Blazes erupt in south, but fire service pours water on Gaza arson suspicions

Rejecting claims of coverup to keep ceasefire intact, authority says investigators carry out probes professionally without prejudice

Fire in a field in in southern Israel, May 25, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)
Fire in a field in in southern Israel, May 25, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

A series of blazes torched fields in southern Israel Tuesday, but fire officials said they were not the result of incendiary devices launched from Gaza, as a sensitive ceasefire with the Strip’s Gaza rulers remained in place.

The Israel Fire and Rescue Service said it put out “a number” of small fires, none of which posed any danger to people.

The service said two of the fires appeared to have been intentionally set by arsonists, but denied that Gazan balloons were responsible, and rejected claims by some locals of a coverup designed to keep a lid on tensions with Gaza.

Two more fires were caused by shepherds who had been smoking, the service said. It did not offer details.

“A fire services investigator is dispatched to each scene to carry out a professional probe,” senior fire official Shmulik Friedman said.

Over the past several years, Gazan assailants have launched thousands of balloons with incendiary devices or suspected bombs into Israel, setting fires and leading to public pressure on the government and military to act.

On Thursday, Israel and Hamas-led terrorists in Gaza agreed to a ceasefire to end 11 days of intense fighting that saw southern Israel pummeled by thousands of rockets, as well as rashes of arson balloon attacks.

Tuesday’s fires coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who played a key role in brokering the ceasefire and held discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on reaching a long-term calm and allowing for reconstruction efforts inside the beleaguered Strip, hit hard by Israeli strikes during the recent conflict.

The outbreak of blazes led some in the south to conclude that they were the result of Gazan balloons, attributing the fire service’s denial to a conspiracy.

“Maybe there’s an instruction from [higher-ups] not to publicize that there are incendiary balloons [from Gaza],” Hagai Avni, a volunteer firefighter from Kibbutz Beeri, told Channel 12 news.

Illustrative: An Israeli farmer uses a tractor in an attempt to extinguish a fire in a wheat field near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, along the border with the Gaza Strip, on May 15, 2019. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The fire service admitted that balloons launched from Gaza had been found in the region, but said they had pictures attached to them, “with no flammable material.”

It asked area residents with evidence of balloons causing fires to come forward.

“Investigators from the southern district of the Fire and Rescue Service act according to empirical data and evidence and not according to feelings,” the service said in a statement. “We report on each incident faithfully without meddling, and that holds true for incidents in the Gaza periphery.”

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