KIBBUTZ NIR AM, Israel — Ofer Liberman zips out the kibbutz gate in his well-used jeep, frantically calling out to people as he drives. There’s a fire beyond the residential area, in the fields, he tells them. A few minutes later, Liberman pulls his jeep to a halt and watches as a line of angry flames licks the parched shrubs.
The first incendiary kite of the day has landed.
Outfitted with rags dipped in gasoline, smoldering embers, coals and, more recently, lightweight explosive devices, the kites are the latest weapon used by Palestinians against Israelis in their decades-old conflict. Handmade, mostly from household objects, the kites sail over the border from the Gaza Strip, which lies just to the west.
Israelis have dubbed these low-tech weapons “terror kites.” Although the damage has not been huge — a little more than $1 million to date — it has put Israelis on edge. Multiple fires started each day by kites and helium balloons are the focus of nightly news broadcasts. One cabinet minister said soldiers could legitimately shoot kite fliers if they were endangering Israeli lives.
According to the Israeli army, thousands of incendiary kites and balloons have been flown over the border in the past eight weeks. As the number of kites has grown, Israel’s response has intensified. On Monday, warplanes struck two military compounds and a munitions site belonging to Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza. Israeli officials said the action was “in response to arson and explosive kites and balloons that have been launched against Israel.”
“It doesn’t matter what this is; it matters what it does,” said Liberman, who oversees the agricultural operation at Kibbutz Nir Am. He said fires started by balloons and kites have caused more than $300,000 worth of damage to the collective farm.
“They are sending us a message: We will burn your fields and maybe you will leave,” Liberman said.
The kites started coming in April, not long after Gazans held their first in a series of weekly demonstrations demanding the return of land Palestinians lost when Israel was created and highlighting the humanitarian crisis facing the strip. Israel and Egypt have imposed a land and sea blockade of the Palestinian enclave since Hamas took it over in 2007.
Those protests have turned lethal, with Israeli soldiers killing more than 120 Palestinians and injuring thousands. Israel’s actions have drawn wide international condemnation and increased anger inside Gaza.
“We want to burn the crops of the settlers,” said Ahmed, 17, who brought a homemade kite to the border on a recent Friday. By settlers he is referring to Israeli communities along the border. “Every day they burn our hearts in killing the young and injuring them. They torture us.”
Ahmed, who did not want his full name published for fear of Israeli retribution, said the materials used for his kite — wood, ropes and paper — were free. The wind, blowing eastward off the Mediterranean Sea, also worked in his favor.
“It is a simple act. We enjoy our time flying kites, and we make the Israelis suffer like us. They can put pressure on their government to make us live better,” he said.
Murad, a 27-year-old Gazan, said the idea of using kites came “after seeing children playing with them.”
“We ask each other, ‘What are you going to do today?’ and then answer, ‘I'm going to burn a few acres on the other side,’ ” said Murad, who also feared using his full name. “Young people cannot find work here, and now their work is making kites to burn land inside Israel.”
The Israeli army, with its top-notch air-defense systems, has only recently achieved some success in stopping the crudely made kites, adapting drones so they can latch onto the flying objects and guide them to a specific point.
“It is not 100 percent protection, but we get about 90 percent,” said Col. Nadav Livne, head of the Israeli military’s research and development unit, which developed the drone defense.
But some are getting through. At the Beeri nature reserve, damage to woodland and wildlife is extensive, said Daniel Ben David, regional director of the Israeli Jewish National Fund, which takes care of the reserve. About 1,000 acres have been destroyed, and more than 450 fires have been started in the past two months. Remnants of the kites, their long tails made from shreds of paper with Arabic writing, lie strewn on the burned ground.
“Kites are the same as rockets; they might not have killed anyone yet, but they could,” Ben David said. He has found dead porcupines, turtles and other woodland creatures among the charred trees.
“I used to love kites, but when you see how much damage a [$3] kite can cause — how much damage to nature, the environment, tourism — then you start hating them,” he said.
“The people in Gaza are desperate, and a hungry neighbor is a dangerous neighbor,” said Adele Raemer, a resident of Kibbutz Nirim, which also sits adjacent to the Gaza border. “They can’t get in, so instead of stabbings, we have balloons and kites, but the next stage might be drones or something else.”
At Kibbutz Nahal Oz, a few hours before the Jewish Sabbath begins, life appears tranquil, even as just a mile or so away, Palestinians in Gaza gear up for their weekly faceoff against Israeli troops. A large mushroom-shaped cloud of black smoke from burning tires rises to the west.
Amir Adler works in the kibbutz fields. He sees kites and balloons every day.
“It is very imaginative, using something so low-tech, but it’s devastating to see the fields we’ve worked so hard to prepare totally destroyed,” he said. “Honestly, I just cannot understand how this makes a difference to their protest.”
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.