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Middle East

Israel tightens Gaza blockade as Palestinians launch arson kites and a firebombing falcon

The primitive aerial attacks have succeeded in infuriating Israel, which says they have scorched 2,600 hectares of land

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 1:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2018, 10:02pm

Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza Strip on Tuesday partly over kites carrying firebombs to burn Israeli farmland as concerns mounted over whether the rudimentary devices could spark another war.

And at least one arson attack allegedly involved a falcon harnessed to flammable material. The bird was found dead in a tree near the Gaza border, still attached to its harness and near a fire, Israeli authorities reported on Monday.

Days after the heaviest exchange of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since a 2014 conflict, Israel said it was blocking until Sunday fuel and gas deliveries through its only goods crossing with the enclave.

The fishing zone enforced by Israel off the Gaza Strip was also reduced from six nautical miles to three.

The goods crossing, known as Kerem Shalom, will remain open for food and medicine on a case-by-case basis.

It had already been closed to most deliveries since July 9, partly in response to the firebombs.

The move followed months of tension that has raised the possibility of a fourth war between Israel and Gaza militants since 2008.

Beyond the kites and last weekend’s exchange of fire, mass protests and clashes along the Gaza border since March 30 have seen dozens of Palestinians shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Israel has pledged a firmer response to the hundreds of arson kites and balloons that Palestinians have flown over the border fence since April.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under political pressure over the issue, has ordered the military to stop them.

The issue reportedly led to a debate between Israel’s military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a security cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Israeli media reports cited Bennett, a Netanyahu rival with ambitions to be prime minister, urging the military to open fire on anyone launching the kites.

Eisenkot was quoted as telling him there was a risk of firing at children, and that even in the case of adults such an approach ran against his “operational and moral position”.

Netanyahu said while visiting the military’s Gaza division headquarters Tuesday that “we are in a campaign that entails an exchange of blows and I can tell you that the (army) is ready for any scenario.”

Hamas has slammed Israel’s closure of the goods crossing as a “crime against humanity” and accused Israel of exaggerating the threat from arson kites.

Palestinians in Gaza see it as legitimate resistance against Israel’s more than decade-long blockade.

“The Israeli occupation would be playing with fire if its warplanes targeted kite fliers,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

Israel’s fire service says around 750 fires have burned some 2,600 hectares.

The firebombs have mostly been transported by kites and balloons, but Israel’s nature authority said a falcon was found Monday with flammable material tied to it.

This is the first time an animal has been used to ignite fires during weekly border protests that began in late March, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The organisation said it’s considering filing a complaint under international treaties over the use of an animal for what it called “terrorism.”

“Apparently it’s not enough to destroy nature with kites,” the Israel Defense Ministry unit that handles relations with the Palestinians tweeted. “Now falcons are being used for terror as well.”

Israel’s military signalled how it may try to stop the firebombs Monday when an aircraft struck two Hamas posts it said were near people launching them.

On Tuesday, it fired at a group launching arson balloons in the northern Gaza Strip. Gazan residents reported two people wounded.

From Israel’s perspective, Hamas can halt the kite launches if it chooses.

“Nothing happens in Gaza without the consent of Hamas,” said Gabi Siboni of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

Jamal al-Fadi, a political-science professor in Gaza, agreed that Hamas could stop the firebombs, but said it wants to use them to pressure Israel to ease its blockade.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg