Beyond kites: ‘Fire balloons’ increasingly used to set southern Israel ablaze

Total of at least 17,500 dunams – nearly 7 square miles – of land burned as Palestinians repeatedly send airborne incendiary devices across border

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Since the first few weeks of Gaza’s “March of Return,” young Palestinians have been flying so-called “incendiary kites” into Israeli territory, setting fire to vast swaths of grasslands, agricultural fields and nature reserves.

More recently, however, a new arson tactic has been gaining popularity along the Gaza border. Instead of kites, a different children’s toy is being flown into Israel: helium balloons.

The concept is the same: Launch the airborne incendiary devices into the air and rely on the breeze from the coast to push them into Israeli territory, where they can start a fire.

The balloon tactic has been in use for at least a month and a half, but it has picked up in recent weeks.

In total, approximately 17,500 dunams (4,300 acres, or nearly seven square miles) of land have been burned in more than 250 fires over the past two months, more than half of it in nature reserves, according to initial assessments.

Israeli firefighters extinguish a fire in a wheat field caused from kites flown by Palestinian protesters, near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Authorities have yet to determine how many of the fires were started by kites and how many by balloons. “Kite terror” has become a catch-all term for the phenomenon.

As of Monday, there have been no injuries caused by the fires, but the cost of the damage is high and expected to increase, as there’s no sign that Palestinians in Gaza are giving up on the arson tactic.

The blazes, specifically those in nature reserves, have also wreaked havoc on local wildlife, ecologists say. And there are more fires every day.

The balloons themselves do not cause the fires — helium is an inert gas — but they carry flaming material attached to a long string. In some cases, just a few party balloons are used. In others, it is a larger cluster of latex balloons, capable of carrying far more substantial incendiary devices.

As with the kites, the Israeli military has yet to come up with a response to this threat. A pilot program using drones to take down the incoming kites and balloons was deemed a failure, Israel’s Kan TV reported Saturday night.

For now, Israel’s primary means of combating these airborne firebombs remains preparedness and a rapid response when blazes do break out.

Authorities, as well as individual farmers, monitor the area and when an incoming kite or balloon is spotted, they rush to the scene in order to put out the fire before it spreads.

Farmers use tractors to dig up the area around the fire in order to starve out the flames until firefighters can arrive to put out the blaze entirely.

They are not always successful.

Drone images show the massive destruction caused by fire kites to the Be’eri Nature Reserve, adjacent to Gaza. (Credit: DRONEIMAGEBANK)

Some 10,000 dunams (2,470 acres) of parks and nature reserves have been burned in recent weeks, according to a spokesperson for the Nature and Parks Authority, who stressed that the authority did not yet have definitive evidence that all of the fires were caused by kites or balloons.

Just on Saturday, some 300 dunams (74 acres) of the Carmia nature reserve — approximately a third of the park’s total land area — went up in flames in one of the largest individual blazes since the start of the “fire kite” phenomenon. Israel’s Hadashot news reported that there were suspicions the Carmia fire may have been started by a “fire balloon” that spread the flames as it blew through the area, but this could not be immediately confirmed. Authorities said they were still investigating the cause of the fire.

Over 5,000 dunams (1,235 acres) of farmland has been burned, most of it wheat fields, according to the Tax Authority, which is processing compensation requests from area farmers.

Driving through the area, it is rare to see a field or patch of trees that does not have at least one blotch of scorched earth from one of the fires sparked by a kite or balloon.

An Israeli farmer puts out a fire in his wheat field that was started by an incendiary kite from Gaza, outside Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel, on May 14, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

In addition, approximately 2,500 dunams (620 acres) of Jewish National Fund forests was burned, a spokesperson for the organization said, adding that the JNF would complete its final assessment of the damage on Tuesday.

The Tax Authority said there have been no requests for compensation made by the JNF or the Nature and Parks Authority yet.

An Israel soldier extinguishes a fire started by a kite with attached burning cloth launched by Palestinians from Gaza on June 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The Tax Authority estimates that the damage to farmland alone will cost at least NIS 5 million ($1.4 million), to be paid from the government’s fund for damage caused by terrorist activity.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that in order to cover the cost the government would withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority.

The decision raised eyebrows among Israeli analysts, who pointed out that the PA does not control the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the Authority’s primary rival, the Hamas terror group, has ruled the enclave since ousting the PA in 2007.

Penalizing the PA for Hamas actions would almost certainly not encourage Hamas to stop the kite arson and would probably have the opposite effect.

WWII-era weapon

The tactic of using “fire balloons” might be a new one in Gaza, but its history goes back decades.

In World War II, Japan used such “fire balloons” against the United States, sending 9,000 huge hydrogen-filled balloons into the Pacific jet stream where the air currents could push them toward American territory.

Approximately 300 of these balloons reached North America, causing relatively little damage. However, one of them was responsible for the only casualties of World War II in the mainland United States.

On May 5, 1945, an incendiary bomb that had been carried into America by a Japanese balloon exploded in the rural town of Bly, Oregon, killing six people.

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