Firefighters battle to control huge blaze said sparked by Gaza arson balloon

Teams working to save the greenhouses at Moshav Ein Habesor; spokesman for rescue services says 7 blazes caused by incendiary balloons launched from the coastal enclave

Illustrative: Firefighters extinguish a blaze near the southern city of Sderot caused by an incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)
Illustrative: Firefighters extinguish a blaze near the southern city of Sderot caused by an incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip on July 31, 2018. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Firefighters and security services fought to control a huge blaze at Moshav Ein Habesor in southern Israel Saturday evening, thought to have been ignited by an incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip.

Farmers, firefighters, and security officers worked together to try to stop the flames from reaching nearby greenhouses, the Ynet news site reported.

“A local resident saw a Molotov cocktail landing and within minutes the fire broke out, and we rushed to the site and tried to control the fire. But since this is a very dry area, the fire simply spread. Many people rushed to help, but it’s very dangerous,” a witness told Ynet.

A spokesman for the Fire and Rescue Services said since the morning, firefighters worked to extinguish seven blazes near Israeli towns along the border caused by incendiary balloons launched from Gaza.

Gazans frequently launch incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed livestock.

Thousands of acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials. Some balloons have carried improvised explosive devices.

Earlier Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ordered Gaza’s fishing zones constrained due to the escalation of border violence along the southern frontier.

The fishing zone will be curtailed from nine to six nautical miles, the Defense Ministry said, following deliberations between Liberman and defense officials.

Also Saturday the IDF conducted controlled detonations of explosive devices hurled at army troops during the previous day’s violent protests.

A protester falls down on barbed fence as he runs for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli troops while others burn tires near the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel during a protest east of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Three Palestinians, including a 14-year-old boy, were reported killed and dozens injured as some 20,000 Palestinians took part in violent clashes Friday along the Gaza border, throwing hand grenades and trying to breach the barrier.

During the riots, the army said Israeli aircraft struck two Hamas positions in the northern Gaza Strip after Palestinians threw grenades and explosive devices at Israeli troops.

The large-scale protests came as Israel signaled it was rapidly losing patience and willing to go to war to stop the violence, while Gaza’s Hamas rulers vowed to push on with the riots.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said 124 Palestinians were injured and two killed in the clashes. Fares Hafez al-Sersawi, 14; 24-year-old Mahmud Akram Mohammed Abu Samane; and Hussein al-Raqab, 28, died after being shot, the ministry said.

It said more than 20 people had been hit by live fire.

Friday’s clashes took place at a number of locations along the border, according to the Israel Defense Forces, and included the throwing of grenades and explosives, burning of tires and hurling of stones toward the security fence and Israeli soldiers.

“In response to several grenades and explosive devices that were hurled by the rioters at IDF soldiers, an IAF aircraft carried out two strikes in the northern Gaza Strip,” the army said.

Israeli troops also spotted 10 Palestinians who crossed into Israel and threw a grenade into the security fence before returning to Gaza. The army said no soldiers were injured.

A Palestinian throws a stone toward Israeli troops during clashes east of Gaza City, along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, on October 5, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The army said soldiers were responding with riot dispersal means and live fire in accordance with IDF regulations.

Israeli security forces closed off roads near the Gaza Strip on Friday.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot toured the border area on Friday, where he met with top commanders and reviewed the security situation.

“The chief of staff expressed his great admiration for the soldiers and commanders who work every day against the security challenges in the Gaza Strip and enable residents [of the south] to live their lives securely,” the army said in a statement.

The IDF had prepared for the possibility of a second consecutive week of mass borer protests. On Thursday, the military announced the deployment of additional troops and Iron Dome air defense batteries to the Gaza area and Liberman instructed it to maintain “maximum preparedness for any scenario.”

Earlier Friday, Liberman indicated that Israel had been holding back on a harsh response to the near-nightly riots on the border in order to prevent an all-out conflict during the period of the Jewish High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah on September 9 and ending with Simchat Torah on October 1.

“We’ve been through the High Holidays exactly as we planned, without a flare-up and by exacting a heavy price on the rioters along the Gaza border,” Liberman wrote on Twitter, referring to the people killed and injured by IDF troops during the clashes.

“The holidays are over, and I say to the heads of Hamas: ‘Take that into account,’” the defense minister wrote.

Later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also warned Israel would respond firmly to any violence coming from Gaza.

“The prime minister clarified Israel will act decisively toward Gaza over any action against the residents of the south or Israel,” his office said in a statement after a meeting with the German foreign minister.

Palestinians take part in clashes along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel on October 5, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Hamas dismissed Liberman’s suggestion of Israel’s readiness for war, calling his tweet “empty words” and vowing the clashes would “intensify.”

Border riots, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have increased dramatically in recent weeks. They began as weekly events from late March through the summer, but appeared to slow as Hamas entered indirect talks with Israel aimed at a ceasefire.

As these talks have stalled, Hamas has increased the pace of rioting and demonstrations against Israel, and created new units tasked with sustaining tensions along the border fence including during nighttime and early morning hours.

The nightly riots, in which Palestinians regularly throw grenades and improvised explosives at IDF troops, as well as ongoing airborne arson attacks using balloons carrying incendiary devices, have threatened to spark a new large-scale clash in Gaza.

Israeli military officials have warned repeatedly that the situation in Gaza is more likely to escalate than to calm down. However, recently the army noted that Hamas appears to actively be readying itself for a limited conflict with Israel.

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily published Thursday, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said that while he didn’t want any more wars, an “eruption is inevitable” given the current humanitarian conditions in the Strip — conditions that Israel and others in the world blame explicitly on Hamas’s poor governance of the coastal enclave.

In this photo from May 1, 2017, Yehiyeh Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends a news conference in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

Both Israel and Egypt enforce a number of restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from arming or building military infrastructure.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened steadily, and Hamas’s reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority have broken down.

The clashes along the border, which Israel maintains are being directed by Hamas, have included regular rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as shooting and IED attacks aimed at IDF soldiers, and attempts to breach the border fence.

At least 140 Palestinians have been killed during the protests since late March, according to AP figures. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.

Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.

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