Sderot, Israel — The smoke was billowing when I stood on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday, as yet more greenery was consumed by flames ignited by so-called terror kites.
These flying fire-starters arrive without warning. When I drove out of Sderot in the morning to tour the border, the roadside was clear and the view towards the local college was picturesque. By the early afternoon, the horizon was filled with smoke from a kite strike.
It landed just near Sapir College, where the area behind the bus stop was filled with flames. “All of the field was burning,” student Eli Einso told me once the flames had gone, pointing at the newly blackened land, and the nearby parking. “It was crazy and scary. I thought it was going to burn all the cars.”
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 of the family that launched it and the date. There was also a message of hatred towards Israel’s prime minister.
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 me. “People were terrified because you’re in the forest and suddenly there’s was fire.
“There were hundreds of people at the funeral. Their ears were with the rabbi but their eyes were on the flames.”
Hundreds of kites have landed so far, and the Israeli military has stopped hundreds more by using drones. Moving around the region your nose tells you when you’re approaching a burnt area — the smell is strong.
Two months ago, here in southern Israel the word kite had all the same connotations as in the rest of the world: a fun family toy. One of the few things that many Israelis know about civilian life in Gaza is that kids there fly kites — eight years ago they broke a world record by flying 7,202 kites simultaneously. But as an object that sounds so innocent but can become a fatal weapon in this conflict, the kite has also become sinister.
These days Eyal Hagbi, security chief for the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, spends his time going from one site of kite damage to another. Quickly, Hagbi and his colleagues have slipped in to a routine where this is the new normal.
Driving along small dirt tracks in the region, we encounter other local employees with firefighting equipment on their truck. Everyone exchanges accounts of the most recent fires they have seen and the extent of the damage.
The landscape is full of stark contrasts. At one point you can see Gaza buildings very clearly, pan right and see an Israeli reservoir, then turn your head further and see lush greenery that abruptly ends where kites hit and everything is now charred.
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Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, protestors were getting organized in their tent city for more demonstrations on the border — warming up for another large-scale march that is expected this weekend to mark the 51st anniversary of the Six-Day War.
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. Hamas now seems to be pinning lots of hopes on protests, kites, and probably new means of attack that are being planned.
Hagbi 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 three minutes’ walk from where we were standing. “So they [Hamas] are always looking for new ideas.”
Nobody knows how much land will be charred before the kites stop, but many people around here say that the damage won’t be measured in acres alone. “Children are scared of the rockets and now they’re also saying, ‘Maybe one of these kites will land on our balcony,’” said Perli Herziga, a pharmacy manager in Sderot.
She said that at home in recent days, her mother has been scared by the “code red” bomb alarms, her 4-year-old has been worried about the booms, and her 19-year-old daughter, who is only just getting her life back on track, is focused on the kites. She has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from the rocket attacks of her childhood, and from fourth until 12th grade mostly refused to leave the house for anything apart from school. She is now taking big steps, but Herziga is worried about the specter of the flames that are now all around, and how this will impact her. “She said to me, ‘We have a pergola, what happens if a kite lands on it?’”
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month. Find him on Facebook at @nathanonisrael.