Thousands of dunam of western Negev forests, nature reserves have gone up in flames in past few weeks as a result of incendiary kites; damages may take 30 years to repair, KKL says; drone captures footage of Besor Stream devastation.
Ilana Curiel|Published: 06.01.18
More than 260 fires broke out in vicinity of Israel’s border with Gaza since April, caused by rampant incendiary kite terrorism flown from Gaza at the communities on the strip’s perimeter.

Not merely farmers and agricultural land were targeted, however, as nature reserves and forests went up in flames as well. According to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) data, more than 2,100 dunam (2.1 square kilometers) of woodland were torched, mostly in the Be’eri and Kissufim forests near the Gaza border.

Not only the region’s flora was hit hard, as the native fauna has also suffered. Torched wheat fields can no longer be used as birthing grounds for the area’s gazelle population, while the reptilian populace of natural sites such as Be’eri Forest and the Besor Stream will take long to recover.

Dr. Assaf Tzoer, an ecologist for the Nature and Parks Authority’s southern district, explained that fires in such natural reserve have immense ecological significance. “Fires usually start in thorn fields, and then quickly spread—consuming slower animals such as chameleons and turtles that simply cannot escape them.”

“Their populations in these region have simply vanished. Faster moving animals do tend to be able to escape, but not all of them,” he added.

As for winged animals, Dr. Tzoer said that avians were luckily near the conclusion of their nesting season. Nevertheless, birds capable of flying from the nest but that were still dependant on their parents “do not survive the flames,” he revealed, as they cannot yet fly well.

Fifth of reserve gone up in flames

Southern district ecologists carried an initial survey of the region to attempt to assess damages, but the Nature and Parks Authority’s experts realize full well the enormity of the disaster will only be grasped—and repaired—later.

One official said that much of the region’s vegetation was now gone, with many portions not recovering until the next rains. Animal habitats, meanwhile, have shrunk.

“The rate of fires is a nearly daily basis,” the official added. “We have fires here and there normally, but the last one in the Besor Stream ate away 3,000 dunam (3 square kilometers) of the reserve. The damage is accumulating.”

“That means that the Besor Stream land is finished until the next rainy season, and grazing grounds are diminishing. This year it’s a whole new playing field. It’s still hard to say what its effects on nature will be. If it continues into the summer, we’ll be in rough shape,” the nature official feared.

The Besor Stream fire blazed through a fifth of the nature’s territory, marking one of the most serious fires to ever hit the region, with its cause still shrouded in mystery. The Be’eri and Kissufim forests, meanwhile, are under nearly daily attack by Gazan kites, with the Asaf Simhoni Forest near the Kfar Aza kibbutz also hit.

Danny Ben David, director of KKL’s western Negev region, sees no end in sight. More than 2,100 dunam of longstanding woods have been torched, with fully-grown trees 30 or more years old burned to a cinder.

“When a wheat field catches fire, there’s an immediate economic impact,” he explained, “but you can till the land in four to five months and grow wheat again. A forest cannot be recuperated in several months’ time. If you want to go for recovery, that’s a 30 year process.”

“The fire is lethal to the forest. Beyond the immediate monetary damages, there’s long term damage of years down the line,” he warned.

In addition to the damage to the area’s nature, tourism is also expected to suffer a blow, as the region around Be’eri Forest is often visited by cyclists and hikers.

Anemone blossom now in doubt

Ben David also voiced concerns for the fate of anemones in the area. The flower are geophytes, he explained—perennial plants that propagate from an underground organ. Such plants, Ben David said, have a better chance of growing when grass is burned away.

During Operation Protective Edge, some 3,500 dunam (3.5 square kilometers) of forest were burned and damaged, KKL said, with damage estimated at roughly a million shekels. According to initial estimates, damage to the woods in the current round, since the kite terrorism began, stands at more than 5 million shekels.

Moran Bakish, a western Negev regional inspector for the Nature and Parks Authority, said, “We have felt a horrible rash of fires in the last few weeks. The Be’eri reserve and Besor Stream were razed. As far as animals go, it’s a disaster.”

“During the fire,” he recounted, “we saw numerous animals escaping. The western Negev doesn’t have a lot of hiding places for them, as it’s mostly agricultural land. We’ve already lost an enormous habitat.”

Most of the work carried out in the field, he explained, focused now on attempting to stop the fires. “The painful moments come later,” he divulged. “Botanically speaking, vegetation will grow back fairly weekly—a year, by my estimate. But it’ll never be the same. Animal-wise, it’ll take more time.”

In fact, the hardest thing for nature inspectors was the uncertainty. “No one knows when this will end,” Ben David said. “But someone needs to stop it. Beyond the frustration, I’m thinking of two things: how long will it take us to rehabilitate forests? And the other thing is not seeing how this ends.”

Riots near the Gaza border. The region’s trees were like a protective vest for residents (Photo: AP)
Riots near the Gaza border. The region’s trees were like a protective vest for residents (Photo: AP)

“The army responds harshly to any crossing of the border and every mortar. The damage here is much greater than a barrage of mortars at open land. It’s frustrating that no solution is in sight and that the country hasn’t really responded to it,” he added.

“As far as I’m concerned, each tree is like a soldier, like a protective vest,” he concluded, referring to security afforestation meant to shroud and conceal Israeli communities from the eyes of Gazan terrorists.

“Imagine a mortar landing in a kibbutz whose shrapnel is sent flying everywhere but meets trees. They’re like a protective vest for a kibbutz, a real life saver,” he exclaimed.,7340,L-5276290,00.html