Balloons from Gaza attached to a bomb
Balloons from Gaza attached to a bombPolice spokesperson

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 proactive and stopping the supply of helium.

Too many political and military commentators are totally out of their depth and do not know how helium is obtained.

To understand the lack of proactivity it is necessary to understand that helium is a natural occurring gas that is obtained from underground helium rich natural gas strata. Helium is the second-most-abundant element in the universe but It is only 5.2 parts per million (ppm) in air, thus it is not economically feasible to extract helium from the atmosphere and 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 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, discovered in 1895 by Sir William Ramsey of University College London, is a noble gas and part of a group classified in the chemical periodic table as rare inert gases with almost no chemical reactivity. 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.

Large scale extraction from the earth’s strata is from natural gas rich helium sources that 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 and then liquefied by cryogenic technology to reduce its volume to one fifth of its gaseous volume.

Latest available production statistics show that in 2017 helium production was led by the USA (55%), Qatar (32%), Algeria (6%), Russia (2%), Poland (1%) and Australia3%). But in 2017 Qatar had closed two of its helium production plants producing about 20% of the world’s total) operated by RasGas (70% owned by Qatar Petroleum and the rest by Exxon Mobile) because of an economic boycott due to supporting terrorism by Arab States and Saudi Arabia closed its border preventing exports. It is not known if these plants have restarted.

Helium has a variety of commercial uses. According to 2014 statistics, by far the largest is in cryogenic applications (32%) is cryogenic, where it cools the superconducting magnets in MRI scanners and NMR spectroscopy. The next largest application is for inert pressurizing and purging in the production of semiconductors from silicon and germanium for use in computer chips(18%) followed by use as a shielding gas in arc welding (13%). Minor uses are in leak detection (4%), and deep sea diving breathing gas (2%) and other uses such as inflating car air bags on impact and rocketry in cooling liquid oxygen fuel.

MRI scanners have a liquid helium capacity in the order of 1700 liters that is equivalent to 1590 kg, whilst a 45 cm diameter balloon hold 2.83g of gaseous helium. The loss of liquid helium in an MRI scanner is dependent upon the type and manufacturer. A Phillips MRI has a loss of 1% per month, Toshiba about 4.3% per month, and a Siemens of 3 to 6% per month. The monthly liquid top up ranges between 15.9 to 95.4 kg.

In Gaza there are between5 to 6 MRI units according to a paper published in Journal of Radiation Research and Applied Science (2018), there are 2 at the Al-Shifa Hospital and 3 at the European Gaza Hospital, with another one added there in April 2018. Thus the total monthly supply of liquid helium to Gaza should not exceed if the MRI units are in operation be 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 available off the shelf in the USA. A container capable of providing 1558 liters to fill 100 balloons 28 cm inches in diameter cost $399, whilst one for 580 balloons providing 8240 liters cost $799. Similarly Amazon UK sells a gas bottle to fill 30 units of 23 cm balloons for 25 GBP and USA web sites one can purchase a container providing 250 liters for $25. Arab web sites sell containers providing 7.1 liter for 320 AED in both Abu Dubai and UAE.

It is incompetence at the highest levels that is responsible for the failure to stop helium entering Gaza and the people of Israel have been misled by the media and the respective spokespersons.
If one can buy off the shelf balloon kits comprising of disposable helium cylinders and the like together with balloons it is possibility that the kits could also be sent through the post to a foreign country or sent direct to Gaza without being subject to inspection.

Helium imported from the USA as a liquid is available in Israel from Israel Oxygen and Argon Works Ltd, a company acquired by Air Products & Chemicals Inc. in February 2020 (see Globes 12/2/20) . However, a search on the internet has revealed that helium is readily available from Dubai and UAE who 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 question that needs urgently to be answered is how the helium gas containers/cylinders reach Gaza. Effectively 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 of the helium containers is through the respective crossing points at Keren Shalom and Erez that are supervised/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.

Irrespective of the details supplied on the container manifest, it is absolutely necessary to destuff all shipments into Gaza through the crossing points, search and inspect every shipment thoroughly at the Israeli manned crossing points. We should not be concerned if the people of Gaza suffer inconvenience by this action -- inconvenience, not harm – and after all it is our homes, businesses and fields that are being destroyed.

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 entering Gaza and 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 that shipped in to and out of Gaza via the Israeli crossing points and COGAT either does not have or is unwilling to provide information – is this some kind of cover up?

Dr. Colin L. Leci originally a Londoner, moved to Jerusalem several years ago.where he was visiting professor at the Casali Institute of Applied Chemistry HU.