South sees stark drop in number of fires caused by Gaza arson attacks

Unclear whether fivefold fall in blazes in border region is due to improved IDF abilities or fewer launches of balloon-borne incendiaries

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

An Israeli soldier uses a fire hose in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli soldier uses a fire hose in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military on Wednesday reported a fivefold drop in the number of fires sparked by balloon-borne incendiary devices from the Gaza Strip over the past year and an even greater decline in the extent of the damage caused by the flames.

The tactic of launching balloons carrying explosive and arson devices from Gaza into Israel emerged last year as part of a series of protests and riots along the Strip’s border, known collectively as the March of Return. The simple and cheap method of attack by Palestinians proved effective against the far more powerful Israel Defense Forces, which despite its technological and military might initially struggled to counter the threat posed by balloons and inflated condoms.

From April to June 2018, Israeli firefighters extinguished 1,954 fires started by arson attacks in the fields, forests and grasslands around the Gaza Strip. They fought 383 blazes over the same period in 2019.

In addition, throughout 2018, approximately 34,000 dunams — 8,400 acres — of Israeli land were burned in arson attacks, according to statistics from Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, Jewish National Fund and Nature and Parks Authority.

Though 2019 is only half over, the current figures show a dramatic decrease in the amount of damage: As of June, 1,400 dunams — 345 acres —  of land were damaged by incendiary devices from the Strip.

A firefighter works to extinguish a blaze caused by an incendiary device from the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on June 27, 2019. (Fire and Rescue Services)

The IDF did not provide one specific cause for the drop. Instead, a number of factors appeared to have contributed to the decline, including faster response times by firefighters and an improved ability to intercept balloon-borne incendiary devices.

The military did not provide figures on the most important factor: the number of balloons launched from Gaza. Therefore it was not clear from the figures released Wednesday if the decrease in the number of fires was due only to Israeli actions or if Palestinians launched fewer balloons in 2019 compared to the previous year.

According to IDF statistics, there were an average of two “fire events” each day in 2019, compared to nine the year before. The peak in 2018 was 30 events in a single day, compared to 10 this year.

Palestinians prepare arson balloons near the city of Jabalia in the Gaza Strip, June 25, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

For Fridays, when Palestinians in the Strip hold weekly protests and riots, the number of “fire events” dropped from 21 each day in 2018 to two in 2019, army figures showed.

Over the past year, the military improved its fire-watching abilities — by both soldiers and technological means — leading to faster response times, which meant firefighters were able to extinguish blazes before they went out of control. Civilians have also grown more wary of the risk and increasingly call in firefighters.

The response time to the blazes by firefighters dropped from eight minutes in 2018 to five in 2019, according to IDF statistics.

The firefighters from the Fire and Rescue Services, Jewish National Fund and Nature and Parks Authority also improved their techniques and tactics, allowing them to extinguish fires more quickly in 2019 than in the previous year.

Israeli military firefighting gear stands at the ready near the Gaza border in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition, over the past year, the army upgraded its balloon interception systems, namely drones and other technological measures, which prevented many arson devices from reaching Israeli territory in the first place.

Late last month, Israel and the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group reached a new ceasefire agreement, which was aimed at halting the launch of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices from the Strip into southern Israel and reining in the general level of violence along the border, in exchange for a number of economic concessions.

Since the truce went into effect last month, there has been a marked drop in the number of airborne arson attacks, though they have not stopped completely.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of a F-35 fighter jet at the Israeli Air Force’s Nevatim base in southern Israel. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, has faced considerable criticism from southern residents and politicians on both sides of the aisle for what they say is a failure to adequately respond to ongoing violence by Hamas and other terror groups from the Gaza Strip, either militarily or via a long-term truce.

Since violence along the border began picking up last March, residents of the Gaza periphery have also held a number of protests throughout the country in response to what they see as government inaction in the face of terrorism.

Earlier this week, the prime minister defended his record, dismissing the complaints by political rivals as insincere, partisan attacks.

“I’m not impressed by the propaganda of the ‘experts.’ Many of them give us advice they themselves did not implement when they were on duty,” Netanyahu said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, referring to statements made by politicians who had formerly served as defense and army chiefs.

“And make no mistake, they will also be the first to criticize us after we embark on a large-scale military operation, which we may be forced to do. So what guides me is only one thing — the security of the State of Israel,” the prime minister said.

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