Analysis: Gaza arson attacks cause massive fires in Israel

Israeli communities close to the border with Gaza have endured nearly three months of “kite terror” attacks launched from the coastal enclave.

Kites, balloons and condoms laden with a metal pouch containing flammable substances such as burning coal or rags soaked with oil are able to drift across the border and float into Israel thanks to the breeze from the Mediterranean sea.

Some of the kites and balloons carry small improvised explosive devices.

By the end of last week, 75 days of continuous attacks had seen more than 800 incendiary devices launched. The attacks – which average 11 a day – have caused 1,000 fires in Israel.

Approximately 25,000 square kilometres of agricultural lands and forests have been set ablaze in what the Jewish National Fund, which owns much of the land, has described as “environmental terrorism”. It has said it will sue Hamas for the damage in international courts. More than half the fires are believed to have occurred in nature reserves.

Two weeks ago, 25 fires raged on one day, with thousands of acres of crops, forests and agricultural land destroyed.

No injuries have yet been reported, but Israeli police and security forces are fearful that this may only be a matter of time. Last week, a bunch of balloons carrying an IED got caught on a trampoline in the southern Israeli region of Eshkol.

“Balloons on a trampoline in the backyard – that’s a decorative play area and beckons the most innocent ones, and yet our children have lost their innocence because of this phenemenon,” said the mother in whose garden the balloons landed.

“These days it’s important to explain to kids that balloons are also a ‘suspicious object’ that they have to keep away from, to not touch and to call an adult.”

Although the attacks are believed to have begun spontaneously, Hamas initially did nothing to prevent them. Now, believes Israel, the terror group which runs Gaza “deliberately conducts arson terror attacks in an organised manner”. Hamas commanders, say the IDF, instruct subordinates to prepare the kites and attach flammable or explosive materials. These operatives then launch the kites towards Israel.

Israel has been using a Sky Spotter system, originally designed to counter small drones, to spot the balloons and kites, track their progress and then direct firefighters to their landing spots. The system has also been used to direct defensive drones that collide in midair with the terror kites and balloons and thus bring then down.

Over the past two weeks, the IDF has also begun firing warning shots at those launching the kites and balloons, as well as the tents and cars they use.

Last week, tension between Israel and Hamas increased when, after a day which brought 20 fires in southern Israel, Israeli aircraft launched strikes on three Hamas targets in Gaza. The sites were believed to be connected to the incendiary devices.

In response, 45 rockets and mortars were indiscriminately fired towards Israel by Hamas operatives. Seven missiles were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome system. One struck close to a nursery. The IDF accused Hamas of “targeting Israeli civilians throughout the night with a severe rocket attack and dragging the Gaza Strip and its civilians down a deteriorating path”. Israeli jets subsequently hit 25 targets in Hamas military bases across Gaza. There were no reported injuries in either Israel or Gaza.

The Israel Defence Ministry is now threatening to limit the supply to Gaza of helium, which is used in the balloons. Helium is supposed to be used in MRI scanners.

Ironically, the attacks come against a backdrop of reports that Hamas and Israel are discussing a potential ceasefire through Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s coordinator on the peace process; Qatar; and Egyptian intelligence.

The discussions appear to have stalled, however, following an impasse on what Hamas will sacrifice in return for concessions from Israel.

The terror group purportedly wants to see restrictions on goods passing into Gaza from Israel and Egypt, which were imposed 11 years ago after Hamas’ coup, lifted. They also want to see the economic revitalisation of the strip and Gazans allowed to work in Israel once again. They are said to be willing to offer a long-term ceasefire in return.

Israel, however, is said to be objecting to the fact that Hamas seems to view the ceasefire as an opportunity to catch its breath. It won’t, for instance, destroy its rocket and mortar arsenals nor commit to stop digging terror tunnels.

Indeed, Israel’s concerns will have been exacerbated by the fact that Hamas has been diverting Egyptian fuel shipments – intended for Gaza’s power station – for its own uses.

Nonetheless, earlier this week Israel offered a significant olive branch to Hamas. During a visit to Cyprus, its defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, reportedly agreed to set up a floating dock in the Mediterranean island to receive goods bound for Gaza. The dock would include a system enabling Israel to monitor goods, thus preventing Hamas from smuggling weapons and materials for terror attacks into Gaza. Access to a sea port has long been a key strategic goal for Hamas. Lieberman indicated a working scheme would be devised in three months but said the final go ahead would be conditional on Hamas releasing two Israeli civilians held in Gaza, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers.

There is, though, another important player in the Gaza morass beside Hamas and Israel.

Last summer, the Palestinian Authority imposed a series of sanctions on Gaza after Hamas formed what President Mahmoud Abbas regarded as a shadow administration. This saw the salaries of civil servants slashed; a reduction in the PA’s payments for electricity in the Strip, leading to widespread power cuts; and a slow-down in the processing of applications by Gazans seeking medical treatment outside the embattled enclave.

Although the sanctions were eased following last October’s tentative reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, talks between the two sides appear to be at a stand still. The sticking point has been Hamas’ refusal to disarm.

Earlier this year, the PA began to ramp up the pressure on the terror group once again. In March, it first failed to pay 38,000 of its staff who are based in Gaza. The following month, it paid salaries but, without warning, cut 20 per cent from them. PA staff in the West Bank were paid as normal.

Abbas has also reportedly delayed payments the PA makes to Israel for Gazans who are treated in its hospitals. This is despite the huge pressures faced by the strip’s overburdened healthcare system.

One potential interim solution to Gaza’s plight may come in the form of a plan for an international trust fund which is being advanced by Mladenov. The former Bulgarian defence minister, who has earned a reputation for even-handedness, wants the fund to crack on with projects on electricity, water and sewage treatments. Israel is sympathetic to such projects. In February, it presented international donors at a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee with a $1bn Gaza infrastructure plan. The Israeli plan – which came with an offer of technology and know-how –included building desalination plants and installing a new high-voltage line that would double the amount of electricity Israel supplies to Gaza.

The fact that Mladenov’s fund would be run internationally and not through Hamas or the PA is also likely to ease Israel’s security fears.

However, Abbas may be less sympathetic given his apparent desire to put the squeeze on Hamas. Last week, he reportedly rejected a US push to encourage the Gulf states to invest $1bn in the economic revitalisation of Gaza. The Palestinian president is said to have opposed the move by the Trump administration to persuade the Gulf countries to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in economic projects in Gaza. In response, Abbas’ spokesman suggested: “The Palestinian leadership warns the countries of the region against cooperating with a move whose goal is to perpetuate the separation between Gaza and the West Bank.”

LFI’s Pledge for Gaza seeks to draw on these approaches. It recognises the dire humanitarian situation faced by the people of Gaza and proposes a comprehensive and multifaceted response: in line with the Oslo Accords, Hamas’ effort to rearm and restock its terror arsenal must be curtailed and stopped; the civil and political rights of the people of Gaza must be restored; the international community must honour the unfulfilled reconstruction pledges made at the 2014 Cairo conference; and the Israeli government must assist with the economic revitalisation of Gaza.