Life on the Gaza Border – Fighting Fires Daily

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Balloon and kite terror has become a daily reality for the people living near the Gaza Strip border, destroying forests, agricultural fields and nature reserves. KKL-JNF foresters who usually care for forests have become firefighters out of necessity. The following is a description of what daily life has become for both local residents and also for KKL-JNF staff.

In the Land of the Kites

Lugassi with the utility van, Baruchi with the skullcap on his head and the two-way radios, Saeed the lookout with his binoculars, the firefighters in their yellow vests who were called away from the Galilee, and a meal of shawarma in the shadow of the tower. Itay Ilnai traveled throughout the Gaza peripheral region, accompanying the people whose hearts are seared at least twenty times a day.

Itay Ilnai
Yediot Ahronot

The fires that have been raging over the past several months in the Gaza peripheral region have left enormous scars — not only in the fields, forests, and carpets of anemone blossoms, but also in the hearts of the people who live in this tormented region of Israel. Itay Ilnai went on a journey in the land of fire, Kassam rockets, terror tunnels, and kites and balloons laden with explosives.

The yellow fire truck with the words “KKL-JNF — Lower Galilee” painted on its roof, speeds through the watermelon field of Kibbutz Alumim in the Gaza peripheral region. It turns toward the black smoke that is rising slowly from a small grove of eucalyptus trees at the boundary of a cauliflower field. Khatib Baniya, wearing a yellow vest and sporting a mustache, points the nozzle of the fire hose and begins spraying water on the low flames. Like the fire truck, he too has been called from the north: by day he prunes trees in the forests of the Galilee, but this week he is working as a firefighter.

A few squirts of water and the fire subsides, leaving a black circle and smoking tree trunks. Baniya surveys the area with a professional eye and says: “That’s two dunams gone.” The incident is over within ten minutes, and the tree pruner turned firefighter folds up the fire hose and goes back to the truck. Baruchi writes another line in his notebook: “Alumim, Sunday, 3:10 P.M. Fire. Grove. Extinguished.”

First Station: Kibbutz Be’eri

Moshe Baruchi has been walking around with a notebook since April 11. “Every fire is documented and numbered,” he says, pointing to the wrinkled spiral notebook. We sit at the base of a KKL-JNF lookout tower in the Be’eri Forest — a spot that has become an improvised fire station over the past two and a half months. The carpets of anemones that bloom here have been replaced by ugly black scars of extinguished fires.

Baruchi is in charge of everything here, including the takeout shawarma that arrives for lunch. A resident of Netivot, he has been working in KKL-JNF for 31 years. He pruned trees at first, then managed teams, and in recent years he has become the chief inspector of the western Negev. He is a serious, responsible man. “All this area is mine,” he says, taking in the landscape with a glance.

He has been here since the fires began: at the base of the lookout tower, surrounded by two-way radios, day after day. “Except for the Sabbath,” he says, rearranging the skullcap on his head. Four KKL-JNF fire trucks are at his disposal, and he directs them skillfully among the fires that are started without letup. It is almost impossible to speak with him for more than two minutes running because he might pick up one of his radios at any moment to tell Lugassi to go there, Ahmad to come here, or Shlomi to go around. “The main thing is to get to the fire as quickly as possible, before it spreads,” he says. “Usually a utility van with a driver is enough — it carries a 400-liter container. If that doesn’t do the job, I send out a fire truck.”

The fires break out at a dizzying pace. After they swept through the wheat fields in the northern part of the Gaza peripheral region, and after the farmers cut them back in response, the balloon-senders began to focus on the forests of the Be’eri region. KKL-JNF employees from the central and northern regions were mobilized in order to meet the demand and provide support to the southern district. “We had 26 fires, just in KKL-JNF forests, on the toughest day,” Baruchi says. “When I go out to work in the morning, I don’t know when I’ll be coming back.”

