Gaza balloons spark fires in south after report of progress in ceasefire talks

Over 20 blazes ignited; Qatari envoy confirms he is attempting to broker a deal to restore calm and avoid sides sliding toward wider confrontation

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

A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire started by an incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the border with Gaza, August 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
A firefighter attempts to extinguish a fire started by an incendiary device launched from the Gaza Strip, in Kibbutz Kfar Aza on the border with Gaza, August 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Qatari envoy to Gaza made progress in the negotiations toward a ceasefire between Israel and terror groups in Strip, which has seen mounting tensions and regular violence in recent weeks, unidentified sources told a Palestinian newspaper Sunday.

The report came hours before Gazans resumed their campaign of launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel, sparking over 20 fires in open fields.

Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi has been holding marathon meetings with Gazan and Israeli officials in recent days in a bid to broker an armistice between the two sides, before the region descends into yet another round of fighting.

The Ramallah-based al-Ayyam daily, citing unnamed “informed sources,” reported that al-Emadi made headway in these talks, with the two sides agreeing to the other’s demands in general, though more work was needed to reach “final understandings.”

The Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Emadi, speaks during an interview in his office with AFP in Gaza City on 24, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/ AFP)

Al-Emadi said in a statement that he has been in touch with “all sides” to restore calm.

“[al-Emadi] stresses the continuation of efforts and the constant contacts of the State of Qatar in order to reach understandings of calm between the parties,” the Qatari Gaza Reconstruction Committee said.

Recent weeks have seen a significant increase in low-level violence along the border, with Palestinian terrorists launching hundreds of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices across the border — as well as dozens of rockets — and the Israel Defense Forces retaliating with near-nightly airstrikes.

Sunday saw at least 21 fires sparked by airborne arson attacks from the Gaza Strip, according to the fire department. At least two clusters of balloons carrying suspected explosive devices were also found in the Eshkol region of southern Israel on Sunday.

View of a fire near Kibbutz Be’eri, caused from airborne incendiary devices flown over the Gaza border by Palestinians, August 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip have demanded a total end of the blockade on the enclave in exchange for an end to hostilities — a request that is unlikely to be accepted by Israel, which believes that such an open border would be used by terrorist organizations to bring large quantities of weapons into Gaza. However, Israel has at times loosened its restrictions on what types of goods can enter the Strip.

The groups have also asked for Qatar to continue providing tens of millions of dollars in aid money to Gaza, as well as new internationally funded infrastructure programs for the beleaguered enclave.

According to al-Ayyam, al-Emadi brought these demands to representatives from the Shin Bet security service, the National Security Council and Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. The Israeli defense officials tentatively agreed to some of the demands, but no final agreement has been reached, the newspaper reported.

A SUV in a convoy carrying Mohammed al-Emadi, Qatar’s envoy to the Gaza Strip, makes its way to the Erez border crossing on August 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Al-Emadi arrived in Gaza last Tuesday with $30 million in cash. The money is earmarked to help the territory of two million people, half of whom live under the poverty line, sources close to the envoy told AFP this week. Israel has requested that the funds not be distributed until the violence along the border halts.

The daily’s sources said the balloon-based attacks would be an indicator of how well the negotiations were going.

In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, Israeli tanks shelled a number of Hamas posts on the Gaza border in response to the previous day’s launching of balloon-borne incendiary devices into Israel, which sparked at least 23 fires in the south of the country.

Over the past two and a half years, Israel has waged 11 rounds of fighting with terror groups in the Strip.

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