Farmers Say Fires Won’t Prevent Living Normal Lives

A fire truck is seen in a burning field on the Israeli side of the border fence between Israel and Gaza near kibbutz Mefalsim, Israel, Monday. (Reuters/Amir Cohen)

Tuesday was supposed to be the day of the “Great March Home,” in which a million Gazans were to break through the border fence and invade Israeli towns – but the day was largely a bust. After tens of thousands rioted Monday, Hamas sent Gazans home. Only a few hundred showed up to riot Tuesday – to the great relief of Israeli residents of the Gaza border fence area.

But the damage has already been done. Many of those living in the Gaza border area are farmers, and it is they who have borne the brunt of the riots Hamas has been instigating for nearly the past two months. Speaking to Yisrael Hayom, Nira Shapek, a resident of Kfar Aza, a kibbutz close to the border, said that residents were strong – and would remain so. “We see how determined Hamas is to instigate and cause riots, and we believe this will continue. But they will not break us. The fires that they start will not prevent us from living our normal lives.”

Those fires, which over the past few weeks have become the biggest immediate threat from Gaza, have consumed hundreds of dunams of farmland and forests, costing farmers millions of shekels. The fires, which in the past few weeks have become a nearly daily event, are started by Gazans who fly kites or balloons with flammable material attached over the border fence, touching them down on trees or crops and lighting a long fuse attached to the kite string. Within seconds, the kite is set afire, consuming everything around it. More recently, Gaza terrorists have been attaching molotov cocktails to the kites and balloons, which explode upon impact when the terrorists dump them on the ground, along with the kites.

IDF firefighters have been able to put out most of the fires before they did too much damage, but in some cases were unable to get to them in time – with the flames spreading and consuming crops or trees, especially on windy days. Sometimes the damage is significant; on Monday, for example, 100 dunams of wheat went up in smoke at Kibbutz Sa’ad, while dozens of trees burned in the Kissufim Forest, outside the kibbutz of the same name.

For weeks, the IDF took limited action against the kites and their flyers; it was just last weekend that the army announced that it would shoot at those caught flying kites. Many of the kite flyers are kids and teens, and it is for that reason that the army showed restraint. To cope, some farmers have been harvesting their crops before they were fully grown – reasoning that whatever they could get for the immature wheat they were pulling out of the ground was better than being left with nothing.

Gadi Yarkoni, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, last week told Channel Ten that farmers were pooling resources, with each helping the other to harvest their wheat crops, making the process as efficient and quick as possible. “We are lending each other our combines, and together harvesting our crops as soon as it is feasible,” he said. “We’ve lost over 3,000 dunams to fires so far, and we are working hard to save the 40,000 dunams that are still in the ground.”

It’s not just crops that have been damaged in the fires. On Kibbutz Nachal Oz, firebombs caused major damage to a henhouse, as well as to the kibbutz’s water irrigation system. “The pain we feel is indescribable,” said Danny Rahamim, a farmer on Nachal Oz. “We work so hard to produce our crops, and after these fires, it is just so hard for us.” Over the past few weeks, he said, the kibbutz experienced at least five major fires. “The damage to the irrigation system means we can’t efficiently water our crops,” Rahamim continued. “In addition, the strings of the kites they are sending over get caught up in our combines, ruining their ability to harvest the crops.”

The fires of the past weeks have left the farming communities under a thick cloud of smoke, which is unlikely to dissipate in the coming days; a major heat wave is predicted for the next week or so, which means that the breezes that could blow the smoke out of the area will be few and far between. Despite all that – the monetary losses, the ongoing insecurity, the pollution – residents are not going anywhere, said Rahamim. “There’s no question that things are very tense here. We are trying to live normal lives.” here, and it is not simple. We try to keep our equanimity, but sometimes we aren’t able to.”