Encountering Heroes and Builders on Scorched Land

Tuesday, August 07, 2018 4:18 PM

A day in the Gaza border region: fighting fires and sustaining life in the face of hardship.

 
With the launch of the first incendiary kite from Gaza on April 11, 2018, a new kind of terrorism began in the agricultural fields, forests, and nature reserves in the Gaza envelope region. Four months later, as the terror kites continue their work of destruction day after day, KKL-JNF teams in the south, together with firefighters and Israeli troops, keep up the fight. The residents of Israel’s southern region, keeping a strong hold on life, continue to hope and to work.

 
Four months after the launch of the first incendiary kites, with hundreds of fires, enormous damage to flora and fauna, destruction of Gaza border agriculture, and over 2,400 acres of burned forest, the kite terrorism continues on a daily basis. KKL-JNF firefighting teams keep up their work, fighting for every tree and every clod of burned soil. On August 1, 2018, we embarked on a day-long trip to the scorched land, visiting the residential communities and forests of the northern and western Negev, to see the damage caused by the fires and how residents cope in the shadow of this ongoing terrorism.
 
The landscapes that we saw were tinged with the yellow of summer and the black of the fires’ devastation. The acrid smell of smoke hit us from all directions while we were still on the road, and in the forests we could see the fire trucks, together with civilian and army vehicles and water tankers.

A Missile Proof School Building in Sha’ar Hanegev

 

In the Negev, many things that we are used to thinking of as happy and safe have become threatening and sad — such as kites, balloons, and even school buildings.
 
The construction of a reinforced building for the Sha'ar Hanegev School, intended for the children of the eleven residential communities of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, is being completed. Despite the difficulties of living here, the residential communities are growing, making it necessary to expand the regional school.
 
We entered the construction area, where the workers are putting the finishing touches on the school buildings. Special reinforced netting over the roof will prevent rockets from reaching the building. The computer room is located in the bomb shelter. An external classroom in the inner yard of the building is almost completed, and one can almost hear the joyful voices of children in the classrooms.
Wide dirt pathways wind around the buildings. It is hard to imagine them filled with greenery, as they soon will be.
 
The reinforced school building has been constructed to protect the children and enable them to maintain their regular routines even when rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip. In order to avoid a situation where the children are shut up in the building all day, and to enable them to enjoy exercise in the open air, KKL-JNF, with assistance from its friends all over the world, will do the landscaping work around the school buildings. The landscaping, which will benefit the children, their families, and the school staff, will include gardening, development, playground equipment and installations for providing shade.

Black Arrow: Kites of Hope

 

A visit to the Hanoun Forest - the site of the Black Arrow monument, which overlooks the region of the Jabalia Refugee Camp and Gaza City - brings us back to the battles of the Paratroopers Brigade and the reprisal operations of the 1950s. It has also been, for some weeks, the place where the family of the late Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, who fell during Operation Protective Edge and whose body is still being held in Gaza, has been meeting with visitors to fly kites of hope, in hopes that the remains of Hadar, together with living captives being held in Gaza, will be returned to Israel.
 
As Amichai Lazar, assistant to KKL-JNF’s Southern Region architect, leads us to the grove at the site, he tells us about the three areas here - the forest, the monument, and the cease-fire building - and KKL-JNF’s plans for their development. The site, which gets many visitors, cannot contain all of them safely in its current state. The development plan for the site includes the construction of pathways, parking areas, an open area for gatherings and ceremonies, and the linking of the three areas.
 
At various times during Amichai’s talk, an army vehicle with a trailer containing a water tanker drives along the forest road, on its way to put out the fires caused by the incendiary kites launched from Gaza, reminding us that the fight against the fires is ongoing.

Nahal Oz: Building Life along the Border

 

On Kibbutz Nahal Oz, located 1.5 kilometers from the Gaza border, we meet Ohad Koren, the kibbutz’s engineering coordinator, and Areleh Fuchs, the kibbutz’s community manager. As we meet in the shade of the only tree in the area, Areleh speaks about the change that has taken place on the kibbutz since Operation Protective Edge.
 
“There has been real economic and social growth here over the four years since the operation,” he says. “Twenty-five new families have arrived. It was very sad here before, since residents went away and hardly anyone was left.”
 
Farming is a big challenge on Nahal Oz, whose fields fell victim to the incendiary kites- approximately one thousand dunams of wheat fields have been destroyed. As we drove along the evacuation route that was repaired after Operation Protective Edge, Ohad said: “One-third of the wheat crop has been destroyed. Agriculture is the primary source of income on Nahal Oz. It hurts our hearts very much, but it is seasonal. The wheat will sprout next winter. What hurts most is the groves - to see a eucalyptus tree destroyed by fire in five minutes. The little that exists in this dry, arid region has been burned, and the Negev will remain bare for decades more.”
 
Despite the many difficulties of living along the border, the residents are optimistic and determined to build their lives here. The kibbutz has more than 140 members, with more than 100 children.
“Everything that KKL-JNF does here pushes us forward and contributes a great deal to us as a community,” Areleh says.
 
A large, barren tract of land that goes right up to the border stretches out in front of us. It is the future site of a new neighborhood on the kibbutz.
 
“How does one construct a new neighborhood in an area that is not exactly in high demand?” Koren asks. Answering his own question, he says, “One does it with help from government ministries and friends such as KKL-JNF and JNF USA.”
 
Ohad tells us that 26 buildings are planned for construction on the lot in front of us. “We are building a little at a time, not a large amount at once, and plan to absorb eight additional families each year,” he says. “In order for them to continue living in such a challenging area, we need to provide them with everything they need on the kibbutz - economic and social opportunities, a community, and schools.” Areleh adds: “Anyone who comes to live here must be given all they need.”

