Kites, balloons from Gaza spark multiple fires across southern Israel

Daily arson attacks from the coastal enclave continue, burning up hundreds of acres of fields in one day; incendiary balloon causes damage to building in Hof Ashkelon region

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

A number of fires broke out across southern Israel on Monday as a result of incendiary kites and balloons launched by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, officials said.

Blazes were reported in the three main regions surrounding the Palestinian enclave: Hof Ashkelon to the north, Sha’ar Hanegev to the northwest and Eshkol to the west.

Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of kites and helium balloons bearing flammable materials, and occasionally explosives, into Israeli territory.

The daily fires sparked by these airborne arson devices have burned thousands of acres of farmland, forests and nature reserves in the regions around the Gaza Strip, according to Israeli officials.

The Tax Authority estimated that the damage will cost upwards of NIS 5 million ($1.4 million).

Israeli firefighters extinguish a fire in a field in southern Israel, caused by kites flown by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip on June 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed withholding tax revenue from the Palestinian Authority to pay for the damage, though critics are skeptical of the plan as the kites and balloons are being launched from Gaza, where the PA has limited control.

The military has sought to counter these kites and balloons with teams of soldiers operating drones. Israeli officials have deemed the drone program a success, but it has not offered a perfect solution.

An IDF operator holds up his drone and remote control on June 7, 2018, in a field burned by ‘fire kites’ from the Gaza Strip. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

On Monday, a balloon laden with burning material landed on the roof of a storehouse in one of the communities in the Hof Ashkelon region, causing light damage to the building and surrounding area before it was put out, a spokesperson for the region said.

Multiple fires were also reported in the Sha’ar Hanegev region.

Some 500 dunams (124 acres) were burned near Kibbutz Or HaNer, a spokesperson for the region said.

Another 40 dunams (10 acres) were set on fire in the area around Kibbutz Mefalsim.

One blaze broke out in the community’s agricultural fields, another a little farther from Mefalsim, along the Route 232 highway leading to the nearby Kfar Azza, a spokesperson for the region said.

The fire shut down traffic along the highway in both directions for 45 minutes, interfering with school bus services, the Sha’ar Hanegev spokesperson said.

A fire near Kibbutz Nir Am also caused damage to a number of beehives, she said.

A fire in Eshkol also forced authorities to temporarily shut down the roads between Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha and Kibbutz Kissufim.

Beeri Crater following a fire sparked by kites, with Gaza in the background, June 6, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Residents were instructed to use back roads to get between the two communities until the blaze could be brought under control, an Eshkol spokesperson said.

After the road reopened, officials called on residents to travel carefully through the area as it was “full of smoke.”

In a statement, the head of the Hof Ashkelon regional council acknowledged that little could be done to prevent the helium used in the incendiary balloons, like the one flown into one of his communities, from being sent into Gaza since the gas is used in hospitals for medical purposes.

“Anything connected to medicine and saving people’s lives we don’t limit. But in the meantime, the balloons keep coming from the Gaza Strip and I expect that with the end of the harvest, there will be more attempts to launch balloons bearing explosives,” said Hof Ashkelon regional council head Yair Farjun.

He called for the relevant government ministries to meet with him and other local government leaders to develop a “multi-year economic plan” to address the damage caused by these arson attacks.

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

Two Palestinians help fly a ‘fire kite’ from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory during mass demonstrations along the security fence on June 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

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.”

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.

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