Up until recently, kites were a symbol of joy, innocence and beauty for residents of Kibbutz Kfar Aza. That was until March, when some of their neighbors across the border in Gaza began using kites as a weapon, sending dozens into their community, scorching their crops and causing serious damage to their agriculture.
Fire in Sapir College from Gaza terror kites, June 5, 2018 (Tal Lev Ram)
“For us, the kite is very symbolic,” Kfar Aza resident Ayelet Shachar-Epstein told The Jerusalem Post over coffee just outside the kibbutz on Monday. She explained that every Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year), “when the weather is beautiful and there are strong winds coming from the west, we have a kite event. Each family builds their own kites, we put them up in the air and it’s one of the most beautiful occasions... of peace and appreciation of life. It’s a community event – we have a very strong community.”
“They are harming that symbol. They are making us fear something that is so beautiful, clean and playful, and has connotations of family, community, love and happiness,” she lamented.
But Kfar Aza residents try to find the humor in every situation, and when they found the first kite, which was very simple, they quipped among themselves that the Gazans had a lot to learn about kite building.
Shachar-Epstein, a second-generation resident of the kibbutz, learned from her parents how to build kites and has passed on that knowledge to her three children.
But even her seven-year-old daughter felt that there was something wrong the first time she saw a kite drifting into their kibbutz from Gaza. The young girl had already learned about the new phenomenon and pointing to the kite, telling her mother that it was probably from Gaza.
That time, the kite didn’t do any damage thanks to swift action by the security chief of the kibbutz. Some 100 kites have since fallen in and around the kibbutz
. One of those fell in the backyard of Shachar-Epstein’s in-laws. They were inside their home and didn’t notice it, but thankfully the security chief saved the day again – he alerting them and they dismantled the kite. The kites carry Molotov cocktails or bags of burning embers soaked in lighter fluid to cause fires where they land.
“It’s something that costs a few shekels to make, and causes damage worth thousands,” remarked Daniel Ben-David, KKL-JNF’s western Negev regional director. Driving through the Beeri Forest, he points out large sections of the land that are blackened and burned and a large white kite on the ground; the smell of ash is dominant in the air.
Some 650 acres of the KKL-JNF-managed public forests had been burned by kites or balloons as of Sunday night, Ben-David told the Post.
Fire in the Shokeda Forest near Gaza from Pakestinian kite terror, June 3, 2018 (Dani Ben David/Forrester KKL)
KKL-JNF has deployed lookouts and firefighters who have been working day and night for the past two months to put out the fires, together with the district’s firefighters and in cooperation with the IDF.
According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, a total of some 600 kites
have been launched from Gaza, destroying over 220 acres of agricultural land and forests in southern Israel and causing 198 fires.
The fires in both the forests and on agricultural land have killed animals and caused ecological damage and pollution, Ben-David says. But with agricultural land, while the farmers may be immediately harmed economically, they can plow and plant it anew; after the next rain their crops should hopefully begin to grow again.
“The damage we have absorbed in the forests is large and in order to return to what it was, it will take some 15-20 years with a lot of work,” Ben David noted.
“First we will need to let the coming winter pass, to see what revives by itself, which trees we can save and which have no chance... And then we’ll have to think about how to continue,” he said, mentioning the planting of new trees, sanitation and solutions for soil erosion, which he said will cost millions of shekels.
KKL-JNF, the IDF, the firefighters and the communities are all working hard to react as quickly as possible to the fires, but are lacking a strategy to prevent them. They are gathering their wheat as fast as they can before it gets burned.
Moreover, at Kibbutz Nahal Oz, the farmers are employing their tractors to race to the scene of the fires to create rings of overturned soil around the wheat to limit the fire’s reach. Once the fire hits the soil, it will be extinguished, explained Kibbutz Nahal Oz's supervisor of irrigation Daniel Rahamim to the Post, while standing on a black carpet of burned wheat.
Nahal Oz has already lost more than 250 acres of wheat to the fires, Rahamim said. “It’s really hard – we work here for months to grow the wheat, we put a lot of work into it and within a few minutes the land is burned,” he lamented.
The farmers will receive compensation for the damage done to their land, since the state recognizes the kite launches as terror attacks.
It’s not only the wheat that has been destroyed but also the irrigation lines. “When the taps are burned, we can’t water the potatoes until they are fixed... so they are also harmed,” Rahamim noted.
“It’s not easy, but we have strength and it won’t break us,’ he remarked. “We know we are here because this is our mission – to raise children here and live our lives. It is our home and we won’t give up.”
The fields of Nahal Oz are so close to the Gaza Strip that you can clearly see rows of apartments across the border. Rahamim, who is 64, used to be friends with Gazans when the border was open. Some of them even came to his wedding. But he said that over the years they lost touch.
Both Rahamim and Shachar-Epstein say that they feel like a new full-blown conflict with Gaza is approaching, having learned from experience that these dribs and drabs of violence usually lead to a large-scale IDF operation in Gaza.
Rahamim is a member of a group called the “Movement for the future of the western Negev” which is trying to avoid another war by putting pressure on politicians to find a non-violent solution. Rahamin believes that a regional council is needed including moderate Arab states as well as the EU, US and Russia to put pressure of Hamas to reach a solution. “The Arab states – the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis – they are the ones who can influence Hamas,” he opined.
“Otherwise it’s a type of loop: they attack and we react and they react and we react and it doesn’t end,” he said.