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Israel halves Gaza fishing zone after dozens of fires sparked in south

Move comes as tensions rise along the southern border, with ongoing balloon-based attacks from the Strip and Israel retaliating with strikes, closing commercial crossing

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

An Israeli worker from the Nature and Parks Authority attempts to extinguish a fire caused by a incendiary balloon launched by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, near Or HaNer Kibbutz, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)
An Israeli worker from the Nature and Parks Authority attempts to extinguish a fire caused by a incendiary balloon launched by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and Gaza, near Or HaNer Kibbutz, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Israel slashed Gaza’s permitted fishing zone Wednesday night after suspected Palestinian terrorists launched dozens of balloon-borne explosive and incendiary devices into Israel over the course of the day, igniting brush fires along the tense border region.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said the fishing zone would be halved from 15 nautical miles to eight in response to the balloon attacks, which have ramped up in recent days, igniting a fresh standoff after months of calm.

On Wednesday, dozens of balloons were flown into southern Israel from Gaza, sparking at least 24 fires in the Hof Ashkelon and Eshkol regions, according to the Fire and Rescue Service’s southern division.

“Most of the fires were small,” the fire department said, noting that they did not endanger life or property.

Balloons carrying an incendiary device float in the air upon release by Palestinians near Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp, by the Israel-Gaza border fence, on August 12, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Recent weeks have seen rising tensions along the Gaza border, with increasing balloon-based attacks, as well as a sniper attack on Sunday and a rocket launch from the Strip last week that was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday aired footage of a laser system to intercept the balloons that was deployed near the Gaza border. It was unclear when the system would be used operationally.

Terror groups in the Strip have also threatened additional violence if there are delays in the implementation of an unofficial ceasefire with Israel, notably the distribution of Qatari aid money. The head of the Mossad reportedly visited Doha last week to convince the country to deliver the funds to Gaza.

 

The decision to shorten the fishing zone came days after Israel shut the main commercial crossing into Gaza as a punitive measure to stop the balloon attacks.

The restriction on the Gaza fishing zone would remain in place “until further notice,” according to the liaison, known formally as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories

The decision was made by Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the recommendation of IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, COGAT said.

Fires in southern Israel on August 11, 2020. (Eshkol Regional Council)

“The decision was made in light of ongoing and returning terrorist activities from the Gaza Strip against Israeli citizens in recent days, which represent a violation of Israeli sovereignty,” the liaison said in a statement.

The liaison said Israel holds the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group responsible for these attacks and says the organization will “bear the consequences of the violence being directed toward Israeli citizens.”

Palestinian fishing boats are seen in the Mediterranean Sea at the port in Gaza City on May 10, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel has in the past used fishing zone restrictions as a punitive measure against Gaza following attacks or border riots, though critics say the policy is a form of collective punishment borne mostly by people unconnected to the border tensions.

The decision came less than a day after Israeli attack helicopters, fighter jets and tanks attacked at least three sites in the Gaza Strip in the predawn hours of Wednesday in response to airborne arson attacks that sparked more than 60 fires in Israel on Tuesday.

The Israel Defense Forces said it targeted “a military base, underground infrastructure and observation posts belonging to the Hamas terror group.”

The Hamas-linked Al-Resalah news said Israeli aircraft fired several missiles at “agricultural land” east of Rafah in southern Gaza, and two Hamas observation posts in central Gaza were shelled. There was no immediate reports of casualties.

The IDF said the strikes were in response to the arson attacks over the last week and noted that Israel holds Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the territory.

Palestinians prepare a flammable object to be flown toward Israel, near the Israel-Gaza border, in the eastern part of the Gaza Strip, August 10, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Balloon-borne incendiary devices launched from the Gaza Strip sparked at least 60 fires in southern Israel throughout the day, according to firefighters. Officials said most were small fires, but some caused damage.

Israel announced Monday it was shutting the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing into Gaza, halting all goods but fuel, humanitarian products and food, in response to the ongoing balloon-based attacks.

On Tuesday, Hamas called the closure of the commercial crossing an aggressive action and a crime for which the Jewish state “bears all consequences and repercussions.”

Egypt has opened its border crossing for the first time in months this week, relieving some pressure on the Strip. According to Gaza-based journalist Hussein Islayh, 55 tons of cement will arrive through the Rafah crossing on Thursday.

The practice of launching balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Gaza Strip toward Israel has waxed and waned over the past two years, with an uptick since the end of last week.

Gantz, who is also alternate prime minister and was IDF chief of staff during the 2014 Gaza war, has previously urged taking a sterner hand to deter balloon and other attacks from Gaza, though without specifying what action he recommends.

Aaron Boxerman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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