'This Is Terrorism': Israeli Farmers Still Reeling From Gaza's Burning Kites

Hundreds of flaming kites being sent every week from Gaza into Israel in order to wreak havoc on the ‘occupied lands of Palestine’

An Israeli worker of Nature and Parks Authority extinguishes a fire started by a kite with attached burning cloth launched from Gaza, Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Tens of thousands of Gaza Strip residents have been protesting against Israel for weeks now, in an action called the "Great March of Return." Lately they have been setting kites with burning rags aloft to cross over the border - and start a number of devastating fires.

The soil beneath Daniel Rachamim's feet is black, burned and destroyed by the latest aerial attack out of the Gaza Strip. 

"For two months now, we have been suffering from the kites," says the 64-year-old, standing in a field between the kibbutz of Nahal Oz and Israel's border with the Gaza Strip.

The kibbutz workers spent months cultivating the fields, and then - everything was destroyed in a matter of seconds. 

"It is hard to describe how painful this is."

Rachamim is referring to an onslaught of burning kites that the Palestinians have been launching over the border into Israeli territory for weeks now, in some cases with devastating results. 

An Israel soldier extinguishes a fire started by a kite launched by Palestinians from Gaza, near the Israel and Gaza border, Friday, June 1, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

The kites are the latest wrinkle in a protest that has been ongoing since the end of March, in which tens of thousands from the Gaza Strip have been protesting against Israel in an action called the "Great March of Return." 

Starting as a demand for a right to return to ancestral lands, it also aimed at stopping Israel's blockade of the coastal enclave. It has led to bloody clashes with the Israeli army in the border area: At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and thousands others wounded by Israeli gunfire.

Nahal Oz is an Israeli village that lies closest to the Gaza Strip border. Only a few hundred meters separate it from the security fence, beyond which one sees the high-rises of Gaza City.

Israel's fire department has already had to fight around 450 fires started by the burning kites.

"We consider it a kind of terrorist attack," says Yoram Levi, spokesman for the fire and rescue authorities. "They want to set fire to our land." Gilad Erdan, minister of public safety, has issued a call to target those Palestinians responsible for killing.

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Israel's Defence Ministry says about 9 square kilometres of land - pastures, forests, fields - had been destroyed. Media reports cite a figure of around 1.4 million dollars in damage inflicted. But, so far, no people have been injured and no buildings damaged.

Some 50,000 people live in southern Israel along the 60-kilometre-long border with the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas spokesman Abdulatif Al-Kanuwa describes the fire-bearing kites as "one of the peaceful means that has been developed by peaceful demonstrators in order to peacefully resist the Zionist occupation.”

But those on the ground flying the kites - mainly young Palestinian men - say one of the benefits is the damage they can hopefully cause.

Israeli workers of Nature and Parks Authority extinguish a fire started by a kite launched by Palestinians from Gaza, Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Abu Tha'er (not his real name), 25, reports he flies kites almost every day from an area of the eastern part of Gaza City that is close to the border.

"These kites are hand-made by young Gazan men," he said. Pieces of cloth, nylon, cotton or other materials soaked in kerosene are tied to the kite and set ablaze as it goes aloft. 

"At a certain height we cut the string and the kite with the flame drifts down onto the farm areas inside the occupied lands of Palestine and cause huge fires," he said. The warm, westerly winds often carry the kites for kilometers inside Israeli territory.

He describes it as a diversionary tactic. 

"(This makes) the Jews busy in extinguishing the flames and then we infiltrate and go back to our lands," Abu Tha'er said. The activists won't stop until the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is ended and they can return to the villages of their ancestors, he said, referring to the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands at Israel's foundation in 1948.

"Kites are simple and don't cost very much money. We will keep flying them until the goals of the 'Great March of Return' are achieved, mainly ending the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip," he said.

"Three days ago, our kites burned 100 dunams [100,000 square meters] of agricultural fields and the media talked about it," he said. 

"We usually produce 50 to 60 kites every week in eastern Gaza only. Other areas in the eastern Gaza Strip fly 70 to 80 kites every week." He said that, since the beginning of the border protest marches, hundreds of flame-bearing kites had landed "inside our occupied Palestinian lands and caused great losses when huge fires damaged those fields."

The Israeli army reports using drones to stop the fire-bearing kites by simply colliding with them. "We have a success rate of over 90 per cent," says the officer in charge of the operation, Nadav Livni. So far, more than 500 kites and helium-filled balloons had been stopped in this manner.

Daniel Rachamim says that the damage at his kibbutz from the fires came to around 200,000 dollars. But, despite the attacks, which also include rockets sometimes, neither he nor his colleagues give any thought to giving up. "I hope that the Palestinians one day will understand that they won't be able to drive us away from here."