Dousing the Flames: Israel Battles Gaza Fire Balloon Blazes

BE'ERI, Israel (Reuters) -
An Israeli soldier walks in an area that has seen blazes caused by fire balloons launched from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, near Kibbutz Kissufim. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

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 in what they say is a push at Israel to ease its blockade of the Hamas-run strip. The blockade is aimed at stopping terrorists and smuggling, while non-military goods are allowed through.

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 Knesset who lives in Be’eri, a tiny kibbutz 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.

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.

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