Fire balloons land in south as Israel considers easing Gaza restrictions

Fire balloons land in south as Israel considers easing Gaza restrictions

Defense minister said to meet with security chiefs on possibility of lifting controls on goods entering Strip, expanding fishing zone

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative. A suspicious balloon in the yard of a house in the southern city of Sderot on June 24, 2018. (Israel Police)
Illustrative. A suspicious balloon in the yard of a house in the southern city of Sderot on June 24, 2018. (Israel Police)

Four incendiary balloons launched from the Gaza Strip landed outside a community in southern Israel on Tuesday, as defense officials were due to decide whether to ease restrictions on the coastal enclave after days of calm on the border.

According to a spokesperson for the local government, the four balloons had incendiary devices attached to them, but they failed to spark a fire when they landed outside Kibbutz Erez in the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

The suspected arson attempt came as Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with senior security officials to discuss reopening the Kerem Shalom Crossing into Gaza, expanding the permitted fishing zone and other economic incentives in light of a recent decrease in Palestinian violence from the Strip, a senior defense official said Monday evening.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the removal of these restrictions was dependent upon an end to airborne arson attacks against southern Israel, as well as to clashes along the border. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned by incendiary kites and balloons from the Strip, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, speaks with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, right, and other senior military officers during a visit to the Gaza Division on August 13, 2018. (Shahar Levi/Defense Ministry)

It was not immediately clear if the news of the latest incendiary balloons attack had reached Liberman or would affect his decision. The minister’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israel closed the Kerem Shalom Crossing on July 9 to everything but food and medical equipment, following weeks of violence along the border. Fuel and gasoline shipments into the Strip have been allowed at some points and frozen at others, depending upon the intensity of attacks from the Strip.

This week, Israeli authorities noted a significant drop in arson attacks from the Palestinian enclave.

On Sunday evening, a spokesman for the Israeli Fire and Rescue Services said that Sunday marked the first day in several months that no fires were caused by incendiary balloons flown from Gaza toward Israeli communities bordering the coastal enclave. However, he later said it appeared that at least one fire was started by the the arson devices.

The Fire and Rescue Services said one fire was started on Monday in Israeli territory by an incendiary balloon. However, a security source disputed that the blaze was started by arson.

Senior Israel officials maintain the country has not agreed to a ceasefire that Hamas announced late Thursday and said went into effect at midnight. Hamas, a terror group that seeks to destroy Israel, claims the deal was mediated by Egypt and other regional players.

People stand next to a car that was damaged after a rocket fired by terrorists from the Gaza Strip fell in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on August 9, 2018. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

The apparent truce came after two days of spiraling violence that saw some of the heaviest exchanges of fire between Israel and the Gaza terrorist organization since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. During the flareup, Hamas fired over 150 rockets and mortars into southern Israel which responded with about the same number of air strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza.

Senior Israeli officials have said that “quiet will be met by quiet,” implying that the country is not seeking an escalation of violence, but has not openly committed to an end to hostilities. Instead, military officials hope the terror group has internalized the damage Israel can cause to its infrastructure.

Despite the apparent truce and reprieve in rocket fire, violence has continued on the border, and Israeli tanks struck two Hamas posts in the Gaza Strip Friday evening after a grenade was hurled at troops and amid intense violence during mass riots in several locations along the border.

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot next to burning tires during a demonstration at the Israel-Gaza border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on August 10, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Around 9,000 Palestinians participated Friday in violent weekly border protests. Some protesters rioted near the fence, threw makeshift bombs, Molotov cocktails and rocks at Israeli soldiers, and burned tires to create a smokescreen. In one incident, a grenade was thrown at Israeli troops, but caused no casualties. Several attempts were made to breach the security fence.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said three Palestinians were killed in Friday’s violence.

Since March, there have been near-weekly, violent protests along the Israel-Gaza border organized by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, leading to escalations involving rockets fire on Israel and reprisal air strikes.

The deadly border clashes have seen Israeli security forces facing gunfire, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and efforts — sometimes successful — to damage or penetrate the border fence. Last month, an Israeli soldier was killed by a sniper. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, over 150 Palestinian haves been killed in the violence. Hamas has admitted that many of the fatalities were its members or those belonging to other Gaza terror groups.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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