KIBBUTZ BE’ERI – The most striking thing about the Israeli side of the Gaza border region is how serene the area seems. On an overcast spring day, the temperatures have not yet hit their summertime highs, and the community’s wheat fields and nearby forest to the north and east of the community are still green from the winter rains. The area is rich with picnic areas and hiking trails, and the blanket of silence is broken only by a group of cyclists taking advantage of the temperate weather.
The idyllic scene is broken, however, as a forest path emerges from a dip in the roughly paved road to reveal a stark image of burnt fields about a kilometer from the Gaza-Israel border fence. At first glance, the thick black dirt cuts a sharp contrast to the forest to the west, sharply defined by a straight line that delineates the burnt area from the healthy brush, but doesn’t reveal the extent of the damage. To get a feel for that, one must climb up a small embankment, upon which charred wheat crunches underfoot and the soot stretches for many dunams to the south, east and north.
Notably, the fire did not reach the residential area of the kibbutz or the wheat fields and fruit orchards owned by the community. But residents here say that was only a matter of luck, and warned that terrorists on the Gaza side of the frontier will continue to take advantage of a “living laboratory” to improve both their aim and durability of Gaza’s newest export: Burning kites.
“I believe that the army will figure out a solution for dealing with the burning kites,” said Yuval Bar, a member of the kibbutz. “The army has proven itself time and again – with technologies to find and destroy terror tunnels, with the Iron Dome system. I’m sure they’ll be able to devise a solution for this too.”
Despite his optimism, however, Be’eri, a 60-year-old father of four and grandfather of two who has lived in Be’eri for 45 years, warned that in terms of manpower the IDF troops guarding the border are at a disadvantage against the kites for the simple reason that the army cannot station a soldier every hundred meters along the 60 kilometer fence.
“Look: Over the past 15 years, we have been hit with thousands of Qassam rockets from Gaza, and we have about 15 seconds to take cover when we hear the Code Red siren,” Bar said. “On one hand it’s frightening – many buildings have been damaged in attacks, and we have had some injuries.
“On the other hand, however, I have to say that the ongoing security situation here has not impacted the way we live or driven people away. To the contrary: Throughout the Eshkol Regional Council communities, people are building and buying homes. Here at the kibbutz, we are building a new neighborhood to meet the demand of young people that grew up here and now want to return to raise their families here, and we simply cannot accept applications for new members. But yes – the fire kites are a worry, and Hamas is only going to get better at aiming them and making sure they can cause maximum damage,” said Bar.
Bar’s point is in evidence throughout the kibbutz. The shiny new neighborhood is going up along the community’s border fence – the point closest to Gaza, and all the homes are spoken for. Across a quiet street, the older area of the kibbutz is well-tended and neat, in contrast to many communal settlements which appear to be functional and austere. Every building in town has a bomb-proof room, which Bar says have proven themselves with a near-perfect success rate.
“We’ve had Qassams hit homes but not harm the people inside the sheltered rooms,” he said. Even the couple of injuries we have sustained have occurred when people didn’t listen to the IDF and community security detail instructions.”
Despite that success rate, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon toured the area Sunday to survey the damage from Friday’s fires, and also to announce a government relief program of NIS 16 million to protect farmers in the Gaza Belt region and to offset damages sustained by what he termed “agricultural terrorism.”
“Israel will not be defeated by (burning kites),” Kahlon told reporters. Kahlon added that a significant part of the Palestinians’ efforts to ramp up tensions in the Gaza border region via weekly demonstrations over the past five weeks stem from internal disputes between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza.
The minister said the Palestinians are trying to use a long successful tactic of embroiling Israel in an internal Palestinian conflict that would bring the international community to bear on Israel in defense of the Palestinians, but added that Israel would not fall into the trap.
“It isn’t going to work, “said Kahlon. “We have a moral, professional outstanding army that will protect our borders.”
Kahlon and regional Council head Yair Farjun threw their full backing towards the IDFs ability to defend the Gaza – Israel border during the ongoing protests that began five weeks ago and said there would be zero tolerance for individuals who try to violate Israel‘s sovereignty or harm Israeli civilians.
“Anybody who comes near the border will be shot, “Farjun said. “It really isn’t very complicated.
Asked about Kahlon’s commitment to provide funding relief, Yuval Bar said he was confident the government “had the residents’ back” and added that successive governments have ensured the safety of local residents throughout the “Qassam years.” But he added a warning that the current game of cat-and-mouse between Israel and Hamas is liable to continue into the foreseeable future.
“I have complete confidence in the IDF to do the job it’s been tasked to do,” Bar said. “But there aren’t any talks going on, which means that nobody is looking towards a time with a solution. That’s what’s difficult to accept,” he said.