Baruchi’s eyes — which are located several dozen meters above him, high in the tower with the KKL-JNF flag flying above it — are named Saeed. He is a Bedouin man, 22 years old. As he prepares a cup of tea for me, he points: “There is Gaza, Be’eri, Netivot, Kissufim, Ofakim, Re’im.” He rolls his Rs, and pronounces the Hebrew letter ayin deep in his throat. The sea is visible from his office as well, but that is not as interesting, since there are no fires there.

“Spotting fires is my job,” he says as he continues to walk around his axis, looking through his binoculars. Smoke rises south of us, and he reports it to Baruchi right away, who sends Lugassi out. “I start at eight in the morning and go until it’s dark,” Saeed says. “Every day, including weekends. On a regular day I spot ten to fifteen fires. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are usually more than twenty.”

Do you like your job?
“At first it was tough. Boring. But now it’s OK — there’s action all the time.”
He tells me that he learned Hebrew while working for KKL-JNF, not in school. But when I ask him whether he ever imagined that he would find himself fighting terrorism, his Hebrew deteriorates slightly. “Walla, I don’t know what to tell you,” he says as he raises his binoculars to the horizon. “I don’t understand those words.”

Thus appears the war on the terror kites, which have set almost five hundred fires in the Gaza peripheral region over the past two and a half months, 36 of them just over the past weekend: Baruchi with his two-way radio, Saeed with his binoculars, shawarma in the shadow of the lookout tower, Lugassi with the utility van, and another line in the notebook. They are there, putting out fires, even as you read this article. Their heroism is worthy of Hollywood. It is the stubborn willingness to climb up onto the fire truck once more, the feeling that sparks in Baruchi whenever he smells smoke. “It hurts me to see a burned-out forest,” he says. “These are forests that I took care of. I planted them, pruned them.”

Second Station: Kfar Aza

Someone has left a birthday balloon on the patio of the secretariat building in Kibbutz Kfar Aza. For the first time in my life, I look at a balloon and feel fear. “Don’t worry,” one of the residents says. “That really is a birthday balloon.”

The kibbutz’s residents have been walking around over the past two months with their heads in the clouds, searching for kites and helium balloons. In the afternoon, when the western wind gathers strength, they also post lookouts to spot potential fires before they happen. Even the well-known breeze of the beginning of the summer has been transformed from a blessing into a curse.

Gliders carrying explosives have also begun to appear in the sky over the kibbutz in the past several nights. One of them almost set Mazi Cohen-Ayalon’s home on fire. She is married to a member of the kibbutz, and has lived there since 1999. They left for a short time and moved north, but returned very quickly because they missed their community, the feeling of family that envelops them here.

They brought their three children with them. “It was in 2012, right before Operation Pillar of Defense,” she says, “and we started to feel fear immediately. At first it’s a lump in the throat. Then it’s getting the shivers from a specific sound, but it builds up without you feeling that you’re living a routine of ‘we’re all in this together,’ of a solid and strong community. We’ve been coping very well so far, until a glider came a month ago and dropped a burning parachute into our yard at nine o’clock at night, when the children were with their babysitter. Our neighbor got them frantically into the shelter, and suddenly we were facing something that had come into our home and grown to enormous dimensions.”

Did the children collapse?
“Yes. When you talk with the psychologist, you learn that it’s burnout that takes place over time. It builds up without you noticing. They’ve been afraid since the glider. They know that that when there’s a red alert, they must go into the shelter, but what do you do when there’s a fire? Where do you run? You try to convince yourself that it will be all right, that the community and everything your children receive here is a gift for a lifetime, but that cloud is still living inside your body.”

It sounds like you’ve also suffered a few cracks.

“You ask why we don’t get up and leave? It’s a cliché to say that this is our home, that we have no replacement for what we have here.”

“There’s nobody who doesn’t ask himself those questions,” says Ariel Arbel, who joins the conversation. He is the kibbutz’s community manager, and one of his main jobs is to repair the cracks with the glue of ‘togetherness.’ “Two opposing forces are at work on Kibbutz Kfar Aza,” he says. “The positive force is that there is a community here with a great deal of strength that is trying to renew itself all the time, strengthen one another, live. The other force is that there’s something very scary all the time. Now it’s gliders, and before that it was kites, and before that it was Kassam rockets, and mortar shells and tunnels, and somewhere in the middle a crowd of thousands of hot-headed Palestinians heading toward us.”

