Israel limits entrance of helium into Gaza after balloons scorch south

Defense Ministry warns supply of the gas, also used for medical purposes, will be cut off entirely if arson attacks continue

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

Incendiary balloons being launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip in May 2018. (Screen capture: Quds news)
Incendiary balloons being launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip in May 2018. (Screen capture: Quds news)

Israel on Tuesday announced it was limiting the entrance of helium into the Gaza Strip after Palestinians in the coastal enclave used the gas to fill incendiary balloons that were flown into southern Israel, sparking a number of large fires.

The decision was implemented by Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, with approval from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

The liaison unit was not limiting the entrance of helium to a specific amount, but instead was planning to be more critical in assessing the requests made by hospitals and medical facilities in the Gaza Strip to ensure that the gas was being used for the correct purposes and not for arson balloons.

In a statement, Abu Rokon, known formally as the coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), warned that Israel would cut off the supply of helium entirely if the incendiary balloon attacks continued.

“The responsibility for [such a decision] would fall on the Hamas terrorist group’s regime,” the liaison’s office said.

In this Nov. 26, 2014 file photo, the brain-scanning MRI machine that was used at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

The gas is used for a number of medical purposes, notably for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, which use a liquid form of helium for cooling.

“The entrance of helium gas into the Gaza Strip will be limited in light of the use of it by terrorists to fill incendiary balloons,” said Abu Rokon.

Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Courtesy)

“The Hamas terror group does not hesitate to use any means, including humanitarian services and channels, in order to carry out terrorist activities. This is despite the efforts by Israel to prevent a deterioration of the civilian situation in the Strip,” Abu Rokon said.

Since March 30, Israel has struggled to respond to the threat posed by balloons and kites to which Palestinians in Gaza attach pouches of burning material or, in some cases, explosive devices.

In recent weeks, the military has used drones to intercept hundreds of these kites and balloons, as well as other methods that the army says are classified.

According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, approximately two-thirds of these airborne arson devices have been intercepted in this way.

The rest of the kites and balloons have sparked hundreds of fires across southern Israel, which have collectively burned thousands of acres of farmland, forests and parks. The Tax Authority has estimated the damage to be in the millions of shekels.

Firefighters extinguish a fire in a field caused from kites flown by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, near the border with the Gaza Strip, June 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli officials have been split on how to engage the Palestinians who launch the balloons and kites.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has called on the military to shoot on sight anyone flying these so-called “terror kites.”

However, a senior officer in the army’s Southern Command last week said the military considers these arson attacks to be serious, but representing “a different kind of danger,” which did not necessarily warrant lethal force in every case.

Palestinians fly a kite carrying flaming material toward Israel on June 8, 2018, during clashes along the border fence between Israel and Gaza, border fence east of Jabaliya in the central Gaza Strip. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

On Saturday, an Israeli aircraft for the first time attacked a group of three Gazans preparing a store of balloons that Palestinians have been using to send incendiary devices over the border during Gaza protests, the army said.

No injuries were reported in the strike near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The IDF said the aircraft fired “a warning shot.”

“We view the use of incendiary balloons and kites very seriously and will continue to act to prevent their use,” the army said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed withholding tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority to pay for the agricultural damage.

Critics were skeptical of this plan as the kites and balloons are being launched from Gaza, where the PA has limited control. The PA’s rival Hamas, however, wields tremendous power in the Strip and could encourage Palestinians to launch yet more incendiary kites and balloons in order to weaken its political foe.

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