Be’eri Forest: Extensive Environmental Damage

 

We continue to the Be’eri Forest in the western Negev, where we meet Danny Ben-David, KKL-JNF Western Negev Regional Director. He has been chasing incendiary kites and balloons every day for the past four months. A KKL-JNF team with three firefighting trucks has been dealing with an average of approximately sixteen fires each day, he tells us. Joining them are firefighters, workers of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Israeli army troops, and volunteers from Kibbutz Be’eri.
 
“At first there were kites, and now there are more helium balloons. There’s no letup here. The only time that the balloons stop and the number of fires decreases is when mortar shells are being launched.”
 
The damage to the forest, the local fauna, and the environment is enormous. Since the first incendiary kites were launched in April, KKL-JNF teams have dealt with more than 650 fires that destroyed approximately 2,500 acres of forest. “Pine and eucalyptus trees that were planted in the 1960s went up in flames,” Ben-David told us sadly. “The forest has suffered a terrible ecological blow. There is no forest continuity here, and animals trapped in isolated forests are killed in the fires. Quite a few rest and recreation areas established to commemorate fallen soldiers have been burned to the ground. The regional officials are committed to their families and are in personal contact with them. Every recreation area in the forest tells an individual life story.”
 
The Be’eri Forest is a major focal point for the blooming of anemones in the spring. When asked whether they will bloom again now that the soil has been burned, Danny answers: “Some places will have more blossoms and some less. It depends on the force of the fire on the ground and the amount of rainfall in the area. The amount of precipitation has been low in recent years, which could also affect the recovery of the forest and the geophytes as well.”
 
No recovery work is being done as yet because new fires are set every day. “We need to see how the environment copes before we intervene,” Danny says, adding: “Just the forests will take ten to fifteen years to recover, if recovery is possible at all, considering the high costs, which are estimated at approximately NIS 45 million.”
 
The Be’eri Forest is one of the forests in the western Negev that receive the highest number of visitors. It is the center of the annual Darom Adom (“Scarlet South”) Festival, which takes place when the anemones bloom after the rainy season. The forest contains pathways that show off its landscape, heritage sites, hiking trails, and recreation areas. KKL-JNF is creating the Nahbir recreation area, which will be wheelchair-accessible and adding picnic tables, a walkway, an open area, and signage for the benefit of visitors.

The Firefighters in the South: Joining Forces

 

The smell of smoke and burned soil strikes us as we stand on the overlook at the Yad ANZAC memorial site several hundred meters from Gaza. We are looking out over the blackened expanses and the burned trees that have turned from a vibrant green to bleak brown.
 
During the hundreds of fires, KKL-JNF’s Southern District has received help from four fire trucks in the region, together with others from the north and center of Israel that came to offer assistance at the lookout towers and on the communications equipment used on the fire trucks. Most of the fire trucks in the south are old and function at a low level. “The fire trucks, which are worn out with intensive work, are in the shop much of the time,” Ben-David says. “We are in a real war here, with all the equipment and the dangers. During the first month, people were here all day. Now, they try to do a rotation. Fire trucks are the region’s basic commodity. Any help in firefighting is very important. If we go into the next season with the existing fire trucks, we’ll have a problem.”
 
Vehicles with trailers carrying the water tankers have joined the fire trucks in order to extinguish the many fires that are started each day. Every firefighting force - the army, the Nature and Parks Authority, the firefighting service, and KKL-JNF - has such tankers, enabling them to put out the fires more quickly. “Since most of the troops on the ground are reservists who are unfamiliar with the area and with the theory of firefighting, KKL-JNF also directs them in putting out the fires,” says Ben-David.
 
The nine lookout towers scattered throughout the south are a few of the tools that KKL-JNF uses in the fight against the fires. At the lookout tower in Be’eri, we meet many of the people who take part in the day-to-day fight: volunteers from Los Angeles, including a mother of five, who joined the firefighters; KKL-JNF teams; and soldiers. A pleasant breeze cools the heat in the area slightly. We enjoy it until the foresters tell us: “It’s better if the air is still. That way, there are fewer fires to put out.”
 
Reliable communications equipment and personal safety equipment for KKL-JNF foresters engaged in firefighting are the most important part of maintaining the safety of the crews and enabling them to function better in the field. Rami Zaritzky, director of KKL-JNF’s firefighting division, tells us about the shortage of communications equipment. “Right now, we’re using three different communications systems,” he said. “We really need to obtain more Nitzan radios, which will improve coordination among everyone involved in firefighting.”
 
Fairly close to Be’eri, near Kibbutz Kissufim, KKL-JNF - with help from its friends all over the world - is planning to build another lookout tower. It will be built in the Gush Katif Forest which commemorate the 21 communities of Gush Katif that were evacuated in the 2005 Gaza disengagement.

Ofakim Park: A Jewel in the Desert

 

We end the day with a trip to Ofakim Park. Arriving at a green oasis after a day among the blackened landscapes in the desert heat is a welcome change. The park is a green lung for the city of Ofakim, which, due to the brisk pace of its development, is expected to double in size over the next several years. KKL-JNF is building an area for sports, leisure, and recreation in the midst of the park. Its features will include playing courts, walkways, bicycle paths, playground equipment, water fountains, and more.
 
The development of the park will strengthen Ofakim and improve the quality of life that it offers. Even during our visit, we heard the voices of children playing in the park and saw the new neighborhood - known as the Park Neighborhood - under construction nearby.

 
Amongst the blackened landscapes, we saw oases of optimism and people of strength, who are determined to live their lives and grow here.
 
KKL-JNF is here for them. You can help, too.
 
To find out how, please contact your local KKL-JNF office.