Study finds nature reserves, forests and farmland were set ablaze by rocket fire and incendiary balloons sent from Gaza, endangering the diversity of flora and potentially wildlife in the local ecosystem

Almog Ben Zikri Jun. 22, 2021

A fire caused by incendiary balloon in one of the Gaza border communities, last month.
A fire caused by incendiary balloon in one of the Gaza border communities, last month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Some 13,050 dunams (3,260 acres) of nature reserves and farmland were set afire in Israeli areas around the Gaza Strip as a result of the ongoing security situation, according to a study conducted by an Israeli university.

A study by the Remote Sensing Laboratory in Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found the fires scorched 7,570 dunams in nature reserves, 3,220 dunams in forests and 2,260 dunams in agricultural land.

The recent Gaza flare-up and the ongoing launch of incendiary balloons by militants in the enclave not only led to substantial losses for farmers but also heavy damage to the ecosystem.

The damage was measured using algorithms which analyze satellite pictures that identify burnt areas. The algorithms were developed by Arnon Karnieli, who also directs the lab, some 20 years ago.

The Bitronot Be’eri Reserve Nature and Nahal Habasor Nature Reserve were among the best-known reserves which were damaged. While Bitronot Be’eri was destroyed entirely by incendiary balloons prior to the recent Gaza flare-up, Nahal Habasor was set ablaze during the war as a result of rocket fire.

In recent years, the ecosystem near the Israel-Gaza border has suffered from multiple fires due to the ongoing security situation. Gaza militants modernized the launch of incendiary kites into Israel, with sophisticated incendiary balloons. of burnt land around the Israel-Gaza borderCredit: Footage of burnt land around the Israel-Gaza border

The most substantial wave of such attacks took place in 2018, as tensions between Israel and Gaza militant groups simmered. Some 32,747 dunams were set afire – 12,465 of them in nature reserves, 11,500 in forests managed by the Jewish National Fund in Israel, 4,250 of farmland and 4,532 of open areas.

A research, which was conducted afterward by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, warned that the wildfires would diminish the variety of flora in the area over the long term and subsequently cause wildlife to flee to other areas.

Scorched land and a Great heron in the Bitronot Be'eri Reserve in south Israel after a Gaza incendiary balloon attack, last month.
Scorched land and a Great heron in the Bitronot Be’eri Reserve in south Israel after a Gaza incendiary balloon attack, last month. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ofer Lieberman, a farmer from Kibbutz Nir-Am near the Gaza border, saw some 400 dunams of the kibbutz’s wheat go up in flames in the days prior to the recent flare-up with Gaza as a result of incendiary balloons. The kibbutz lemon and clementine orchards were also burned after the recent round of hostilities.

“The trees, which were burned, were 20 years old and the resulting damage they caused was much bigger than the burnt wheat,” Lieberman said. “We will need to dig up and remove the damaged trees, which were in their most productive years, after years of nurturing them,” he added. The kibbutz has applied to the tax authorities for compensation, but is still waiting for its application to be processed.

Ezra Sasson, the manager of the Northern Negev area for the Nature and Parks Authority, has been contending with the problem since the beginning. On a conversation with Haaretz just before the fighting in Gaza began, he mentioned the changes that had taken place in the Be’eri reserve after it was consumed by fire in 2018.

“In recent years we’ve seen fewer deer, but they move quickly and [can] flee to other places,” said Sasson. “Reptiles are the ones that are really harmed. Once there were turtles and snakes here, which are an important part of the food chain and have since disappeared,” he added, noting that their disappearance is partly a result of the decrease of vegetation in the area.

Moreover, Sasson expressed his worries about the dwindling diversity of plants in the area. As fires consume large areas, it leaves more room for more durable, and sometimes invasive, species to spread into.

“The weaker vegetation doesn’t succeed to grow again, so the only plants left are those that can survive in these conditions,” he said. ”A reserve with less of a variety of plants will also affect the animals that will be found in it.“