Fighting Fires from “Kite Terror” in Israeli Fields and Forests

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

We can only hope that the kites cease to be weapons and return to their former status as children’s playthings

A visit to Israeli communities and KKL-JNF firefighters on the Gaza border, who are working furiously to quench fires ignited by Gazans flying kites laden with flammable materials. The fires have caused farmers millions of shekels of damage and have spread to kibbutz perimeters, endangering lives.

Can anything evoke optimism and joie de vivre more vividly than a kite –large, brightly-colored, soaring into the sky, with a beaming child on the ground clutching its long string? But on the Gaza border in recent weeks, the kite has sadly become a weapon in the hands of violent Gaza protesters intent on setting fire to Israeli forests and fields.

The smell of smoke that assails us from every side and the sound of drones and quadcopters hovering overhead present a stark contrast to the pastoral atmosphere of this rural area. But that’s how life is here, where the smallest spark can ignite a major conflagration.

“Instead of enjoying the pleasant breeze that blows in from the sea in the afternoons, we’re forced to cope every day with dozens of fires caused by kites carrying flammable substances,” says KKL-JNF Western Negev Region Director Danny Ben David. “In the past month and a half over 120 fires have broken out here and about 1,300 dunam of woodland have been burned [approx. 320 acres] – and that doesn’t include the farmland that has gone up in smoke.”

Beeri, Kfar Aza, Kissufim, Nir Am, Nahal Oz, Re‘im and Saad are among the communities whose fields have suffered kite-induced fires, together with the Eshkol region’s Shaar HaNegev and Sdot Negev, both of which are also near the Gaza border. Apart from causing millions of shekels’ worth of damage to farmers, these fires also endanger local residents and impair their quality of life.

“Hamas is trying to disrupt our lives, but we continue to work our fields right up to the last furrow beside the border,” declared farmer Danny Rahamim of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. “For a farmer, watching his fields burn stabs at the heart in a way no one else can understand. A great deal of financial damage is caused, months of work go up in smoke and it’s just sad. I’ve been living on this kibbutz for over forty years, and nothing’s going to move me from here. We’re planted too deep in the soil to abandon it.”

At the entrance to Nahal Oz a field adjacent to the kibbutz fence was burned. Had the firefighters not managed quickly to gain control of the blaze, the kibbutz itself could have been harmed.

A large wheat field adjacent to Kibbutz Mefalsim burned a week ago. At the far end is a field of sunflowers, which remain undamaged. Its large flowers hang their heads as if they, too, are saddened by the destruction.

Not far away, beside Kibbutz Kfar Aza, another field went up in flames, but a tractor working at the site today shows that life is continuing, a symbol of the Israeli farmers’ refusal to give in to despair.

KKL-JNF has been offering continuous support to many of the Gaza border communities through a variety of building, infrastructure, agriculture, water, environmental, tourism and security projects. Friends of KKL-JNF throughout the world are constantly involved in promoting these vital objectives.

Now, together with the IDF and the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, KKL-JNF, too, has enlisted in the battle against the fires: its firefighting teams know the area well and, thanks to donations from its Friends worldwide, they are equipped with firetrucks suited to the local terrain.

Eshkol Region Security Officer Elan Isaacson looks out towards the border from Tel Gama. At his feet lie the scorched fields of Kibbutz Re‘im. Suddenly he spots a rising column of smoke and realizes that another fire has broken out. The troops are summoned to the scene.

“Kites are supposed to be a children’s game, a symbol of hope and joy,” says Isaacson. “Hamas has transformed them into weapons designed to burn our fields and forests. They are trying to obliterate the international border and attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.”

Only a short time passes before KKL-JNF’s firefighting teams are called out again, this time to a fire in Shokeda Forest. Two firetrucks and four team members quickly arrive at the scene, subdue the flames and prevent the fire from spreading. Black, smoking earth and a few still-burning tree stumps remain at the site as a reminder of the green woodland that once grew here.

One of the largest fires in the area took place in Beeri Forest, ignited by three incendiary kites launched from the Gaza Strip. There were no human casualties, but the forest was severely damaged.

Two of the dozens of kites that have landed locally hang beside the entrance to Kibbutz Beeri. Any child would be delighted to go out with a parent to fly a kite like these Gazan improvisations, in which large nylon sheets have been stretched over branches tied together by hand, ending in a tail consisting of strips of Arabic-language newspaper. Such creativity would be worthy of admiration, were it not directed mainly towards terrorism and destruction.

The Beeri Forest firewatchers’ tower, which was built with the support of KKL-JNF’s Friends in Scandinavia, dominates the entire area. Below it cluster a number of KKL-JNF firetrucks whose teams are taking a few moments’ break to recover before the next callout.

The firewatchers up in the tower have more work than ever at present, and they need to remain constantly on alert. Every day several fires break out in the region, and in many cases the lookouts are the first to spot the smoke. Time is of the essence in these situations, and the firefighters’ swift arrival at the scene is the key to damage control and preventing the flames from spreading.

However, the professional firefighting teams are not facing the flames alone: large numbers of local residents volunteer their help and participate in the battle to keep their homes safe. “The community here is strong. We’ve been through some difficult times together, and we’ll get through this, too,” Rami Gold, a frequent volunteer from Kibbutz Beeri, assures us. “Every time a fire breaks out, we local residents come out and help to put it out any way we can. By the end of the day we generally manage to stop the flames and keep damage to a minimum.”

KKL-JNF professionals have already begun to assess the damage sustained by the forests and open areas and work out a rehabilitation strategy: where is intervention required and where can the forest be left to regenerate naturally; which trees need to be cut down and removed and what damage needs to be remedied immediately to prevent danger to visitors? Routes through the forest, footpaths and cycle trails will also need to be repaired and restored.

“We’ve got a very large area to rehabilitate. It’ll take many years to restore things to the way they were before and recreate beautiful well-established forests on the same scale,” Danny Ben David reflects sadly.

We can only hope that the kites cease to be weapons and return to their former status as children’s playthings, and that residents on both sides of the border can enjoy fertile fields and green woodlands.