Startup Nation unites to seek solution to Palestinian terror balloons

Mini-hackathon on Friday organized by tech incubator SouthUp calls for ideas to help counter flying incendiary devices launched from Gaza into Israel

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Palestinian protesters hold balloons before loading them with flammable material to be flown towards Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian protesters hold balloons before loading them with flammable material to be flown towards Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The conflict between Israel and Palestinians at the border with Gaza has unleashed a new kind of warfare — helium balloons.

The new arson tactic, with the aim to set fire to vast swaths of grasslands, agricultural fields and nature reserves, follows that of the flame-bearing kites, which have been used since the first few weeks of the start of Gaza’s “March of Return” for the same purpose.

The concept behind the kites and the balloons is the same: launch the airborne incendiary devices into the air and rely on the breeze from the coast to push them into Israeli territory, where they can start a fire. The balloons themselves do not cause the fires — helium is an inert gas — but they carry flaming material attached to a long string.

In total, approximately 17,500 dunams (4,300 acres, or nearly 7 square miles) of land have been burned in more than 250 fires over the past two months, more than half of it in nature reserves, according to initial assessments.

After Israeli children at the Gaza border countered the flaming kites with an airborne message of peace, Startup Nation is galvanizing to help the Israeli army fight back. The technology incubator SouthUp has sent out alerts to techies to join a “mini-hackathon” on Friday, to come up with innovative solutions to the burning problem.

Air force reservists use drones to identify and shoot down incoming balloons and kites from Gaza that are fitted with flammable materials to set Israeli fields on fire, June 7, 2018. (Hadashot News screenshot)

“Our loving home has been getting ‘gifts from heaven’ in the past few weeks in the form of burning kites and balloons,” the incubator wrote in the invitation to the hackathon, sent out to groups of people involved in arts and technology via social media. The event will be held with experts from a wide variety of fields, the invitation said, including laser technologies, drones, optics, hot-air balloons, sensors and fire fighters. Soldiers and high school students will also take part.

SouthUp, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 2015 by figures from the fields of education and employment in Sha’ar Hanegev, in the south of Israel, who joined up with donors from the Jewish community in San Diego, California. Together they set up an organization that aims to find employment and education solutions for the communities living along the border with Gaza, by boosting the creation of startups and high-tech companies in the region, and educating the population to that purpose.

The hackathon, called “This is the end of every balloon,” in reference to a children’s classic “Tale of Five Balloons” written by Israeli author Miriam Roth, will be held at the organization’s premises in Sha’ar Hanegev, some 50 minutes from Tel Aviv, between 8.30 am to 4.00 pm on Friday, June 22.

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