Three incendiary balloons fell in a kibbutz in Sdot Negev — the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s partnership region located next to the Gaza Strip — on Nov. 1.
The balloons landed in Kibbutz Alumim, underneath the jeep of Rafi Babiyan, head of security of the regional council of Sdot Negev, and set his jeep on fire. Babiyan was not in his jeep at the time, and no one was injured. Firefighters put the fire out before it reached nearby homes.
Palestinians in Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of incendiary kites and balloons into Israel in recent months. Ynetnews.com reported that there have been days where these devices have started as many as 40 fires. According to The Times of Israel, more than 7,000 acres have been burned.
“[This attack] does create a lot of emotional impact, a lot of trauma,” said Tali Lidar, Israel representative of the Jewish Federation.
When the incendiary balloons and kites start fires, they usually do so in fields, causing damage to crops and wildlife. Individual attacks don’t usually make the news because they are so commonplace, Lidar said.
But it is rare for the balloons and kites to detonate in a residential area, so this attack has rattled residents.
In recent weeks, Lidar added, Hamas has attached hand grenades to the kites and balloons as well.
The kites and balloons are difficult to catch using Israel’s current intelligence system. Israel has been working to change that though, Lidar said. Over the summer, there was a hackathon to try to come up with better ways to fight off the incendiary devices.
For now, the response is low-tech. Volunteers watch for the kites and balloons and alert security forces and firefighters when they see something.
Speaking on Nov. 2 with less than half an hour to go before sunset, Lidar said that everyone in the community was just hoping for a quiet Shabbat.
The incident upset some in the Philadelphia area, including those who have ridden in that jeep before.
Jewish Federation mission trips usually visit Netivot and Sdot Negev. These missions — the latest of which occurred just two weeks before the incident — often include a security tour with Babiyan in his jeep.
“I know that I have sat in the front seat of that [jeep],” said Michele Levin, who is chair of the Negev Funding Coalition of Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and vice chair of the Negev Now committee of JFNA. She said she last was in that jeep several years ago when tunnels in the region were the primary concern. “It happens that [Babiyan] doesn’t speak English so well, but he is so kind.”
The most recent Jewish Federation trip to the region was Oct. 21, the day before the General Assembly began. The group saw some of the damage the burning kites and balloons had left on the fields.
“[The fire department] is struggling because there’s so much work,” Levin said. “The most heart-wrenching comment was when one of the security guys said, ‘I have to tell my kids to run away from balloons and kites.’ Those are child’s toys, but they can’t go near them.”
Partnership Chair David Gold saw the damage done by the kites during a visit to a nature reserve. The images he took from the tour show fields with black scars from the fires.
What struck Gold the most was the damage he saw to wildlife. He recalled seeing three dead turtles that had been burned.
“It was the grossest thing I have ever seen,” Gold said, “and I will never forget it. We’ve toured damage before. We’ve seen the wheat fields. We’ve seen the burned ground. That just blew me away.”
On Nov. 1, Gold saw the photos of the burning jeep on Facebook.
“I was distraught at the fact that those kites could do that much damage to the beautiful kibbutz,” Gold said. “But that’s what our brothers and sisters in Kibbutz Alumim deal with on a daily basis.”