Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday ordered Israel to withhold funds from the Palestinian Authority, in order to compensate farmers living on the Gaza border who have had their crops destroyed by massive fires sparked by flaming kites sent from the Palestinian enclave.
The prime minister instructed National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat to work on a process that would withhold payments to the Palestinian Authority to offset compensation for the communities living on the Gaza border, who have seen tens of thousands of acres of fields and nature reserves destroyed in blazes over the past month and a half.
So far damages to agriculture since March are estimated at $1.4 million, according to the Tax Authority.
Under an economic agreement signed in 1994, Israel transfers tens of millions of dollars to the PA each year, in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports.
However, critics pointed out that the Palestinian Authority does not control the Gaza Strip and is at loggerheads with the Hamas terror group that has ruled Gaza since ousting the PA in 2007.
Penalizing the PA for Hamas actions would almost certainly not encourage Hamas to stop the kite arson and would probably have the opposite effect.
The withholding of funds would be similar to a bill advancing through the Knesset allowing the government to hold up money to the Palestinian Authority over its payments to convicted terrorists, a policy critics say encourages terror attacks on Israelis.
Netanyahu’s instruction came as firefighters worked with local residents to put out blazes in the fields of the kibbutzim: Nir Am, Or Haner and Be’eri. After several hours, the fire brigade said the fires were under control.
There were calls for the government to declare the area adjacent to the Gaza border a disaster zone.
MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin of the Zionist Union called on the prime minister to activate the relevant departments to provide aid to the border communities.
“It has been estimated that so far 25,000 dunams (6,200 acres) of agricultural land and nature reserves in the area have been destroyed by fire,” she said, which is more than a third of all the land adjacent to the Strip.
The army is bracing for more protests by Palestinians along the Gaza border in the coming days, a senior army official said Thursday, especially on Tuesday when Palestinian mark Naksa Day — the June 5 commemoration by Palestinians of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.
On Saturday, a blaze set off by Palestinian protesters along the Gaza border devastated a nature reserve inside Israel, in what officials said was the worst day of fires since demonstrators in the Strip adopted the fire kite tactics in the last few months.
Arson investigators at the Carmia reserve said Saturday’s fire was most likely set by a fire kite, or possibly a balloon filled with chemicals that dripped flames along the area, Hadashot news reported at the time.
Some 2,000 to 3,000 dunams (500 to 740 acres) of fields and parts of a nature reserve adjacent to Kibbutz Carmia were destroyed. Officials at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority estimated that at least one third of the Carmia reserve had been destroyed. They said it was likely the flames had caused massive damage to both the flora and the fauna in the reserve.
In total, firefighters battled three large fires and several smaller ones along the Gaza Strip border on Saturday, all believed to have been started by incendiary kites flown from the coastal enclave. Residents worked alongside with firefighters and soldiers to try to contain the fires, which have become almost daily occurrences since the start of the “March of Return” protests along the border at the end of March.
During the protests, Gazans have flown hundreds of kites into Israel outfitted with Molotov cocktails and containers of burning fuel, setting fire to large swaths of land.
Military planners have begun implementing new measures to combat the assaults, including options drawn from the IDF’s responses to rocket launches and other terror attacks. The IDF has also used drones to try and take down the kites.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.