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July 4, 2021 5:41 pm

As Israeli Forests ‘Burned Again and Again’ by Gaza Fire Balloons, Algorithm Helps Satellites See Through Smoke

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

A section of a satellite image from May 2021 of burned lands in the Gaza envelope. Photo: Ben-Gurion University

As incendiary balloon attacks renewed this week from Gaza towards southern Israel, an algorithm developed by an Israeli research team has assessed that the May conflict with Hamas saw about 3,200 acres of Israeli forest, reserves and farmland burned around the Strip.

Researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev, headed by Prof. Arnon Karnieli from the university’s School of Sustainability and Climate, have developed a remote sensor algorithm that analyzes satellite images to map the devastation ignited by kite terrorism and other incendiary devices. Firebombs attached to kites and balloons and launched from the coastal enclave into Israeli territory have previously destroyed large areas of Israeli land near the Strip.

“In 2018, the worst year of kite terrorism in Israel, we mapped all the fires around the Gaza Strip, which was very important as people on the ground weren’t able to immediately assess the damage in the area,” Karnieli told The Algemeiner in an interview. “The area was under military operation and the army stopped firefighters and the natural reserve authority from getting close to the Gaza Strip. Satellite imaging was the only method to observe and assess the damage.”

“Unfortunately, this is now happening again, and the same area is burned again and again,” Karnieli remarked.

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Over the weekend, Israel was again hit by incendiary-laden balloons launched from the Gaza Strip, sparking fires in the south of the country. According to estimates by Jewish National Fund–Keren Kayemet L’Israel (KKL), Israel’s largest green organization, between 7 and 10 acres of forest — including a nature reserve — have been burned since Thursday following six or seven fires over the weekend.

“There are forests that will not recover on their own, and it will take us 20-30 years to rehabilitate,” Moshe Baruchi of KKL told Israel’s Ynet News.

In response to the arson attacks, on Saturday night Israeli fighter jets struck a weapons manufacturing site and rocket launcher belonging to the Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. There were no reported casualties.

“Israel is interested in quiet and we have no desire to harm the people in Gaza, however violence — balloons, marches, harassment of any kind — will be met with a severe response,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

To help asses the damage inflicted to areas by incendiary devices launched from Gaza, KKL has started to use the fire damage mapping algorithm developed by Karnieli’s team.

“We have recently received a contract from KKL to map all the fires in the country from the Golan Heights to the Karmiel in real-time,” Karnieli disclosed. “What we do is every five days we compare algorithm images of the five days before.”

Kite terrorism, balloons, and molotov cocktails launched by Hamas during last month’s Operation Guardian of the Walls wreaked havoc on the area bordering the Gaza envelope, according to the findings of the BGU researchers. The explosives launched towards Israel destroyed fields, groves, nature reserves and wildlife, leaving behind scorched earth.

Ben Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev

The algorithm — developed by Karnieli and his team and dubbed Aerosol Free Vegetation Index, or AFRI — analyzes satellite images to locate burned areas. It then processes these images to allow researchers to see from space through even heavy smoke cover, and distinguish between the active fire, burned areas, and non-burned areas.

“The spectral signal of green agricultural lands is the same with or without a thick pall of smoke.” Karnieli said. “Satellite images taken over a number of days can differentiate between newly burned land and older damage.”

According to estimates by the Israel Defense Forces, the resulting fires from incendiary kite blazes and helium balloons launched from the Gaza Strip have in recent years destroyed close to 9,000 acres of forests and agricultural land, at a high cost to farmers and the ecosystem of the western Negev.

Last year, AFRI was adopted by the European Space Agency (EUMETSAT) as a standard course of practice to help in the monitoring of air quality threats to vegetation. In addition to its wartime application, AFRI’s has proven a be a valuable tool to help firefighters map fire-scarred areas safely and efficiently, Karnieli added.

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