How Does Helium for Terror Balloons Get Into Gaza?

Illustration: Materials from an explosives laboratory by Israel Defense Forces [CC BY-NC 2.0] via flickr

Illustration: Materials from an explosives laboratory by Israel Defense Forces [CC BY-NC 2.0] via flickr

The resurgence of the use of incendiary balloons from Gaza has highlighted the failure of the security apparatus in stopping helium from getting into Gaza. Insufficient public pressure has been applied to this governmental failure and the powers in authority have only been retroactive in attempting to stop these balloons rather than proactively stopping the supply of helium.

The question that needs an urgent answer is how the helium gas containers/cylinders reach Gaza. The Gaza/Egypt border is sealed; the Gaza coast is effectively patrolled by the Israeli Navy and Air Force; and the Gaza/Israel boundary is hermetically sealed by a well patrolled fence. Thus the only point of entry for the helium containers is through the respective crossing points at Keren Shalom and Erez that are supervised and controlled by Israel.

The source could be Israeli companies, containers arriving in Ashdod and transferred to Gaza, or shipments from Jordan via the Allenby Bridge crossing point. Regardless of the details supplied on the container manifest, it is absolutely necessary to open all shipments into Gaza through the crossing points, searching and inspecting every shipment thoroughly at the Israeli manned crossing points.

We should not be concerned if the people of Gaza suffer inconvenience by this action — after all, it is our homes, businesses and fields that are being destroyed. If one can buy off-the-shelf balloon kits consisting of disposable helium cylinders and the like, together with balloons, it is possible that the kits are being sent through the post office to a foreign country and on to Gaza — or sent directly to Gaza — without being subject to inspection.

Too many political and military commentators are totally out of their depth on this issue as they do not know how helium is obtained and how it is transported. Helium is a naturally occurring gas, obtained from the underground helium-rich natural gas strata. It is the second most abundant element in the universe, but it exists as only 5.2 parts per million (ppm) in the air — thus it is not economically feasible to extract helium from the atmosphere as there is no suitable technology.

Helium nuclei (or alpha particles) are produced in the radioactive decay of heavy elements such as uranium and thorium, located in the Earth’s crust. While most of these helium atoms find their way to the surface and escape, a small fraction are trapped by the same impermeable rock strata that trap natural gas. Helium is a 'noble' gas, part of a group classified in the chemical periodic table as rare inert gases with almost no chemical reactivity. It is virtually undetectable as it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, monatomic gas. It is the second lightest gas after hydrogen and the boiling point is the lowest among all the elements. Hence its use for balloons.

How is helium produced today? Large scale extraction from natural helium gas rich sources can contain up to 7% of helium. Due to helium’s lowest boiling point, it is separated from the other natural gas components at low temperature and high pressure by using distillation technology; it is then liquefied by cryogenic technology to reduce its volume to one fifth of its gaseous volume. The latest available production statistics show that in 2017, helium production was led by the U.S. (55%), and then by Qatar (32%), Algeria (6%), Russia (2%), Poland (1%) and Australia (3%).

Qatar has provided economic grants to Hamas in Gaza for some time and the leaders of Hamas reside in Doha, Qatar. Currently the renewal of the grant is being discussed with Egypt, Qatar and UN mediators, who have indicated they want to put an end to the balloons going from Gaza.

Interestingly, in 2017, Qatar closed two of its helium production plants which produced about 20% of the world’s total and were operated by RasGas — which is 70% owned by Qatar Petroleum and the rest by Exxonmobil. The closures were due to an economic boycott imposed by Arab states due to Qatar’s support of terrorism. Saudi Arabia closed its border, preventing exports. It is not known if these plants have restarted.

Helium has a variety of commercial uses, the largest being the cooling of the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and NMR spectroscopy via cryogenic applications. The next largest application is for inert pressurizing and purging in the production of semiconductors from silicon and germanium for use in computer chips, followed by helium’s use as a shielding gas in arc welding. Minor uses are in leak detection, deep sea diving breathing gas and other uses such as inflating car air bags on impact and in rocketry by cooling liquid oxygen fuel.

In Gaza there are five to six medical MRI units: two at the Al-Shifa Hospital and three at the European Gaza Hospital, with one additional unit added there in April 2018. Computing the helium needs of these medical MRI scanners is based on each one having a liquid helium capacity in the order of 1,700 liters, that is topped up as the helium is used. That is the equivalent of 1,590 kilograms of helium. By comparison, a balloon with a 45 cm. diameter holds 2.83 grams of gaseous helium. Thus the total monthly supply of liquid helium to Gaza, if the MRI units are in operation, should not exceed between 95 to 572 kg, equivalent to filling between over 33,000 to 200,000 balloons per month!

Compressed helium gas for inflating balloons is readily available off the shelf. A container capable of providing 1,558 liters to fill 100 balloons of 28-cm diameter costs $399.00 in the U.S., whilst one providing 8,240 liters for 580 balloons costs $799.00. Similarly, Amazon UK sells a gas bottle to fill 30 23-cm diameter balloons for 25 British pound sterling (GBP); on U.S. websites, one can purchase a container providing 250 liters for $25.00. Arab websites sell containers providing 7.1 liter for 320 United Arab Emirates dirham (AED) in both Abu Dubai and the UAE.

Helium imported from the U.S. as a liquid is available in Israel from Oxygen & Argon Works, Ltd. However, helium is readily available from Dubai and the UAE which could make it available to Jordan. One of the Israeli TV channels showed a clip from Gaza recently of balloons being filled from what appeared to be a container providing about 250 liter helium in a disposable gas canister.

The fields of the communities adjacent to Gaza have been burning for far too long for this farcical situation to continue. It is incompetence at the highest levels that is responsible for the failure to stop helium from entering Gaza. The people of Israel have been misled by the media and the respective spokespersons. The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics maintains records of all imported and exported products except those shipped into and out of Gaza via the Israeli crossing points; COGAT either does not have or is unwilling to provide that information — is this yet another cover up?

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