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First incendiary attacks since early July

Israel restricts Gaza fishing zone after arson balloons spark fires in south

Hamas threatens ‘explosion’ if restrictions on Strip tightened, amid dispute over delayed entry of Qatari fuel into Gaza and ongoing talks between Israel and terror group

Masked Hamas members apparently prepare incendiary balloons to be launched toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, on May 8, 2021. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Masked Hamas members apparently prepare incendiary balloons to be launched toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, on May 8, 2021. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Gaza-based terror groups launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel on Sunday afternoon, sparking a number of fires, a Fire and Rescue services investigator determined.

In response to the arson attacks, Israel announced it was cutting the Gaza Strip’s fishing zone in half, from 12 nautical miles to six effective immediately and until further notice on Sunday night. Prior to May’s conflict between Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza, Palestinian fisherman could operate up to 15 nautical miles from the coast.

“This follows the launching of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, which is a violation of Israeli sovereignty,” Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said in a statement.

According to the fire department, three small brushfires were ignited in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, in the first arson attacks from the Gaza Strip since early July.

“A fire investigator from the Southern District Fire and Rescue Services found that the blaze was caused by the launching of incendiary balloons,” a fire department spokesperson said.

There were no injuries or damage to property reported. The new Israeli government, installed in June, has responded to previous balloon incendiary attacks with airstrikes on Hamas targets.

In its statement, COGAT said the attacks were ultimately the responsibility of the Hamas terror group, the de facto ruler of the Strip.

Hamas has warned of a return to fighting should Israel seek to again tighten restrictions on the blockaded Gaza Strip. The coastal enclave has seen tighter controls than usual since the May conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Earlier on Sunday, Israeli authorities prevented 25 trucks bearing Qatari-funded fuel from entering the Gaza Strip. An Israeli defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cited a failure by Palestinian Authority officials in Gaza to coordinate with them.

PA officials in Gaza rejected the claim, saying that the United Nations and Qatar were responsible for directly coordinating with the Israeli side. Both the UN and the office of Qatar’s Gaza envoy declined to comment.

“Further restrictions on Gaza will only generate an explosion in the face of the occupation,” Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou told official Hamas radio on Sunday evening.

The Israeli defense official said on Sunday night that the fuel was expected to enter the Gaza Strip on Monday, but that “nothing was set in stone.”

Bonfires in southern Israel allegedly sparked by incendiary balloons launched by Gaza-based terror groups on July 25, 2021. (Moshe Brochi)

Israel regularly responds with airstrikes against Hamas positions in Gaza. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly said that he will respond to balloon attacks.

“Israel is interested in calm and has no interest in harming Gaza residents, but violence… will be met with a strong response,” Bennett told the cabinet following the early July strikes.

Israel and Egypt impose tight restrictions on Gaza, which they say are necessary to prevent a greater threat from the Strip’s Hamas rulers. The terror group took over Gaza in a 2007 coup against the Palestinian Authority.

The diesel fuel runs Gaza’s only power plant, which provides most of the beleaguered coastal enclave’s electricity. Qatari subsidies for the fuel is a crucial part of the Gulf country’s aid package to the coastal enclave, whose future has emerged as a critical question in the ongoing negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Many Gazans had hoped to see the talks resolved before the Eid al-Adha holiday last week, often a major spending spree for Muslims celebrating the festival. Instead, the week came and went without an agreement to allow Qatari cash into Gaza.

“Our people will not be patient for long over the lack of reconstruction and the lag in procedures to break the siege,” said Hamas spokesperson Al-Qanou.

Until the May fighting between Israel and Hamas, Jerusalem permitted the Qatari subsidies to enter, in a bid to soothe tensions on its southern border. But since the May conflict, Jerusalem has sought to impose heightened restrictions on Gaza, significantly limiting imports and exports.

Israel has also largely halted the entrance of Qatari subsidies — which in the past included millions in cash — although it recently permitted Qatari-funded fuel to begin re-entering Gaza. Israeli officials have vowed that they will not allow a return to the status quo, which they view as too favorable to the Hamas terror group.

During the war, Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rockets caused at least $290 million worth of damage to the Gaza Strip, international assessors reported in early July.

Israel and Hamas have been conducting indirect negotiations in Cairo in an attempt to strengthen the fragile ceasefire between the two sides. Israeli officials have said they will condition allowing the reconstruction of Gaza and easing the heightened restrictions on reaching a prisoner exchange with Hamas that secures the return of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who died in 2014 fighting.

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