Residents Decry Gov’t Neglect as Gaza Balloons Cause Fires Again in Southern Israel

The rate of new fires starting in the Gaza border communities is getting closer to last year’s daily average

Israeli soldiers battle fires at Kibbutz Mefalsim, next to the Gaza border, on June 29, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A group of men sat Friday afternoon at an overlook near Kibbutz Nir Am at the Gaza border searching for incendiary balloons on the horizon. After all, the overlook itself had gone up in flames that week.

The blaze caused by airborne firebombs broke out in the wadis, which the fire engines struggled to get to, and spread quickly. Now the whole area is scorched black.

An Israeli soldier battles a fire started by an incendiary device launched from Gaza Strip, near the Israel and Gaza border fence, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
Tsafrir Abayov,AP

The rate of new fires starting in the Gaza border communities only increased as the week progressed. On Wednesday, 19 blazes broke out as a result of airborne firebombs – a figure that approaches last year’s daily average. On Saturday, 20 fires broke out, scorching tens of thousands of dunams of land.

Many people have volunteered for sighting and putting out the fires, even people who don’t live in the area.

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“We’re playing checkers instead of chess,” said Alon Alsheich, one of the lookouts at Nir Am. Last year, Alsheich was nicknamed “Alon-balloon” because of the fire-extinguishing drone he helped develop.

The fire-extinguishing drone

“They told me at the regional council that it was a nice idea but that the fires aren’t a strategic threat, and anyway the residents are compensated for the damage,” he said, adding that further development of the drone will cost about 700,000 shekels ($196,000) and he hasn’t yet found an investor.

Eyal Hajbi, the chief security officer at the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, told Haaretz that military officials had promised him that this summer would be easier than last. He believed them, until last week.

“They’re anesthetizing us,” he said. “The minute they don’t see this as an immediate existential threat, they say that this year won’t be like last. And then they equip us in a way that leads us to believe they mean the exact opposite.”

Eyal Hajbi, the chief security officer at the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, shows burnt fields at Kibbutz Mefalsim, next to the Gaza border, on June 29, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Last year the fire department in the Gaza border communities underwent a significant upgrade: The regional council received a budget to buy firefighting equipment and set up classes to train for preparation and the lookout system. As a result, the fires are put out more quickly, before they cause damage on the scale of the summer of 2018.

Hajbi complained to the council’s director general that he didn’t feel properly prepared for his conversations with the residents. “I learned about each cease-fire or agreement from the media, as did the council head and basically all the civilian organizations in the area,” he said.

Feelings of being ignored and alienation aren’t new to the people on the kibbutzim and moshavim near Gaza, who have a hard time remembering when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last visited one of their communities. Since the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu has visited the area several times, but only to meet with military officials or for closed events of his Likud party.

Those feelings of alienation arose again Saturday at the weekly ceremony hosted by the family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose body is still being held in Gaza after the 2014 war.

While Hadar’s father Simcha spoke, two members of the Military Police arrived in a patrol car blasting music. Local people say this was another example of how their protests are far not only from the hearts of the politicians, but also from much of the wider the public they represent.