“Be’eri, wheat field on fire. Teams from the Western Negev fire station are fighting a fire in a wheat field together with a team from the Jewish National Fund. A kite string has been found.” Not many ascribed much import to this laconic press release on a Saturday, April 14. Fires happen, certainly with summer approaching. And kites kids fly them. But that was just the first such announcement of many to come. This is the season of the burning kites.
In recent months Gazans have sent hundreds of burning kites into Israel. Acres of yellowing fields have gone up in smoke. The people living on the Gaza border don’t hear “red alerts” any more, they see them and they’re angry and scared. So far no fence or obstacle presented by the army has stopped the flimsy airborne armada. Missile interception systems aren’t geared for such primitive “weaponry.”
Absent solutions, more and more kites have taken to the air; if at first just a few fell into Israel, the sorties multiplied – and became more sophisticated. The first kites were a take on Molotov cocktails but later ones were equipped to explode, and kites were also joined by helium balloons.
The first number that comes to mind is zero: That’s the number of Israeli casualties so far. If that number had been something else, the kites campaign might have become something else too. But there are other numbers that tell other parts of the story. Take for instance 463: as of Sunday, that was the number of fires suspected to have been caused by kites that were handled by the firefighting and rescue service, though the service admits that not all were investigated. They won’t elaborate in which cases the kite-fire link was proven. It bears adding that Yaakov Gabbay, deputy chief of the western Negev fire service, suspects that some of these were arson by other means, not kites.
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Whatever, it doesn’t matter to the next number, which is 25,000. That’s the number of dunams burned so far (in acres, 6,250), and it’s equivalent to the extent of the Carmel forest fire in 2010. But that’s where the similarity ends. There the fire burned forest while by Gaza, the main casualties are crops.
Pictures of flaming forests may be more dramatic, but real damage has been caused by the kites, says Avner Yona, director of field crop operations at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. About 1,300 dunams of wheat and irrigation systems have gone up in flames. The big losses are mainly in the irrigation systems, he adds: Replacing irrigation systems takes time and turning the water back on takes two more days. Ultimately, instead of producing, say, seven tons of crop, they produce four.
In a sense, the damage to Yona’s wheat fields is iconic: It’s the crop that has most suffered from the wave of fires in the south. Over 5,000 dunams of wheat have been lost, which may not be much out of the million dunams of wheat grown on a national scale. But the loss to the wheat farmers near Gaza is estimated by the tax authority at 7 million shekels (nearly $2 million) and counting.
The state hastened to promise compensation and so far, 65 claims for kite-fire damage have been made – including to avocado and jojoba orchards, and equipment. Yona waxes skeptical however, claiming that so far the state has only paid a fraction of what it should. And there is a question of whether the state will recognize indirect damage, such as 180 dunams of watermelon fields that became infected by a virus, he notes. The army wouldn’t let the farmers spray from the air to protect the plants from spread of the disease as soon as it was noticed. Since the virus renders the fruit inedible, the farmers had to uproot the lot.
Burned again and again
The list of sites where fires broke out is long and varied. Beyond orchards and various crops, fire also consumed large swathes of the Kissufim Forest, the Be’eri Crater nature reserve, areas near the water reservoir of Kibbutz Nir Am and areas around the Besor Stream. These places were burned more than once, sometimes dozens of times.
The damage isn’t just to the landscape. The residents in the area are breathing the smoke and suffering from it. This is particularly palpable among high-risk groups like children and asthmatics.
“There has been an increase in asthma attacks in children,” says Dr. Nataly Shveydel, director of Clalit clinics at the kibbutzim Nir Am, Mefalsim, Erez and Or Haner. “In the last few weeks, many babies susceptible to asthma had attacks, and this is not the season when that usually happens. The day after the big fire at Miflasim, just when the children leave the schools, some came to me for treatment.” At this time of year, asthma sufferers are usually in a state of equilibrium and drug dosages tend to be low, but they’ve been using dosages more typical of flu season at the height of winter, Shveydel says.
Some fire victims can’t be treated, because they’re not human: A lot of trees that suffered some burning were hewn down at Kissufim because of the risk they would fall. Whole nature reserves burned: The Parks and Nature Reserves Authority says 10,000 dunams of conservation ground has gone up, including 5,500 at Besor Stream (according to the latest estimate). Thousands of animals have died, notably small species, rodents, reptiles and insects. But not just them: Foxes, jackals, tortoises and lizards have died too and that’s just the start of the list.
Israel’s nature reserves are relatively small, and the destroyed areas are a big part of them, Gilad Gabbay, manager of the southern district for the Parks and Nature Reserves Authority, told Haaretz. There has been a huge loss of habitats for animals in the region, he says; recovery will take years. “In the short term, it is almost impossible to compensate for the damage. In the long term, we will have to see what we can do to rehabilitate the reserves,” Gabay says. At the Besor, everywhere you look you see burned turtles, he says.
Farmers and other residents in the area hang their hopes mainly on the army, which has been trying to find advanced technological solutions to fight the new, unexpected weapon. The present leading solution is to knock the kites and balloons out of the air using high-speed drones that collide with them. As of last week, about 600 incendiary kites and balloons had been intercepted this way. That number sounds impressive, but context is due, and was supplied by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week. During a tour of the Gaza brigade, he said the army manages to knock down about two-thirds of the kites flown into Israel.
That is perhaps a relative success but the army is far from containing the problem. Most of its difficulty lies in locating the kites and balloons in the air. Sometimes they’re so small they can barely be detected by the human eye, even aided by binoculars, and the Israeli army’s technological tools, however advanced, were not designed with this sort of thing in mind. In an effort to meet the challenge anyway, last week the army met with civilian aviation experts to brainstorm ideas.
Meanwhile, until either some magical or at least adequate solution is found, the army has stepped up its actions against the Palestinians launching the fiery kites: warning shots by planes towards groups setting up and flyihg kites and balloons. The IDF, as several of its officers have explained on a number of occasions, tends to avoid targeted hits on the launchers lest they cause heavy casualties.
Nor do the residents of the south necessarily wish for an attack. “The state isn’t making any effort to improve life here,” says Ilanit Suissa, a resident of Kfar Gaza. “But it isn’t that I want a military campaign.” She compares the government to an ostrich “that sticks its head into the sand and progresses from one campaign to another and doesn’t do anything.” The problem needs to be solved from the root, says Suissa, and concludes: “Don’t start saying again that there’s nobody to talk to.”