From Gaza to Iraq: Fire is a new weapon of ISIS, Hamas and others

More than 2,000 fires have been set in southern Israel and 8,700 acres burned between May 2018 and May 2019.

A fire burns in scrubland on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near kibbutz Gevaram (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A fire burns in scrubland on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, near kibbutz Gevaram
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Last year Hamas hit upon a new way to terrorize Israel: its activists and supporters began attaching incendiary devices to balloons and floating them over the border from Gaza.

In Iraq, Islamic State has also been burning fields across the Center and North of the country to terrorize Iraqi farmers and to target various areas, including Sinjar, where members of the Yazidi minority live.
More than 2,000 fires were set in the South and 3,520 hectares (8,700 acres) burned between May 2018 and May 2019, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Center, nd the use of balloons to transport burning material over the border has increased. It is obviously an innovative strategy that Hamas adopted when it realized that its other activities, such as tunneling and the “Return March” mass protests, had been thwarted.
The relationship between ISIS using burning fields to terrorize people and Hamas using balloons is not clear, but in the past, extremist groups have borrowed tactics from Hamas to use across the region and the world. For instance, suicide vehicular rammings, mass stabbings and other strategies became common methods to attack Israel before they became as common abroad.
Thousands of hectares burned in Iraq and Syria in recent months as ISIS began using fire as a weapon. In May, ISIS members infiltrated villages near Makhmur, an area that is exposed because it is along the line where Kurdish Peshmerga forces of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government patrol, and where there is a gap between them and the Iraqi army forces. ISIS exploited this gap between Iraqi and Kurdish forces to begin threatening farmers: ISIS demanded taxes from them or it threatened to burn to burn their fields.
After those incidents, ISIS began burning fields anyway, without any quid pro quo of taxes. It has struck across a swath of central and northern Iraq, usually near areas it once controlled. This often targets either Kurdish areas, local Sunni Arab farmers or other groups such as Shi’ites and Turkmen.
Over the weekend on June 7 and 8, ISIS was accused of setting fires near Sinjar, an area where Yazidis live. In 2014, the jihadist group attacked Sinjar and carried out genocide against Yazidis. More than 3,000 are still missing. ISIS wants to show that even when it has been defeated militarily, as it was in Syria in March, its genocide will continue by keeping minorities from returning to their lands.
The overall amount of land torched in Iraq is thought to be more than 3,200 hectares. A man who goes by the Twitter name Tom Cat and follows the Iraqi security forces closely wrote that the fires have destroyed around 1.6% of Iraq’s wheat and barley fields; farmers are losing their livelihoods.
So far Iraq has not found a way to confront the fires. The country is still recovering from ISIS and the destruction its war caused from 2014 to 2018. Cities such as Mosul require major investment to rebuild. Yet ISIS is targeting the most vulnerable rural populations where security is still difficult to impose, in places like Nineveh, between Kirkuk and Makhmur, or near Khanaquin. The jihadist group’s goal is to make it inhospitable for rural people to live normally and to keep the people there terrified.
The locals who wondered if ISIS would return and who might have wavered in their support of the central government are being sent a message that it is coming back. For minorities, the message is also that their former villages are not safe to return to – that lurking in the night, the destructive arm of ISIS can still reach out.