The ritual repeats itself almost every day: farmers, employees of the Jewish National Fund and volunteers stand in the fields around the Gaza Strip; they’re tense, looking up at the sky and listening to the radio, trying to figure out where the next burning kite will fall. On Monday it happened earlier than usual; by early afternoon a kite caused a small fire in the Be’eri Forest.
Since the end of March, more than 260 fires have been registered in the Gaza vicinity. The method for starting them is quite primitive – only a few pieces of wood, nylon, wire and a burning fixture are needed – but the army is having a hard time finding a way to stop the burning kites and the damage is growing.
A tour of the kite-plagues areas – the Kissufim Forest, the Be’eri Forest, the Assaf Simhoni Forest and the agricultural areas of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, Nir Am and Kfar Aza – reveal large blackened areas. Nature reserves have been destroyed, fields burned, irrigation systems damaged and animals harmed.
Avner Yona, director of field crop operations at Nahal Oz, is responsible for some 5,000 dunams (1,250 acres) of wheat. Two thousand dunams were harvested two months ago and another 1,000 dunams have been burned so far. Due to the repeated fires in the fields, Yona is having a hard time harvesting what is left.
“I can’t deal with these fires,” he says. “They kill me. You can’t do anything about them, it’s a catastrophe. The wheat is the small money, the big damage is, for example, in a 300-dunam field with irrigation infrastructure; everything’s burned, I can’t water anything, I have potatoes, watermelons, everything is being delayed. We’re chasing our tail all day and can’t manage to work.”
Last week, the Agriculture Ministry announced an initiative to expedite the harvest, offering every farmer who harvested wheat from May 18 to June 10 compensation of up to 60 shekels ($17) per dunam. Yoav Morag, director of the ministry’s southern district, said the idea is to help farmers finance more harvesting equipment and overtime for workers to meet the tight schedule. But many farmers, like Yona, had already harvested a lot of their wheat to protect the crops, and now they’re complaining about the arbitrary dates that prevent them from receiving compensation.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon did not sound too worried about the kites when he toured the Gaza perimeter three weeks ago. “I have no doubt that in the coming days [the kites] will be eradicated,” he said. Housing Minister Yoav Galant was not very moved either. “It mostly photographs well but the damage is small. It makes a lot of noise, and unfortunately also torches a field here and there, but let’s not take things out of proportion; we’re not talking about an Iranian bomb. We’re talking about trivialities.”
In the absence of a body to coordinate all the data on the kite phenomenon it is difficult to assess its scope. The Tax Authority has so far opened 15 claims for damage caused by kites estimated at 3 million to 4 million shekels. The kites have burned some 3,000 dunams of crops, mainly wheat. Beyond the agricultural damage, some 2,100 dunams were burned in KKL-JNF forests, 5,000 to 4,000 dunams in the Besor Forest Nature Reserve, and thousands of dunams of woodland and thorns scattered throughout the area.
In fact, determining that a kite actually caused a fire is a complex challenge. “It’s really hard for us to reach the conclusion [that it was] a kite,” said Yaakov Gabbay, commander of the Fire and Rescue Service’s Negev region. “I can say that I see a lot of kites in the field, but to attribute fires to them is very, very difficult.”
Gabbay believes that some of the fires are the result of more “standard’ arson.
“I said it’s not possible that what is happening in the Gaza region is only because of the kites, but because I still do not have the investigation results yet I cannot say that it’s also [arson],” he said.
So far only one indictment has been filed in connection with burning kites. Gaza residents Ahmed Amawi and Muathaz Abu Id were charged last week with crossing the fence at night with another person and setting fire to a field. According to the indictment, soldiers arrested them when they were en route to torching another field.