Could those opposing forces be feeding each other — the greater the security risk, the more unified the community becomes?
Arbel: “The tough security situation is definitely a unifying force.”

Cohen-Ayalon: “But it tears you apart inside at the same time. In the end, you’re left with a husk that is left over from holding hands with everyone. You’re emptied out in the end.”

To outside observers, everything is blooming. Electric scooters traverse the green pathways of Kfar Aza, forty families are about to move here this summer, and a new pool has opened near the soccer field. But something about the kite terrorism — even more than the Kassam rockets and the mortar shells — has penetrated this lovely cocoon.

Varda Goldstein came here in 1970 as a discharged soldier, found love, and stayed. Two of her four children and eight of her ten grandchildren live on the kibbutz. “The container of fear is gradually filling up,” she says. “We had a red alert here last week. I ran from the bedroom to the shelter with my eyes closed, and instead of going through the doorway, I went into a wall. I fell to the floor and crawled inside somehow. After that, I thought that if this happened, it must be a sign that I’m tired. Tired.”

She takes me for a walk on the kibbutz, points expertly to the site of each fire, recalls the smoke from the fires that envelops them whenever the Palestinians demonstrate near the fence, and the stray wind that sends them a cloud of tear gas every so often. The kibbutz homes are on our left, and the potato fields and Jabalia are on our right. “It’s a shame — the visibility is awful,” she says. Jabalia actually looks clearer than ever to me.”

One of the stops on our walk is the Kafrit facility, which produces raw materials and paint concentrates for the plastics industry. Because of the dangerous chemicals stored there, the facility established a volunteer firefighting force to provide a first response in case of fire. Although no fire has broken out at the facility since then, the volunteers have been putting out fires non-stop over the past several days.

The commander of the volunteers is Roni Yifrah of Moshav Shokeda, who manages the warehouse containing the raw materials. “When there’s an alert, I drop everything I have to do at the factory and run straight to the fire. We provide the first response,” he says, showing off his fire truck, a gleaming new Ford. “We have turned into full-time firefighters over the past two months.”

Aren’t you supposed to go home early sometimes to pick your children up from kindergarten?
“I usually go home at 2:30 P.M. every Monday. Just as I got home last week, they called me out to a fire. I took my three children to a neighbor, knocked on her door, and said, ‘Hi there — can you watch them?’ I got back here at 8 P.M.”

Third Station: The Stronghold Facing Gaza

What was declared at first to be an emergency has become routine. What seemed like a surrealistic threat has become routine. Fact: It’s business as usual at the heritage site known as the Stronghold Facing Gaza. “There’s a group coming tomorrow,” says David Drori as he prepares a cup of black coffee for me. “I wasn’t here for a few days, so before they arrive I dropped by there to make sure that no balloons had landed.”

Drori, a descendant of the kibbutz’s founders, worked in agriculture until recently. He drove tractors, milked cows, and gathered eggs from the poultry run. When he got tired of that a year ago, he changed jobs and began running the museum, which operates in a bullet-scarred Bauhaus-style building. This is the security building of Kibbutz Sa’ad, the only structure on the kibbutz that survived after it was in the way of the invading Egyptian army during the War of Independence. After the war, the entire kibbutz was moved about a kilometer eastward, where it remains.

As we stand on the roof, looking out over the area, we see that one of the fires has reached the outskirts of the nearby cemetery. Kibbutz Sa’ad, a religious kibbutz, celebrated the seventy-first anniversary of its establishment this week. It has had a checkered relationship with the Gaza Strip. Before the state was established, the main way to reach the kibbutz was to get on a bus to Gaza and walk from there. They had their first Kassam rocket strike in 2001. “I had just been plowing in a closed tractor and didn’t hear a thing,” Drori recalls. “And then, as I’m coming to the end of the row, I see a line of army vehicles at the edge of the field. Everyone had come, since it was the first Kassam rocket. Nobody knew what it was.”

