Firefighters were battling a wave of blazes near the Gaza border area Tuesday after several flaming kites were sent soaring over the border, causing at least nine fires in Israeli territory.
Two large fires broke out near Kibbutz Nir Am, northeast of the Gaza Strip, while a third was reported in the area of Moshav Netiv Ha’asara, to the north.
At least six fires were started in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, apparently as a result of so-called fire kites from the Gaza Strip, according to the local regional council. The six fires were located near the communities of Kissufim, Nirim, Ein Hashlosha and Reim.
A brush fire also broke out in a field outside Kibbutz Be’eri, east of the central Gaza Strip. The blaze was also apparently sparked by an incendiary kite from the coastal enclave.
Area firefighters and security personnel worked to put out the blazes as smoke filled the surrounding communities.
Since the “March of Return” protests began along the Gaza border at the end of March, hundreds of kites and helium balloons have been flown into Israel outfitted with Molotov cocktails and containers of burning fuel, setting fire to large swaths of land.
The blaze in Nir Am briefly threatened the Sapir College in the neighboring town of Sderot. Footage from the scene, filmed by a student, showed the fire spreading rapidly as firetrucks were heard rushing to the scene.
The fire forced authorities to temporarily close down the Route 232 highway in southern Israel until the flames could be brought under control, according to a spokesperson for the local Sha’ar Hanegev regional council. The road later reopened.
The second fire outside Nir Am broke out in nearby grazing lands, according to the Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson.
The fires came as the JNF, which owns much of the land, said it would sue Hamas for the damage in international courts, calling it “environment terrorism.”
Firefighters, soldiers and local residents have worked on an almost daily basis to try to contain fires in Israeli fields ignited by the burning kites.
On Sunday, the heads of the local governments in the Gaza periphery sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Arye Deri calling for increased investment in the area in light of the precarious security situation.
“In the past week, including last night, almost 200 mortar shells and Qassam rockets have landed in Gaza periphery communities, serving as a painful reminder that the Gaza periphery must manage a fragile and complicated way of life, under constant threat to its residents,” the local mayors wrote.
Israeli officials have said that since the start of the protests at the Gaza border, there have been more than 200 fires in the Gaza periphery, destroying over 17,500 dunams (4,300 acres) of land, the majority of it in nature reserves and parks.
According to the Nature and Parks Authority, approximately 10,000 dunams in parks and reserves in southern Israel were burned, though a spokesperson for the authority said investigations were still underway to determine exactly how much of that was caused by incendiary kites and balloons, and how much was from other sources.
On Saturday, a blaze devastated the Carmia nature reserve in southern Israel Israel, in what officials said was the worst day of fires since the demonstrators adopted the fire kite tactics a few months ago.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Tuesday that Israel should initiate a program of targeted assassinations against those who fly burning kites from Gaza to Israel, as well as Hamas commanders.
“The fact that Hamas is the one enabling the shooting and the sending of the kites means we must return to targeted assassinations, and the kite-launchers and Hamas commanders should be targeted for killing,” said Erdan during a visit to the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that funds be withheld from the Palestinian Authority to compensate Israeli farmers living on the Gaza border who had their agricultural lands destroyed.
Israel’s Tax Authority said the agricultural damage alone stood at NIS 5 million ($1.4 million) and that damage caused to nature reserves and other land could drive up the figure.
President Reuven Rivlin called PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday and asked him to condemn the airborne arson attacks on the Gaza border and attempts to cross into Israel.
“The terror coming from Gaza is a problem for both sides and we should hear your voice on this matter,” Rivlin said, according to Palestinian media reports. “We have to see how to stop the arson and infiltration of the border fence.”