Gaza Border Communities Living under Fire

July 6, 2018

by: Ilse Strauss

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The nature reserve that was burned by Hamas arson terrorism

Friday, 06 July 2018 | Ilan Isaacson has one job: getting the people living in his region ready for the next war. The responsibility is enormous. He is, after all, the security chief of the Eshkol region—the only regional municipality in Israel with the dubious honor of sharing a border with both the Gaza Strip and the Sinai region of Egypt. This makes him the man in charge of overseeing the safety arrangements of nearly 16,000 men, women and children in the crosshairs of terror groups Hamas in the west and ISIS in the south.

Under normal circumstances, Isaacson and his team work 12-hour days to ensure their one job is done. They have to. The alternative is unthinkable. “When war comes, our people must be ready to face anything, be that waves of rockets or 30 terrorists pouring out of a terror tunnel ready to kill,” he explains. Tragically, the people under his care have ample opportunity to practice their safety procedures. Even during official times of so-called peace, the Eshkol region’s 32 towns, kibbutzim [communal settlements] and communities bear the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks and infiltration and kidnapping attempts.

Three months ago Hamas added another tactic to its terror arsenal: droves of burning kites and balloons loaded with charcoal, petrol, Molotov cocktails or detonators sent over the Israeli border to burn up thousands of acres of agricultural fields, forests and a nature reserve. Overnight, Isaacson’s 12-hour work day turned into a round-the-clock shift.

From a strategic and security position, the Eshkol region is one of the most significant plots of real estate in Israel. It is, after all, the junction where Israel, the Gaza Strip and Egypt meet. The area is indeed a hub of activity. Communities lay dotted between wheat and barley fields, grazing cattle, olive groves and vineyards. Tractors and trailers piled high with produce share the road with armored personal carriers, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, pick-up trucks and station wagons.

We meet with Isaacson at the entrance to Kissufim, a kibbutz hugging the Gaza border. The community boasts a state-of-the-art dairy, a number of chicken coops, rolling citrus groves and acres of avocado orchards. Our meeting spot overlooks a field that used to be lush and green two weeks ago. Now all that remains are ashes, charred skeletons of trees and the acrid stink of soot. Just the day before, Isaacson shares, the region battled 20 blazes. He points out two columns of smoke spiraling white on the horizon. Compared to the tally from the day before, two fires seem a step up. But it is only 10:00 a.m. The terror group has a lot of daylight left.

Hamas’s innocent toys turned terror weapons have proven highly destructive, explains Isaacson. In less than 12 weeks, arson terrorism has burned up more than 3,000 acres of agricultural lands and has caused Israel tens of millions of shekels in damage. Crops have been lost, irrigation systems melted, wildlife killed and forests and natural reserves charred.

In the beginning, Isaacson remembers, Hamas used only kites. The IDF soon became adapt at stemming the burning droves. “We managed to spot—and stop—someone about to launch a fire kite at 600–700 meters [.37–.43 mi.].” Then Hamas changed the ballgame by turning from kites to incendiary balloons. “It’s almost impossible to spot someone launching a balloon. And even if it wasn’t, Hamas uses women and children to do their dirty work. The terrorists prepare the fire balloons and then hand them to civilians to launch, knowing we won’t target women and children.”

The kites and balloons—many of them brightly colored, heart-shaped or adorned with cute cartoon characters like Hello Kitty—are considered acts of terrorism. The effects of the terror arson, Isaacson holds, are fourfold. “First, there are the trees, many which are 20 or 30 years old. The entire history of the modern State of Israel tells of our commitment to planting trees in the Land. Trees are life. Now the fires have destroyed so much of what we have planted over the years.”

Then there is the wildlife, he continues. Over the past three months, flocks of turkeys and scores of reptiles and other small animals have suffocated or burned to death. “Third, we have the constant smoke and smell. The fires have wrapped the entire area in a blanket of soot and ash particles. Last but not least, there are our fields. The south of Israel is known for its agriculture. Now, the livelihood of many of the farmers here simply burned up. For things like wheat, it is less problematic. The farmers will probably get compensation and next year there will be a new crop. But things like passion fruit and avocadoes are a different matter. Passion fruits take three years to harvest. Each one of the fruits must be hand pollinated. Some of the avocado trees are 10 to 15 years old. We cannot live with things that have taken us decades to grow simply being burned up in minutes.”