When I ask him whether he suffers from his neighbors, he says, “Suffering is a matter of consciousness, a decision. When the Kassam rockets started to come from the fields to us in our homes, I told myself that I couldn’t afford to live in fear. I decided that I would do everything calmly.”

So you don’t run to the shelter when there’s a red alert?
“I run, but calmly. I make all the right moves, but in a relaxed way.”

The past several days have made him anxious, however. “I’ve been taking things easy all these years, but I was very tense on Naksa Day [the Palestinian commemoration of the Arab defeat in the Six Day War in 1967]. The kites are certainly upsetting, too. We have lookouts all the time, and on Saturdays, the workers from Thailand are employed at the lookout points. The moment they see a balloon, they start to run around.”

What’s special about this new weapon that they’ve been using against you?
“It’s embarrassing, mostly. We want to feel that we’re right, and we feel a bit clumsy in the face of this thing.”

Fourth Station: Tel Gama

The whole area surrounding Re’im Junction has become a disaster area. If the fires are pinpoint at Be’eri and Kfar Aza, here in the south, they are wild and strong. For example, Tel Gama, which overlooks Nahal Habesor fairly close to Kibbutz Re’im, has become a volcano, blackened as can be. “When this tel was ablaze, it was like a torch that lit the whole area,” says Boaz Kretschmer. “As regards morale, it was one of the toughest things that happened here.”

As the former head of the Strategic Department of the Eshkol Regional Council, Kretschmer was one of the leaders of the project to build the new Habesor Road, which leads from Eshkol Park to Tel Gama and was inaugurated a year and a half ago: thirteen kilometers of scenic roadway that cars can drive on, open to the public, a gem of tourism set with bridges and birds. Now he looks around and sees his pet project scorched by the fires. “It makes the heart ache,” he says over and over. “The work of years going up in flames. As long as it’s only the vegetation that is burned, you say, ‘All right — it will come back when it rains.’ But when the trees burn here like torches, you realize that it’s not going to come back.”

Habesor Road is only one of the tourism projects in the region whose purpose was to bring in jobs and attract new residents. “Hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and wayside stops were slowly blossoming here,” Kretschmer says. “But everything’s dead in the tourist areas over the past several weeks, including those that are far from the fires. There have been dozens of cancellations.”

“Israelis usually like to hike, but only once the commotion has subsided,” he says. “When there’s a week of Kassam rockets, they forget about it afterward and move on. Here, this has been going on for some time already. The atmosphere of gloom, of smoke, of talk that gets people nervous about a war in the summer — all this creates uncertainty, which is the worst thing for tourist activity.”

Originally a native of Jerusalem who came to Ze’elim with a small Nahal settlement group in 1972, today he is the chairman of the kibbutz. He runs the Moreshet Tzon Barzel Museum and serves as the project head of the joint strategic program of the four local councils of the Gaza peripheral region. “We started work a year ago when we were relaxed, with dreams of tranquility,” he says. “Since then, my own dreams of strategic cooperation with the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have gone up in flames. We have gone backward.”

Fifth Station: Kibbutz Nir Am

I’m used to it by the time I arrive in Kibbutz Nir Am. I have become inured to the black scars, forgetting that each one is a fire that was extinguished by somebody. Ofer Lieberman has gotten used to it, too. “Now it’s no big deal. We’re pretty calm,” he says. “The number of fires decreased the moment we cut back our wheat. So much of our grazing area has been burned that statistically, many of the balloons are falling on areas that are already scorched. So we put out two fires a day — no big deal. It’s become a routine of life — stupid, but routine.”

Lieberman is one of the most pleasant people we’ve met. He has a tiger tattooed on his back and a cooler of beer in the trunk of his car. He is a big man with a heart of gold, the sort who cries inside a wheat field that has been burned. “I cry, I cry, with tears and everything,” he admits.

