ISRAEL/PALESTINE – Israeli farmer Avner Yona holds up a wooden-framed sheet of plastic almost as large as he is, fitted with a now blackened tail ribbon that shows the kite-maker’s malicious intent. The kite that drifted onto land he manages in the kibbutz, or collective farm, of Nahal Oz was launched from the Palestinian Gaza Strip just 1km away over the heavily-guarded border. “They hang clothes soaked in petrol here and set them on fire,” the 54-year-old says, pointing to an attachment on the kite. This time the fire did not spread and the damage is limited to a few scorched brambles. But for more than a month hundreds of such kites have been launched across the border, setting fire to hundreds of hectares (acres) of farmland and protected scrub. Like the stones and Molotov cocktails thrown in previous years, the kites have become a potent symbol of a wave of Palestinian protests that broke out on 30 March 2018 against Israel’s crippling decade-long blockade of Gaza.
At least 125 Palestinian protesters have been killed by Israeli fire since then, the majority as they approached the border fence where troops have orders to use lethal force to prevent any infiltration attempts. The kites offer a safer way for Gazans to protest, inflicting economic losses on Israel while remaining far enough from the border to avoid being shot. They also maintain the image of mainly peaceful protests, during which organisers have largely succeeded in preventing any Palestinian gunfire despite Israeli allegations of manipulation by Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
The kite found by Yona may have been launched from outside the nearby Al-Bureij refugee camp. There, a dozen young men sit on a large sandbank facing Israel fitting kites and balloons with makeshift incendiary devices. “If you give kites enough rope, they can go for 20 or 30km,” says Abu Moussa, age 25. “As soon as it arrives over the forest we cut it.” “We aim to set fire to their farms,” adds Abu Majd, age 28. “In this way we hurt them.”
Israeli farmers are suffering significant losses from the low-cost tactic.
Yona points to the charred wheat at his feet. “Five shekels (a little over a euro) for the material, five minutes to make and look at the result,” he says. Pointing to a still green field in the distance, he says he remains hopeful of saving the chickpea harvest due in mid-July and the sunflowers that should ripen by late August. The damage to the kibbutz’s crops amounts to around $590 000, he estimates. The wheat had to be harvested early even though much of it was not yet ready.
But Yona insists that the battle against the fires will not deter the kibbutz’s residents, who have endured three wars across the Gaza border since 2008. “It’s our land, we’ll work it to the last metre, we will not be defeated,” he said.
The Palestinians, too, believe the land is theirs and the protesters are calling for the right of return to the homes their families fled or were expelled from during the creation of Israel in 1948. Any such return would mean the end of it as a Jewish state.
Yona collects the kites that land in his fields for use as evidence in what he hopes will be an eventual compensation claim by the Israeli government. The government has estimated the damage at $1,4m so far and has promised compensation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demanded the state make the Palestinian Authority pay for the damage, though it has no control in Hamas-run Gaza.
The kite has become a “terrorist” weapon, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said during a visit to the border area on Tuesday, calling for targeted assassinations of those responsible. The Israeli army launches drones to damage or cut down the kites but a country that prides itself on the effectiveness of its “Iron Dome” anti-rocket system has yet to find an effective response to this low-tech tactic. According to the Israeli defence ministry, of the more than 600 kites launched from Gaza so far, around 400 kites have been intercepted. There are “other means we may use in the future”, says army spokesperson Jonathan Conricus, without elaborating.
Back near the border, about 15 staff of the Jewish National Fund, which manages much of Israel’s land, are on the alert, scrutinising the area’s tinder-dry valleys. The wind is strong, the air is hot and dry.
Four fires are reported almost simultaneously. The emergency crews rush to the sites, ploughing the area around them to create firebreaks with help from the Israeli army. It is not just farmland that is being torched. Every day, dozens of fires devour protected scrubland and forest “causing enormous damage to animals, birds in their nests, turtles, reptiles”, said the JNF’s Daniel Ben David. “Two months ago, I found the kites funny. Today it’s totally different, he said.”