First Balloon-arson Fire Since November Hits Forest Near Gaza

Incendiary balloon launch came few days after Hamas approved of the tactic, citing stalled talks on lifting Gaza closure

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters put out a blaze in a Gaza border forest caused by an incendiary balloon from Gaza, October 16, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A balloon-borne incendiary device sent from Gaza started a fire Tuesday in the Kissufim Forest near the Gaza border, the first such incident since November. The fire was fairly small and was put out quickly. The incendiary balloon comes a few days after Hamas approved a renewal of these attacks in light of stalled talks on lifting the closure of the Gaza Strip.

A senior Hamas political official told Haaretz that the organization did not want to go “all out” against Israel, so as to allow Egyptian-mediated talks to continue. However, Hamas said that Israel has been trying to impose quiet on the Strip by means of Qatari money, and senior Hamas officials said recently that the organization would not stop the protests at the border fence in exchange for the money.

>> Qatari money calms Hamas, but doesn't guarantee long-term quiet in Gaza | Analysis

Senior Hamas official Fathi Hamad said on Tuesday at a rally on Gaza’s northern beach that the continued closure on Gaza would lead to “an explosion.” He said that the Palestinians would break through the border fence if Israel did not go back to implementing understandings meant to lead to quiet. “Our patience is waning and the tools of the marches of return are escalating every week,” he said.

The chairman of the western Negev’s Eshkol Regional Council, Gadi Yarkoni, called on Knesset members to act. “The communities of the Gaza border are part of Israel. At this time, with candidates for the Knesset expressing themselves, tweeting, holding parlor meetings and rallies and asking for our vote, I call on voters, on all Israelis: Ask them – what is your policy for Gaza and against the balloon terror? Because the Gaza border area is Israel. Today it’s here and tomorrow it will be where you are.”

Late last year Hamas activists began to send incendiary devices attached to balloons and kites from the Gaza Strip into Israel, starting numerous fires and leading to losses of cultivated fields and natural open spaces. Some of the balloons and kites landed in kindergartens near the Gaza Strip. In response to the balloons and kites and to criticism by Gaza border area residents, the IDF has begun to attack targets in the Strip.

In December the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that if the fires continue in the area, the flora and fauna in the nature reserves may be irreversibly damaged. Some two thirds of the 32,000 dunams (8,000 acres) damaged in the fires were nature reserves and forests. The remaining third were cultivated areas.

The chief of the nature authority’s science division, Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, said the heaviest damage is not only the direct result of the fire, but also due to the work of the firefighters. In giving a summary of the INPA’s activities in 2018, Shkedy said there were cases where it would have been better to let a small fire burn than to put a larger area at risk of damage by firefighters and their vehicles.