Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday warned terrorist groups in Gaza that Israel would retaliate for a wave of arson attacks that have burned some 9,000 dunams (2,224 acres) of forests and agricultural fields in Israeli communities adjacent to the Palestinian territory.
Fires caused by kites and helium balloons rigged with incendiary devices or attached to burning rags and launched over the border have become almost daily occurrences for residents of southern Israel since the start of the “March of Return” protests along the border at the end of March.
“It needs to be made clear that we are not prepared to accept the kite phenomenon, rioting along the border fence, or any attempts to breach it in an effort to cause damage to work being done on sovereign Israeli territory, and therefore we will act accordingly,” Liberman said at a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party.
Liberman emphasized that the army “would act in accordance with Israel’s interests when it’s convenient for us.
“In any case I don’t let scores go unsettled and we’ll settle the score with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other terrorists operating against us from the territory of the Gaza Strip,” he added.
Liberman said that since the start of protests, some 600 incendiary kites have been flown over the border into Israel. He said 400 of them were intercepted by the IDF, and 200 landed in Israeli territory, sparking 198 fires that burned a total of 9,000 dunams of farmland and forests in southern Israel.
Liberman did not reveal his source for the numbers he relayed to Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers, which was lower than other recent tallies.
Israeli officials have said that since the start of the protests, there have been more than 200 fires in the Gaza periphery, destroying some 17,500 dunams (4,300 acres) of land, the majority of it in nature reserves and parks.
According to the Nature and Parks Authority, approximately 10,000 dunams in parks and reserves in southern Israel were burned. Though a spokesperson for the authority said investigations were still underway to determine exactly how much of that was caused by incendiary kites and balloons, and how much was from other sources.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said Monday that his office will “immediately” give Gaza-area farmers 50 percent of the estimated costs in damages to their fields.
“Already last month, when the phenomenon of flaming kites began I went to the Gaza area and declared that the State of Israel recognizes the phenomenon as terror for all intents and purposes and the residents will be compensated up to the last shekel,” he told journalists at the Knesset, adding that 25 claims have so far been filed over damages caused to 5,000 dunams of wheat fields, orchards and irrigation systems.
“Our farmers are strong people who have gone through difficult periods and won’t be broken by the kite terror,” Kahlon added.
Arson has become a widely adopted tactic during the “March of Return” protests, which Israel accuses the Hamas terror group of orchestrating as a cover for attacks and attempts to breach the border fence.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered that funds be withheld from the Palestinian Authority to compensate Israeli farmers living on the Gaza border who had their agricultural lands destroyed.
A statement from Netanyahu’s office didn’t disclose how much would be deducted. Amir Dan, a Tax Authority official, told Army Radio that agricultural damage alone stood at NIS 5 million ($1.4 million) and that damage caused to nature reserves and other land could drive up the figure.
In addition to the growing problem of flaming kites, terrorist groups in the coastal enclave last week launched over 100 mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel and the IDF retaliated by bombing over 65 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip.
Speaking at their own faction meetings at the Knesset, Zionist Union chair Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid slammed the government for what they described as a lackluster response to the violence, both saying that Prime Misniter Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to provide security to residents of the south of Israel-
“We are part of a ongoing cycle of violence,” Gabbay told his MKs, “and the right wing government of [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett, Netanyahu and Liberman is not bringing security to the people of Israel.”
The Zionist Union leader said it was not enough for Israel to just respond to the mortar and rocket fire and must instead, “initiate, initiate, initiate.”
“What we are doing now is not the Zionist way,” he charged, urging the government to “listen to the defense establishment, which is saying the same thing as us.”
Citing comments last week in which the prime minister said that the IDF had dealt Hamas “the harshest blow they have received in years,” Lapid mocked Netanyahu “for declaring victory in the previous round of fighting” while residents of Gaza border communities remain in fear.
”Netanyahu has no policy when it comes to Gaza except to wait for the next round and the next arson attack. The residents who live around Gaza deserve better,” Lapid said.