Dousing the flames: Israel battles Gaza fire balloon blazes


By Amir Cohen

BE'ERI, Israel, Aug 27 (Reuters) - In a burnt and blackened wheat field along the Gaza border, Israeli firefighters brave the dry summer heat to extinguish blazes caused by fire balloons launched from the Palestinian enclave.

Palestinians have sent dozens of helium balloons laden with incendiary material across the frontier in recent weeks to push Israel to ease its blockade of the Islamist Hamas-run strip, home to two million people.

Winds blowing inland from the Mediterranean Sea carry the balloons towards southern Israeli towns and farmland, dripping chemicals as they fly and igniting brush fires when they land.

"To see the fields near your home burning, it's indescribable, because it's not happening naturally," said Haim Yalin, a former member of Israel's parliament who lives in Be'eri, a tiny kibbutz four km (2.5 miles) from the Gaza border.

Local residents and Israeli troops have joined firefighters to fight the blazes. A spokesman for Israel's National Fire and Rescue Authority said some 460 fires so far have ravished mostly open areas, but have also damaged nature reserves.

Regular party balloons, condoms and large plastic bags are filled with helium and used to make the fire balloons by attaching an incendiary device, some times as simple as a burning string or even a cigarette.

Occasionally the balloons are strapped with explosives.

In one ashy field, a soldier beat down smoke with a fire broom as another sprayed it with a hose. Nearby, a hollowed out fox skull sat on a bed of charred leaves.

With tensions high, Israel closed its main commercial crossing with the impoverished strip earlier this month and halted fuel imports, causing Gaza's only power plant to shut down. Gaza authorities announced a lockdown on Monday after a coronavirus outbreak in the enclave.

Israel has struck Hamas facilities almost nightly for the past two weeks, and on Friday the militant group fired a dozen rockets towards Israeli towns. Mediators from the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar have been working for calm.

Some of the Palestinians who launch the balloons -- they describe themselves as the "Balloon Units" -- say they narrowly escaped the Israeli air strikes.

But potential retaliation wouldn't stop them, they said.

"We know it is a simple tool - but it causes fires, it causes panic and it shows we will not keep silent as long as our people continue to suffer," a Palestinian source close to the Balloon Units said.

(Additional reporting by Rinat Hirash in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Writing by Rami Ayyub Editing by Alexandra Hudson)


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