For first time in months, Gaza balloons spark fire in south

Small blazes burn grasslands in Eshkol region forest before firefighters extinguish them; Palestinians riot along Strip’s northern border

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

A balloon carrying a suspected explosive device from the Gaza Strip touches down in southern Israel on February 19, 2019. (Yediot MeHaShetah)
A balloon carrying a suspected explosive device from the Gaza Strip touches down in southern Israel on February 19, 2019. (Yediot MeHaShetah)

A balloon carrying an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip sparked at least one fire in southern Israel on Tuesday, the first such arson case in several months, authorities said.

The blaze burned grasslands in a wooded area outside the community of Kibbutz Kissufim in the Eshkol region. It was quickly extinguished, according to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Initially, the Eshkol Regional Council said the cause of the fire was not immediately known, but it was later confirmed to have been sparked by arson devices from Gaza, a fire department spokesperson said.

A second blaze that was sparked in the Eshkol region around the same time was found to have been an intentional controlled burn, and not the result of a Palestinian incendiary device, according to the fire department.

Grasslands burned in a fire sparked by a balloon carrying an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on February 19, 2019. (Fire and Rescue Services)

In addition, a helium-filled condom with a suspected explosive device attached to it was found outside another community in the Eshkol region.

In response to the fire, Eshkol Mayor Gadi Yarkoni called on Israelis to question political candidates about how they planned to combat these airborne arson attacks.

“Currently candidates for the Knesset are making statements, tweeting, attending parlor meetings and conferences, and asking for your votes, I call on voters, all citizens of the State of Israel: Ask them — what are your proposals for Gaza and against the terror of balloons?” Yarkoni said in a statement.

The balloon attacks came as dozens of Palestinians took part in riots along the northern border of the Gaza Strip, across from the community of Kibbutz Zikim, the army said.

Demonstrators burned tires, threw rocks at soldiers and attacked the security fence. In one case, rioters attempted to throw an explosive device across the border, but it failed to clear the fence and landed inside Gaza, the military said.

Israeli troops responded with tear gas and, in some cases, live fire.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, 20 people were injured in the clashes with Israeli troops.

The border riot across from Zikim was the latest to be held as part of a weekly series of protests against the Israeli-Egyptian naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

On Monday night, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip also rioted along the border with Israel, throwing dozens of explosive devices at the security fence and apparently sparking false reports of a mortar attack.

At least seven Palestinians were injured by Israeli gunfire, to varying degrees, in the clashes, according to the Strip’s Hamas-run health ministry.

Dozens of rioters — members of so-called “confusion units” — took part in the clashes, east of Gaza City, burning tires, setting off dozens of explosive devices, shining lasers at Israeli soldiers across the border to blind them, and attempting to breach the security fence.

During the clashes, around 9 p.m., the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, across from Gaza City, reported that a mortar shell had been fired from the Strip, hitting an empty field.

Minutes later, the local government retracted the claim, and the Israel Defense Forces confirmed that no projectile had been fired.

“Despite the reports, no projectile was launched from the [Gaza] Strip at Israeli territory,” the IDF said.

The Palestinian “confusion units” returned to the Gaza border earlier this month after several months of refraining from evening riots, leading nightly clashes with Israeli troops focused on disorientation, alongside fires, explosives, lasers and infiltration attempts.

Monday’s nighttime clashes came a day after an IDF soldier was moderately injured in clashes along the northern Gaza border and two days after an attack lightly wounded a Border Police officer, the army said.

The IDF believes Hamas or the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terror group in Gaza, could attempt to draw Israel into a war by conducting an attack along the border — an anti-tank missile strike, an ambush from an as-yet-undiscovered tunnel, or a similar low-level but significant attack.

In light of this view, IDF chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, whose tenure began last month, called for the military to update operational plans for fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian protesters run toward the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on February 15, 2019. An Israeli military vehicle is pictured on the other side of the fence. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Since last March, the Gaza border has seen large-scale weekly clashes on Fridays, smaller protests along the northern Gaza border on Tuesdays, and periodic flareups between the Israeli military and Palestinian terror organizations.

For the past several months, Egypt, UN special coordinator to the Middle East peace process Nikolay Mladenov and Qatar have worked to try to restore calm in Gaza and prevent flareups between Israel and terror groups in the Strip.

Israel has demanded an end to the violent demonstrations along the border in any ceasefire agreement.

Earlier this month, Israel announced that it had begun the final phase of construction of a 20-foot (some 6 meters) high galvanized steel fence that will completely surround the Strip.

The barrier will extend 65 kilometers (40 miles) miles around the enclave and sit atop the subterranean concrete wall that Israel is constructing around Gaza to block terrorist groups’ attack tunnels.

Adam Rasgon, Times of Israel staff, and AFP contributed to this report.

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