240 fires, affecting 28,000 dunams.

One of the main reasons for the decline in the number of fires around the country is a change in the conduct of army units, which began to take measures to prevent the outbreak of fires from training exercises and to extinguish those that do break out itself, parks authority director general Shaul Goldstein said.

Army training activity was the main cause of fires of a substantial scope in the parks and nature reserves. Despite the major improvement, army training exercises are still the leading cause of fires in the parks and nature reserves.