Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Park rangers in southern Israel watch life's work turn to ash - Nikki Guttman

by Nikki Guttman

"It ranges from 10 to 50 fires on a bad day," says ranger Hanan Levavi

Rangers Hanan Levavi, left, and Ezra Sasson inspect a burned 
stretch of land in the Gaza periphery
Photo: Yehuda Peretz

World Ranger Day, an international day of recognition for the men and women who guard national parks and forests all over the world, was no celebration for the rangers working in the northern and western Negev, where many thousands of acres of woodland, fields, and nature preserves have been laid to waste by the burning balloons and kites that Palestinians in Gaza float over the border fence, seeking to cause as much damage to Israeli property as possible.

"The threat here is daily – it's like a terrorist attack, you don't know where it will happen. You always have this feeling of uncertainty about how many [burning] balloons will arrive and where, and nature is paying the price," says Hanan Levavi, who for the past five years has been working as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority's chief ranger for the northern Negev. His job places him on the front lines of the fight against arson terrorism in the form of fire kites and balloons that Palestinians fly over the Gaza border fence, hoping to cause as many fires as possible in Israel.

Recently, rangers in Gaza-adjacent communities have been forced to join the effort to check the immense damage caused by the terrorist arson from Gaza. Some sites have been particularly hard hit: 80% of the foliage in Be'eri Forest has been burned down; 56% of the Nir'am Reserve is scorched black, and a third of the Karmia Reserve has gone up in flames. In total, over 11,000 dunams (2,700 acres) of nature preserves have been lost to the fires.

Levavi says that in the past four months, fires caused by the burning balloons and kites have broken out daily in the Be'eri area.

"It ranges from 10 [separate] fires to 50 on the bad days. It's inconceivable. All the land is burned up. There's nowhere for wild animals to hide," the ranger says.

"We are investing a lot of time and resources in confronting the new threat. Not just me, as a ranger, but our entire organization."

Levavi adds that "this is something on a scale we weren't familiar with. We're working with teams from the Jewish National Fund, Israel Fire and Rescue Services, and volunteers from Kibbutz Be'eri, who are doing wonderful work. Some days are crazy – we're on alert, and suddenly there are calls from a few sites and everyone pitches in to put the fires out."

Ezra Sasson, director of the northern Negev district for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority – a 36-year veteran of the organization – calls the fires "unusual."

"We haven't had incidents like these. There were localized natural disaster, but here we're talking about a fire that wipes out an area the size of Netanya."

Sasson explains that "for years, we've been making sure that people don't veer off certain paths [to protect the wildlife], and now a fire like this comes and destroys all that work, everything you believe in. For us, it's carnage. It affects us the most because we see the beauty [of nature] – we see the changes in the different seasons and we see the budding, the flowering, and the autumn. Then in one day, it all turns black."

On Monday, the arson attacks from Gaza continued unabated, causing at least 30 fires in Gaza-adjacent communities. For the first time, a burning balloon was carried as far as Beersheba, which lies well inland.

Nikki Guttman


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