ISRAEL – For so many of us the sight of colored balloons evokes happy childhood memories of birthday parties and celebrations. Sadly, children living in Israel’s Gaza Envelope associate the sight of a party balloon floating overhead or landing close by as a threat to life – and with good reason.
Over the last decade, and increasingly over the last five years, incendiary balloons and kites have become highly effective weapons in disrupting Israeli life in the Western Negev.
Landing indiscriminately, the potentially deadly devices land on tinder dry farmland, setting the fields ablaze and destroying thousands of acres of trees, crops, nature reserves and parkland, as well as all property in their path.
The destruction has been devastating for the many kibbutzim and small communities in the border area known as the Gaza Envelope, severely impacting local food production, devastating the environment, and threatening the lives of those caught in the path of the blazes.
In 2018 alone, 50% of the forest areas in the Gaza Envelope were damaged or destroyed.
JNF-USA regional liaison and volunteer firefighter, Yedidya Harush, reported live last year from the fires in the south
During a 19-day period in August last year, more than 600 such fires blazed in the Gaza Envelope region with more than 70 breaking out on one day alone.
“We’re talking about the 12th fire today,” Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) regional liaison and volunteer firefighter, Yedidya Harush reported from the smoking fields during those fires, “we just started the [main] fire time which is around the afternoon when the winds start coming from the ocean inland.”
JNF-USA has been at the forefront of the drive to ensure that those hundreds of local volunteers in the Gaza border region and across Israel, have the equipment they need to do the job and provide essential support to the full-time firefighters who often find themselves stretched to the limit.
Thanks to the generosity JNF-USA’s partners (donors) and through the leadership of the organization’s Fire & Rescue Taskforce and its Gaza Envelope Taskforce, the region’s volunteers who previously raced out from their homes risking life and limb to fight fires dressed in civilian clothes, now have proper firefighting uniforms and lifesaving breathing equipment.
Five Rapid Action Fire Vehicles and thirteen firefighting wagons that can be attached to standard 4×4 vehicles are the latest to have been provided recently to local Gaza Envelope communities enabling them to react immediately to blazes, and (in some cases) reaching areas in difficult terrain that the larger trucks cannot easily access.
The fire wagons purchased by JNF-USA serve a critical purpose. In addition to having their own onboard water supply, the wagons can hook up at the site of the blaze and be refilled with water from the much larger fire trucks, providing additional means with which to contain fires that spread rapidly when fanned by winds coming off the Mediterranean.
In addition to firefighting equipment, new strategies are being implemented to protect and manage the local forests. “
“We’ve had to learn quickly, together with the firefighters in the field, local foresters, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and others, regarding how to effectively respond to these situations before getting out of hand, and during the winter seasons, we work together to implement strategic solutions to plan for the future,” explains Danny Gigi, director of the KKL-JNF Southern Region. By separating forested areas, bringing local Bedouin sheep herders to graze on dry, low-cut brush, and working with researchers and experts to understand the best trees to plant in the region, foresters and firefighters are able to mitigate risk.
JNF-USA’s Rapid Action Fire Vehicles can respond to fires in difficult to reach locations
“JNF-USA has been involved with the Gaza Envelope for years now,” Yael Levontin, JNF-USA Affiliates Coordinator explains. “We were there yesterday, we’re here today, and we’ll be there tomorrow … not just for firefighting equipment, but already for many years providing resilience centers, creating parks and other projects.”
JNF-USA has already provided over $100,000 for personal equipment that completely kitted out no less than 54 volunteer firefighters in the region.
At Tu Bishvat we plant trees to help turn semi-desert areas in Israel into a flourishing natural environment. Many such areas in the Gaza Envelope region have been damaged or totally destroyed, but so many others have been saved as a result of the donations of firefighting equipment made to local communities.
“There were far more fires in 2020 than ever before but we were able to reach each fire within minutes and the damage was far less, thanks to the new equipment,” says Ilan Isaacson, security officer for the Eshkol region that forms much of the Gaza Envelope. “Two weeks ago we saw a big [Gazan] televised exercise showing Islamic Jihad and Hamas together so there is no doubt they are getting ready. The coming summer will be another big challenge so we must continue to improve what we do – and have the equipment to do it.”
And it’s not only the practical help that means so much to the Gaza Envelope residents; it’s the knowledge that their plight isn’t being ignored and that there are people overseas who want to help and show their support.
Staying true to its mission to support the region, and others around the country, JNF-USA doesn’t only focus on providing firefighting equipment in the Gaza Envelope. With deadly forest fires in the Jerusalem hills and the northern Carmel region now an annual occurrence, funding more new wagons and 1600 further sets of equipment for volunteer firefighters across Israel remains the organization’s top priority.