Early on Friday morning, workers and army officers gathered next to a concrete wall on the west side of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, on the Gaza border. The senior officer there described the event as a “military experiment.”
Twenty iron bars were attached to the wall. A fire extinguishing hose and some sprinklers spraying water on these bars created a screen of water that was intended to block the smoke which in recent weeks has been wafting over the kibbutz, worrying its residents and apparently harming their health. Last week they were still trying to contend with the hazard by using gigantic fans and spraying water into the air, to no avail.
Palestinian demonstrations on the Gaza border are held very close to this wall in Kerem Shalom and kibbutz residents can clearly hear the gunfire and shouts of the demonstrators. In the late afternoon, when the wind changes direction, the kibbutz fills with smoke, as well as tear gas fired by soldiers at the Palestinians.
“The whole kibbutz trembles,” says Roni Kissin, the kibbutz spokeswoman. “On days this occurs it’s hard to breathe. The smoke and tear gas have a metallic taste that remains in your mouth.” She says that officials from the Ministry of Environmental Protection who came to her house discovered excessive amounts of polluting particles. “It’s not just the smoke, the smell and burning sensation – it’s also carcinogenic,” she says.
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Kissin adds that this isn’t the only impact the kites and incendiary balloons have. “Our kindergartens have stopped celebrating birthdays with balloons. All of a sudden this is something that just isn’t fun.” In fact, she says, balloons started disappearing a few years ago since their popping would scare the children. She says that one of the kids started wetting his bed again since the demonstrations came within shouting distance of the border fence.
In a small house that is closest to the wall, only 15 meters away, live Anton and his partner. They are hardest hit by the smoke. Anton was washing his car mid-day on Friday, saying that he intended to leave the kibbutz before the smoke enveloped him. “Last week we had a lull, but before that it happened almost every day, most of all on Fridays.”
Anton reports difficulties in breathing and talks about the need to lock yourself up at home with closed windows and about ash particles landing in his garden, on the roof and walls. “We have a white cat and when he goes out on such days he comes back black,” he says. The couple have no children. Anton wonders how parents on the kibbutz manage to cope with the situation.
In a corridor next to the dining hall one resident complains to a friend that she feels like a chicken in a coop. The smoke and the sense of insecurity merge with feelings of being neglected by the authorities, feelings they’ve harbored for many years.
“There’s a limit to our restraint,” says spokeswoman Kissin. “We pay taxes like everyone else but get less in return. Infrastructure here is very old. I don’t know many people who’d be willing to live in a place where you have to call the sewage draining company twice a week to unblock your sewers. The roads around the kibbutz were potholed from mortar shells for years, and we’d fill them with whatever we could.”
About an hour and a half before the smoke appeared, some girls from the adjacent religious moshav of Naveh showed up, giving out some cakes in an attempt to cheer up residents. At the same time many military vehicles and fire engines appeared, along with security officials from the Eshkol regional council. They came to see the experiment in action. Officials from the Environmental Protection Ministry also arrived, equipped with monitors for counting pollutant particles in the air. If excessive amounts are detected, residents are asked to stay indoors, as has happened several times over the last month.
At 3:05 A.M. there was a first hint of what was about to happen. A gigantic kite, to which a burning tire was attached, hovered over the border, slowly approaching the kibbutz. Within minutes there was a second, third and fourth one, and an hour later there was an acrid smell in the air. At 4:30 P.M. there was smoke over the kibbutz.
The army and firefighters were prepared. In addition to the “wall” of water and the gigantic fans there was a jet engine there, blowing a powerful blast of air. A firefighter admitted that these were insufficient to completely neutralize the hazard, but he was hopeful that these measures would deflect the smoke in another direction and dilute the concentration of harmful particles reaching the kibbutz.
In the first hour after the fires erupted it was evident that the army’s measures had a basic flaw: While the installation on the wall was fixed, the Palestinians could move the focus of the fires, which they did. Around 5:30 P.M., black smoke started passing over the new installation. According to the measurements, the highest concentration of particles was 2,000 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
The maximum level which poses no risk is 300 micrograms. Last week the level was 1,500 micrograms and the week before that it was 3,000. The water screen could not prevent the hazard and it’s doubtful whether it did anything useful.