Israel shrinks Gaza fishing zone after rash of arson balloons
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Israel shrinks Gaza fishing zone after rash of arson balloons

A day after expanding fishing area to 15 nautical miles, military restricts it back to 10, following spate of fires in southern Israel

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

Palestinian fishermen clean a net after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport on April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian fishermen clean a net after a night fishing trip, in the Gaza Seaport on April 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The Israeli military on Wednesday night announced it was cutting back the fishing zone off the coast of the Gaza Strip after several fires were sparked in southern Israel throughout the day by balloon-borne arson devices from the coastal enclave.

“A decision was made tonight to restrict the fishing zone off the Gaza Strip to 10 nautical miles (18.5 kilometers) until further notice. The decision was made subsequent to the dispatch of incendiary balloons from the Gaza Strip toward Israel,” Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said in a statement.

The move came one day after Israel expanded the fishing zone to 15 nautical miles (27.8 kilometers) from 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers), apparently as a part of an unofficial ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group.

The incendiary attacks would appear to violate the reported terms of the truce.

A general view of the fishing port in Gaza City, on May 5, 2019. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The fires started in grasslands and agricultural fields. In one case, 50 dunams (12 acres) of wheat fields in Kibbutz Alumim were burned, a Sdot Negev spokesperson said.

They were some of the worst arson attacks in recent months.

Teams from the fire department, Parks Authority and Jewish National Fund, as well as security officers from nearby communities worked to extinguish the fires.

“All of them are under control,” the fire department spokesman said on Wednesday evening.

Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze in the Eshkol region of southern Israel that was sparked by a balloon-borne incendiary device from the Gaza Strip on May 22, 2019. (Eli Cohen/Fire and Rescue Services)

Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services issued a fire warning for Wednesday, as hot and dry weather struck the country.

The last days have seen an uptick in the amount of balloon-borne incendiary devices launched into Israel, despite the reported truce.

Israel refuses to officially acknowledge the existence of a ceasefire agreement, but has largely abided by the reported terms of it.

According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, the agreement includes a Hamas obligation to halt violent incidents along the border fence, maintaining a buffer zone 300 meters from the border; an end to the launching of incendiary balloons at Israeli communities and nighttime clashes between Gazans and security forces; and a stop to flotillas trying to break through the maritime border between Gaza and Israel.

A Palestinian rioter uses a slingshot to hurl a rock at Israeli troops during Nakba Day protests east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 15, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

In return, Israel expanded the fishing zone and agreed to enable United Nations cash-for-work programs, allow medicine and other civil aid to enter the Strip, and open negotiations on matters relating to electricity, crossings, healthcare and funds.

Recent weeks have seen tensions in the Gaza Strip soar, following a massive two-day flareup earlier this month between Israel and terror groups in the coastal enclave.

Since March 30, 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have participated in regular protests along the border, demanding Israel lift its restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the coastal enclave and calling for the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to lands that are now a part of the Jewish state.

The protests have included many acts of violence against Israeli security forces, and have seen at least 200 Palestinians killed.

Israeli officials maintain that the restrictions on movement are in place to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from smuggling weapons into the Strip. They also say the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would destroy Israel’s Jewish character.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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