Activists attend an event on a pier in Gaza City harbour for the launch of a blockade-running boat carrying Palestinian students and others injured during protests, surrounded by boats with Hamas’ marine police, to protest Israel’s naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. Image Credit: AFP

Occupied Jerusalem: Unable to thwart the waves of incendiary devices lofted into Israel on kites and birthday balloons from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli occupation government opted for a punitive response Monday, clamping down on cargo shipments in and out of Gaza in the hope that its government would halt the airborne arson themselves.

The new restrictions at Gaza’s main cargo crossing ban the import of all goods except food, medicine and “humanitarian equipment,” as well as all exports.

The militant organisation Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, called the move a “crime against humanity.” Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Gaza militant group, called it a “declaration of war.”

People ride boats as a boat carrying Palestinian patients and students sails towards Europe aiming to break Israel's blockade on Gaza, at the sea in Gaza July 10, 2018. Reuters

The measures were intended to press Hamas to crack down on the arson. “We will weigh down heavier on Hamas’ leadership, effective immediately,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said as he announced the partial closing at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday.

But the restrictions also seemed aimed at satisfying a domestic audience that has grown impatient with Netanyahu’s inability to provide an effective answer to the fire raining down across a wide area of southern Israel, or to articulate a broader strategy for addressing Gaza’s underlying problems.

A boat carrying members of Hamas' marine police launches out to sea escorting a blockade-running boat carrying Palestinian students and others injured during protests from the Gaza City harbour on July 10, 2018. AFP

The restrictions represented a sharp reversal by leaders of the Israeli occupation military, in particular Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, chief of the general staff of the regime’s army, who have called for alleviating economic pressure on Gaza, including by increasing economic aid, as a way to reduce the likelihood that tensions there could boil over into another war with Israel.

Analysts warned that reducing commerce at Kerem Shalom would only choke off what was left of the territory’s economic vitality at a time when it was already near collapse.

“I am frustrated by my own government,” said Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the newspaper Maariv who has clamoured for Israel to offer a broad package of economic aid to Gaza in return for its demilitarisation. “It’s not enough to be right, you should be clever, and it’s not a clever step on behalf of Israel.”

The immediate goal of the restrictions is to prod Hamas to abandon what has been an ingenious and, for Israel, exasperating tactic. Since April, Gaza fighters have been turning kites and balloons into improvised firebombs, burning hundreds of acres of Israeli farmland and forcing firefighting crews from all over the country to race from fire to fire dowsing flames before they can spread.

The Israeli army says it has used drones to bring down 670 kites and balloons, but hundreds more have gotten through. By mid-June, officials said, 412 blazes had been set — and the military has conceded that it is unable to stop them.

On Monday alone, at least 28 new arson fires caused by incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons had broken out by early evening.

“What’s happening in the south and the devastation to the farmers, and the environmental situation — I was down there recently, it’s toxic to breathe in those communities, it’s awful, and I agree there needs to be a response,” said Tania Hary, executive director of the Israeli advocacy group Gisha, which promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians. “But the response needs to be proportionate to the threat, and actions which are aimed to punish nearly 2 million people in the strip are certainly not proportionate.”

In addition to the clampdown at Kerem Shalom, Israel said it was restricting Gaza’s fishermen to 6 nautical miles offshore, after having allowed them to fish as far as 9 miles into the Mediterranean for the past three months.

Short of military action, analysts said, Israel has few options, since its blockade already severely restricts the movement of people in and out of Gaza. “The only measure that Israel has in its tool kit is to close the border,” said Celine Touboul, deputy director general of Israel’s Economic Cooperation Foundation.

Nearly all the goods that enter Gaza arrive through Kerem Shalom: Through the first six months of 2018, according to UN figures, 48,424 truckloads of goods were imported there. Of those, about a third contained food and medical supplies, items that would be exempt from the new restrictions.

Construction materials and nonfood consumable goods, which now appear to be barred by Israel, accounted for the bulk of the rest.

“There’s not a whole lot of stock on the shelves of Gaza, so it means that in a number of days you could already see shortages,” said Hary of Gisha.