Southern Israel hit by Gazan terror kites

The AJN’s Nathan Jeffay (left) with Eyal Hagbi on a patch of land scorched by a kite fire.

RESIDENTS in southern Israel are aghast, after watching huge fires started by terror kites gobbling up thousands of square metres of crops.

Students looked on in horror when I was in Sderot on Tuesday, as a large open area just opposite their college burned.

“There was lots and lots of black smoke that came into the college,” Yael Karbi, a 37-year-old student at Sapir College, told me when the flames were finally under control.

“Some people have gone home because they feared the fire could be followed by rockets.”

It’s only a one-minute walk from where the fire stopped to the college entrance, which is lined with cars, and Eli Einso had been worried that the fire would reach the college.

“It was crazy and scary, and I thought it was going to burn all the cars,” he said, adding that he fears more fires.

The kites are coming thicker and faster all the time. Some 600 have been launched to date, and while Israel has downed many of them with drones, 200 have reached Israel, destroying 9000 square metres of crops and forests, and lots of scrubland.

Carried where the wind takes them, they epitomise Hamas’ desire to wreak destruction, without concern over where this happens – near military or civilians, and near Israeli Jews or Arabs.

The Arab students at Sapir stood open-mouthed staring at the destruction wreaked at their college, just like their Jewish classmates.

The kite-flyers had their biggest success on Saturday, when their devices burned hundreds of acres of the Carmia nature reserve – about a third of the reserve’s land.

The next day, Kibbutz Or Haner lost about 500 acres of grazing land to fire. “There was a funeral taking place at the time when the fire started, and the cemetery is in the forest just near where it began,” kibbutz resident Nir Ben-Israel told The AJN. “People were terrified because you’re in the forest and

suddenly there was a fire. “There were hundreds of people at the funeral. Their ears were with the rabbi but their eyes were on the flames.”

The landscape is full of stark contrasts. At one point you can see Gaza buildings very clearly, pan right and you see an Israeli reservoir, then turn your head further to see lush greenery which abruptly ends where kites hit and everything is now charred.

Farmers say that it’s heartbreaking seeing months of work going up in flames. “You work on the field all year and at the end you want to harvest, not make an insurance claim,” Aryeh, a member of Kibbutz Niroz who declined to give his surname, told me at a viewpoint along the border. “We want to make our living from agriculture but whole areas now are burned.”

The JNF, which owns much of the border-area land, wants the Gaza leadership to be forced to pay for the damage. Daniel Atar, KKL-JNF world chairman, said that Hamas should be held responsible for “criminal acts” against Israel and “also against the environment, which has been severely hurt by this criminal environmental terrorism”.

I knew, as I toured the border, when I was approaching a burnt area, often before I saw it. The smell is strong and pungent.

The kites are DIY terrorism. One of the kites found around here had a message written in marker pen, the likes of which people used to attach to balloons when helium balloon releases were popular: the name and place-of-residence of the family.

There was also a message of hatred towards Israel’s Prime Minister.

Eyal Hagbi, security chief for the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, is unsurprised by the new direction.

“There’s the Iron Dome which intercepts rockets and if you look over there you see cranes building a deep underground barrier to stop Hamas’ tunnels,” he said, pointing to a stretch of the border fence about a three-minute walk from where we were standing.

“So they are always looking for new ideas.”

The problem is that while Israel has developed high-tech solutions to other forms of terror, it doesn’t yet have a solution that can put a stop to kite terror. “The kite terror is terror in the full sense of the word, and we must fight it with a firm hand,” Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein said, adding optimistically: “I am certain that soon, with Israeli technology, we will find a solution to this problem.”

For now, however, kite terror is the new normal, and it is hitting some local residents hard.

For years, Perli Herziga, the smiley manager of a Sderot pharmacy, has been helping her 19-year-old daughter get over the trauma she suffered from the impact of years of rockets when she was young. From year 4 until year 12, the daughter refused to leave the house except to go to school, but now her life is back on track.

“Children are scared of the rockets and now they’re also saying ‘maybe one of these kites will land on our balcony,’” Herziga said, adding that her daughter has been worried that a kite could ignite the family’s pergola.

Hamas militants in Gaza are reeling after Israel struck 10 Hamas targets on Saturday in response to rocket fire and attempts to breach the border fence. They upped the ante last week with a day of intense rocket and mortar attacks, but then reached an unofficial ceasefire with Israel, and while there has been some rocket fire this week, it has been limited compared to last week.

Hamas now seems to be pinning lots of hopes on kites and protests.

As The AJN went to press Hamas was recruiting hard for mass gatherings on the border planned for Friday and Saturday to mark 51 years since the end of the Six-Day War.

It was also galvanising anger over the fact that Israel struck 15 terror targets on Sunday, including two weapons manufacturing facilities, and over the fact that a Palestinian medic, Raza Najjar, was killed during protests on Friday.

She had reportedly approached the fence to care for a protester who had been hit by a tear gas canister. An initial IDF investigation has “found that a small number of bullets were fired during the incident, and that no shots were deliberately or directly aimed towards her”.

Hamas is poised to once again intensify its protests, and may well end the fragile ceasefire and launch rockets and mortars.

But while the protests are a winner for Hamas from a propaganda point of view, the projectiles are bringing it very little glory.

This is why it sees the new kite terror as a coup that is inflicting real damage on Israel.

Just two months ago, here in southern Israel, you said “kite” and it brought a smile to people’s faces.

They thought family fun. And some thought about a humanity they share with civilians over the border, as Gazans have long loved kites and actually hold a world record for flying 7202 kites simultaneously.

Today, for Gazans, kites have been turned into weapons, and for Israelis, they have been transformed into objects of fear.

NATHAN JEFFAY