The first few days of kite terror gave Isaacson and his team a crash course in securing their communities against Hamas’s latest destruction tactic. As soon as the fires started raging out of control, the security chief put out a call for lightweight firefighting trailers capable of maneuvering in small spaces and along narrow roads where conventional fire trucks cannot reach. Isaacson wanted each community to have the means to quench a blaze as soon as it started, thus saving valuable crops and millions of shekels in damage. Bridges for Peace was the first to answer this call and provided a trailer for two communities. “Now our security officers can put out a fire during the critical first few minutes before it rages out of control and burns up everything,” he smiles.

According to Isaacson, the timing of Hamas’s new terror tactic is no coincidence. “They realized that missiles and mortars no longer have the desired effect, thanks to the Iron Dome. Their terror tunnels have been discovered and are being destroyed. The construction of Israel’s new underground barrier will also mean zero chance of infiltrating Israel and slaughtering civilians. They’ve spent millions of dollars on rockets and tunnels, all of it wasted. So they had to come up with something else. And they did. Compared to rockets and tunnels, kites and balloons cost nothing.”

Isaacson is quick to point out that this does not, however, not mean that Hamas has ceased sending waves of rockets Israel’s way. “In the last three weeks alone, we’ve suffered three separate missile attacks. The first one had nearly 160 rockets and the last 33. Seven struck inside two of our kibbutzim, one 5 meters [16.4 ft.] from a kindergarten. Shrapnel from a rocket obliterated the side of a family home. Because the family was in their bomb shelter, they were safe.”

Asked how he prepares his people for such attacks and Isaacson was quick to answer. “Not in a day. It is a process. It takes preparation and planning. We have 15 seconds to make it to a bomb shelter before the rocket falls. So we’ve placed them bomb shelters every few meters around the kibbutzim—at every bus stop, kindergarten, home, school and playground—at every 15 second interval. Can you imagine how many bomb shelters that is?”

Life on the Gaza border has ingrained a consistent awareness of safety into those who call the Eshkol region home. “Everywhere we go, whatever we do, we make sure that we put ourselves in a position where we can make it to safety in time. I recently went to the US with my kids. Their first question when we arrived there was, “Dad, where is the bomb shelter?” They weren’t in a panic or even expecting an attack. It is just a way of life. You know where your closest bomb shelter is. Always.”

Isaacson is fully aware of how the international community perceives the situation on the Gaza border and that Israel is usually cast as the villain. To a degree, he understands the perception. “If you see a picture of an Israeli tank standing in front of a Palestinian boy with a slingshot, it is difficult to picture us as the good guys.” That is why it is so important to know the truth, he adds.

Only someone who has spent time walking in the Gaza border communities’ shoes, facing rockets, fires, terror tunnels and thousands of violent rioters ready to storm the border has the right to comment on the situation, Isaacson believes. “If anybody wants to tell our story, they must speak from personal experience. Unless you know first-hand what is going on, you cannot condemn us. So my invitation to people around the world is this: come to Israel. Take a vacation and come see for yourself. Spend a week here and then make up your own mind. It is as simple as that.”

Isaacson is not unsympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. “What is happening in Gaza is tragic. Two million Palestinians are oppressed and held hostage by 300,000 Hamas terrorists. But what Hamas and the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza need to understand is that we are not leaving here.”

There is a solution to the problem, Isaacson holds. Addressing the terror group, he invites, “Put down your weapons. Embrace life. Shun death. Terrorism is not going to help you. It will only keep you in poverty and war. The whole world will come alongside you to help you. Gaza can be a wonderful place. If you just put down your weapons.”

Posted on July 6, 2018

Source: (Bridges for Peace, 06 July 2018)

Photo Credit: Michio Nagata/bridgesforpeace.com