Grandmother duo assists in battling Gaza fire balloons

August 6, 2019 by  
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Linda Bracha remembers her first day on the job as a volunteer at the Gaza border: “As we were leaving at the end of our shift, we saw an incendiary kite hit the ground and found ourselves driving right into the fire it caused.

Linda Bracha and Karen Katzman Hanan

We felt so helpless—we only had a bottle of Coke and a bottle of water in the car with us. We poured them all over the fire to try and put it out.”

American olim (immigrants) Linda, originally from St. Louis Park, MN, and Karen Katzman Hanan, from Port Washington, NY, have been spotting incendiary kites and balloons in southern Israel for two summers. Both grandmothers—Linda is age 60 and Karen is age 63, they drive down together from their home communities, about an hour north of Gaza, as often as they can, many times bringing friends to volunteer with them.

That day, the two immediately reported the fire that ended their inaugural shift, and the authorities came and extinguished it quickly, preventing a larger fire and the loss of an entire field. Unfortunately, it was not the only one they reported that day and, on average, they call in five or more during each five-hour shift they take.

“The devices themselves are difficult to see in the sky so, instead, spotters watch for the smoke that rises once they hit the ground,” Linda explained.

Since the onslaught of airborne incendiary kites and balloons from Gaza in 2018, last summer alone some 7,500 acres of fields and orchards have been burned. According to Amichai Blugh, Southern Region Volunteer Operations manager for the Israeli NGO HaShomer HaChadash which coordinates the corps of volunteers to which Linda and Karen belong, the summer months are an especially dangerous time for these attacks. With August 2019 still looming, this year’s total number of acres burned is rising fast. “Recently, for example, there were tens of fires every day. Nobody thinks these attacks are about to stop,” Blugh said.

HaShomer HaChadash’s main purpose is to help farmers and ranchers by mobilizing volunteers of all ages and from all parts of Israel to guard their land and cattle against theft and criminal damage, and to assist in harvesting their produce. “But, when there are challenges such as the one along the Gaza border, we try to bring volunteers to help in those places, too,” Blugh said. Currently, the organization puts up three spotting outposts a day in fields around the area, each outpost manned by two people. It is looking for more volunteers to man additional outposts, as well as support enabling the purchase of needed firefighting and other equipment.

Linda, who calls herself “a big believer in volunteering,” says she keeps going back to the region, in part for personal reasons. “I empathize with the residents there because the daughter and son-in-law of a good friend of mine just moved to the area with their two babies and I know what they’re going through. Also because the husband works in the avocado orchards and we often do our spotting in those orchards.”

Her partner Karen added that “The eyes of the authorities cannot be everywhere, and a field can burn in just a few minutes. So, while sitting in the middle of a bucolic clearing with binoculars may seem like a small thing, in reality it’s very important. We feel like we’re doing something to help and that’s a great feeling.”

Blugh very much appreciates the volunteers’ efforts. “It’s inspiring to see that people are willing to give of their time to help those who are going through a difficult period. It’s not only that the volunteers are spotting, but it’s also that they are saying, ‘You are our brothers and sisters, we are with you, and we are here to help’. It’s an important message to the people who live there,” he said.

Report by June Glazer

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