2018-06-20 / Home

‘Terror kites’ shake residents in southern Israel, but not their resolve

By SAM SOKOL JTA


Flaming kites sent from Gaza have caused thousands of shekels of damage on Israel’s western border. 
JTA photo by Sam Sokol. Flaming kites sent from Gaza have caused thousands of shekels of damage on Israel’s western border. JTA photo by Sam Sokol. NAHAL OZ, Israel—

Dani Ben David fiddles with his radio, switching between it and his cellphone as he drives through the Beeri Forest, a nature reserve located on the border of Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

As his Jeep jolts over the dirt road, he quickly and calmly jumps between multiple conversations, coordinating efforts to extinguish the multiple fires that have sprung up across his territory. As regional director for the Western Negev for Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, Ben David is responsible for maintaining the forest’s tens of thousands of acres in the face of Palestinian efforts to torch them and the surrounding farmland.

Since April, more than 450 open-air fires have been set along the border region by kites and balloons carrying incendiary materials launched from Gaza. Flying aimlessly over the kibbutzim, they have turned large swatches of what was once an oasis of green in a dry and dusty south into a charred landscape.


An Israeli holds a “terror kite” and the incendiary materials attached to it. JTA photo by Sam Sokol. An Israeli holds a “terror kite” and the incendiary materials attached to it. JTA photo by Sam Sokol. Many of those kites have landed in the wheat fields of farmers, causing millions of shekels in damage to the local agricultural sector as well as in the area’s vast nature reserves.

“Look over there,” Ben David said, pointing to a pillar of smoke in the distance. His finger sweeps across the horizon, noting the locations of several other fires in the distance. “We see three, four, five fires. There are eight fires now.”

“It’s like this every day,” he continues, describing how more than 4,000 dunams, or nearly 490 acres, have already gone up in smoke over the past two months. “It’s doing great damage to the forest, to the plants and animals. Everything here is burned. We don’t really see a solution, either from the government or the army, against this kite terror.”

Ben David says KKL-JNF employs 12-13 private firefighters who are responsible for the forest, a number bolstered by volunteers from local communities and Israel’s overstretched Fire and Rescue Services.

“If we had 10 more it would be good, but we don’t have 10 more,” he said. “We are doing what we can. You extinguish one and you move on to the next one.”

At another site nearby, a tractor puts out the flames by driving over them followed by a man carrying a hose attached to a small water tank on his back. Its siren blaring, a firetruck pulls up and a regular duty firefighter gets out and starts spraying a flaming clump of trees.

Over the course of less than an hour, Ben David visits more than five fires, one of which blazes alongside a small one-lane road, completely obscuring visibility.

“At the end of the day, we are succeeding at extinguishing everything,” he said, but adding it would help if he had access to firefighting planes. Ben David explained that such aircraft are prohibited from taking part in the battle due to the proximity to the Gaza border.

“These kites aren’t toys, they’re weapons,” he said. “If the IDF or government will understand that, I hope they will do something.”

In nearby Nahal Oz, Yael Lachyani walks along pointing out the damage done to her kibbutz’s farmlands. She points to a small patch of burnt ground on which small shoots are already beginning to sprout. Lachyani, the agricultural collective’s spokeswoman, said that on the festival of Shavuot each year, a small ceremony is held here for the community’s children, but this year it was set ablaze only hours before the gathering.

“We put out the fire and held the ceremony anyway. We are proud that we didn’t let them destroy our holiday,” she said, noting that 600 dunams, or almost 150 acres, have already gone up in flames.

“We try to be optimistic. It’s all about resilience,” Lachyani said. “We don’t complain. We don’t let them run our lives. You burn and we plant. Our morale is high. There is something about tragedy that connects you more to the people you live with.”

While acknowledging that the damage has only been to vegetation, she said it is only a matter of time until someone gets hurt in the community of fewer than 500 residents next to the border fence. The Israel Defense Forces and the government have not responded to the fires in the same way in which they act in the wake of a rocket attack, she said, and this “sends a message” to Hamas.

Lachyani said that despite the rocket attacks and fires, Nahal Oz is thriving, with residency at capacity, in part due to the “new secular Zionism of living wherever it’s necessary and wherever it’s meaningful.” But while the community has grown since the last flare-up with Hamas in 2014, it does not mean the residents are totally sanguine about the situation.

“We are thriving under fire…for the moment,” she said, complaining of the feeling that “no one cares.” Citing Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi’s statement that he was “not excited by the kite terrorism”—that is, that people shouldn’t overreact to what he called a “pathetic” enemy—Lachyani asserts that the “government isn’t doing anything.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has pledged to strike back in response to the kites “when it is convenient for us.” The army is testing two types of drones for use against the kites as “part of a comprehensive response, which includes cooperation with firefighting forces and the activity of combat forces on the ground,” an IDF spokesman told JTA.

According to police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, bomb disposal experts have responded not only to kites dragging alcohol soaked rags but also explosive devices, “which is a much more serious threat to both soldiers and civilians.”

“Every day we have at least 30 firefighters with 10 fire engines to deal only with fires near the fence,” Israel Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Yoram Levy said. “In order to respond quickly we opened five temporary stations in kibbutzim. We have a volunteer unit at Kfar Aza with a fire truck and equipment, and we are about to establish two more units. When we receive intelligence that there might be mass demonstrations, we are reinforcing our staff as needed.”

Levy said the fire service has used airplanes twice, near Kibbutz Or Haner and Kibbutz Karmia, after receiving permission from the Israeli Air Force.

According to Adi Meiri, a spokeswoman for the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, whose territory includes Sderot, extinguishing the fires is not the only struggle for residents of the region. While the state has pledged reparations for farmers who have lost crops, local representatives also have been pushing hard for additional payments for those forced to harvest early, losing part of the value of their produce, as well as for those who have lost agricultural equipment.

Aside from the financial side, Meiri said the constant fires have caused stress for residents, especially children, many of whom are receiving help from psychologists at a local “resilience center.” She described how she has gone to great lengths to shield her own children from the reality of the past two months.

While many residents have called for increased strikes against Hamas, others believe that only an improvement in conditions in Gaza will bring true peace. 

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