Flaming kites rain terror

After years of rocket attacks and militant infiltrations from Gaza, residents of southern Israel are now coping with a new kind of threat: incendiary kites and balloons that have damaged farmlands and nature reserves.

The crude devices launched by Palestinians inside the blockaded territory have not been lethal. But they have sparked fires that have damaged agriculture, killed wildlife and whipped up considerable indignation.

"It's caused significant economic damage but more than that it is emotional," said Itzik Ebbo, 78, a member of Kibbutz Nir Am, a collective farming community. "These are crops we poured our hearts into. These are fields we hiked with our children and grandchildren."

Sullen locals have become a fixture on Israeli TV, guiding reporters around smouldering fields and lamenting the loss of life among snakes, turtles and the like.

The phenomenon is the latest twist in nearly three months of intermittent Palestinian border protests. To many Israelis the "kite terrorism" is yet more evidence of implacable — and creative — Palestinian hostility. But viewed another way it is a desperate ploy on behalf of the 2 million Palestinians largely penned into the impoverished seaside strip. A decade-old blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt to weaken Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group has ravaged the local economy and caused widespread despair.

Israeli forces have killed more than 120 Palestinians and wounded over 3,800 since the protests began on March 30. Israel says it's the only way to prevent mass breaches of the border that would include militants. But the vast majority of the Palestinian casualties have been unarmed, drawing heavy international criticism of Israel's open-fire orders. Israel blames Gaza's militant Hamas rulers for the bloodshed.

Drifting aimlessly over the border, the kites have caused more than 450 fires over the past month, torching some 7,000 acres (2,800 hectares) of land and causing some $2 million in damages.

The military says drones intercept some 90 per cent of the devices and it has also fired shots near kite launchers, targeting what it says are vehicles and Hamas posts used to launch the kites.

Meanwhile the fires rage daily. Terrain along the border is pockmarked with black spots of scorched hillsides and charred palm trees. In Nir Am, which abuts Gaza's northeast border, the fires have inched dangerously close to adjacent train tracks and a gas station.

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