Originally from Haifa, he came here in 1978 with a Nahal group. He married a young woman from the kibbutz and stayed. Today he manages the agriculture department on the kibbutz and is responsible for absorption. At a glance, he seems to be successful at both jobs. “It meant running around madly at first,” he recalls. “When a wheat field burns, it burns very rapidly. We would be sitting in the lookout all day and go out to extinguish fire after fire, chasing our tails. We lost a thousand dunams’ worth of wheat and 2,500 dunams of grazing land. I estimate all the damage we suffered at approximately NIS 1 million.”

When he goes out to the field with us, we find a kite stuck in one of the irrigation pipelines. “That one’s ours,” Lieberman says. “On Friday, we held an event where we released balloons and kites to give the children and young people back the understanding that balloons aren’t weapons. There were hot dogs and beer for the grownups. We did that to give a bit of strength to the community.”

Haven’t you gotten used to it already as a community that has suffered Kassam rocket attacks for seventeen years?
“First, it wears you down. Second, we’ve absorbed more than fifty families on Kibbutz Nir Am over the past ten years. Some of them are less familiar with this situation. I’m 58 years old. My daughters don’t live on the kibbutz anymore, but when a person goes out of his house with his two-year-old and sees a gigantic blaze, that’s crazy.”

“We’ve been living with the stench of burning for the past three months. We celebrated the Shavuot festival under a cloud of smoke,” he says. “We celebrated the kibbutz festival on Friday. We put out the last fire at six, and the party started at six-thirty. You start at six every morning, and you don’t know how things will develop, since the fires start at twelve. I don’t know what the solution is. I know that I want this to end. I’m an ordinary citizen who wants to farm here, thrive here, raise my family here, that my daughters will want to keep on living here and raise their children here.”

And that’s not happening?
“It took the army a month or two to understand what was going on here. They underestimated the level of damage being caused. They pooh-poohed it because it was a kite. In the meantime, they went from burning fields to burning forests and nature reserves. Today, most of the nature reserves in the Gaza periphery region are burned. Now I think that everyone finally gets it.”

Sixth Station: The Black Arrow Monument

This is how noontime on Monday looks at the Black Arrow monument between Kibbutz Miflasim and Beit Hanoun: Several soldiers overcome by the heat, three Altel technicians operating radar in order to spot small aircraft, Savannah vehicles of some classified unit and a handful of firefighters on alert. Thirty teenagers on a school trip walked among them, together with a group of American tourists. Routine.

The forest adjacent to the monument has become an improvised fire station over the past several months. In the end, it is the firefighting and rescue personnel who have been on the front lines of the kite war. The employees of KKL-JNF, the volunteers of the Kafrit factory, Israeli army troops that work in firefighting — all of them operate under the umbrella of the firefighting organization, which has been stretched to its limits. “We have scraped to get everybody here,” says Eli Cohen, the spokesman of the southern district. “We have cancelled vacations, called out the reserves. Lots of troops.”

Cohen, who works as a firefighter at the Ashkelon station in addition to his job as spokesman, has spent the past 84 days running from fire to fire, coordinating forces, moving fire trucks, and ordering catered food for the launching points. “It was crazy at first,” he recalls. “We looked at the sky and saw forty kites above us. We thought it would last for a few days and then it would stop, and then we realized that it wasn’t so.”

How many World Cup games have you managed to see?

The answer to the kite terrorism is a flood of personnel, alliances between sectors and organizations, laser and radar equipment, lookouts and Lugassi with his utility van, resilient residents who stand at the verge of the abyss and a prayer that the wind will subside. No one on this trip told me that a solution could be seen on the horizon. It is a feeling that leads to despair, that inspires, an exemplar of the adaptability of the country in general and of the residents of the Gaza peripheral region in particular. Israel in 2018.

On the way back, northward, at Sha’ar ha-Negev Junction, I pick up a hitchhiker, a teenager. He tells me that he lives on Kibbutz Sa’ad, will be a high-school senior next year, and volunteers at Magen David Adom and on the firefighting force that has been established on the kibbutz. “Come visit us, brother,” he says. “You’ll see what a fire looks like.”

What they would say: “Nothing causes a person to be as miserable as fear.” — Friedrich Schiller