Teams of firefighters worked throughout the day on Sunday putting out large brush fires in fields belonging to communities in southern Israel, after they had been hit by flaming-kites launched from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Hundreds of acres of land was burnt near the communities of Nir Am, Or Haner and Be’eri after one such kite triggered a fire in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council’s Simhoni Forest.
The fire caused the southbound lane of Route 34 to be closed to traffic, and Israel Railways shut down the Ashkelon-Netivot route, stopping trains coming from the north at Ashkelon railway station and trains coming from the south at the Netivot station.
The fires came a day after some 500 to 750 acres of a nature reserve next to Kibbutz Carmiya were destroyed by kites.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he instructed National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to push forward a process that will subtract the amount of money the government must pay to Gaza-area communities for the damages caused by the fires, from the Palestinian tax money Israel transfers each month to the Palestinian Authority.
According to Hebrew media, Israel Nature and Parks estimates that at least one-third of the reserve was destroyed on Saturday, despite four air tankers and 12 firefighting teams working to put out the flames.
Gazans have been protesting along the border since March 30 as part of the Great March of Return, with demonstrators throwing stones and Molotov cocktails towards troops and launching incendiary kites and balloons towards Israeli territory.
Late Saturday night, the Israel Air Force attacked 15 Hamas targets
in the Gaza Strip following mortar fire against southern Israeli communities on Saturday evening.
The military said the strikes were a response to the earlier rocket fire as well as “terror incidents led and made possible by the Hamas terror organization over the course of the weekend,” which included the throwing of grenades, improvised explosive devices, attempts to infiltrate into Israel by damaging the security fence and the burning of Israeli fields by incendiary kites.
The mortar fire was the first violation of a fragile cease-fire and two days of relative quiet in southern Israel after the most significant escalation between the IDF and the terrorist groups in the coastal enclave in four years.
The first round of sirens was activated Saturday in several nearby communities in the Eshkol Regional Council at around 8 p.m., with one mortar falling in open territory and the other intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Additional sirens sounded several times in the same communities, as well as in communities within the Sha’ar Hanegev and Hof Asheklon regions and in the city of Sderot, following additional rocket fire from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
According to the military, the IAF bombed targets across the entire Gaza Strip in three Hamas compounds, including two weapon-production and storage sites, as well as targets belonging to Hamas’s naval force.
If Hamas “chooses to follow a path of terrorism and not solve the difficulties of the people of Gaza, it will continue to pay a heavy price that will only become steeper as much as needed,” read the statement released by the IDF.
The Palestinian news agency Wafa reported that residential homes were damaged when Israeli jets targeted one site in the al-Waha area northwest of Gaza City with three missiles. The Hamas-affiliated Shehab news agency reported that Israeli jets struck targets in Gaza City’s Shejaia neighborhood as well as in the Nuseirat refugee camp near Deir al-Bireh. Another target was struck outside the southern Gazan city of Rafah.
Earlier in the evening, Israeli jets bombed locations in the al-Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza City as well as targets in Khan Yunis and Rafah.
Meanwhile, the IDF announced Sunday morning that a large scale exercise across the southern part of the country would begin despite the heightened tensions in the area.
Residents of southern Israel should expect to see an increased presence of troops as well as military equipment and aircraft in the skies over southern Israel. The drill, which will last throughout Wednesday, was planned in advance “to preserve the fitness and preparedness of the troops,” the military said.
The Israel Air Force will also be holding a separate drill throughout the country that is set to last until Thursday.Herb Keinon contributed to this report.