Israelis use gardening tools to fight rocket-caused forest fires

lucy williamson,Middle East correspondent

The BBC's Dean Sweetland stands in front of a makeshift firefighting team at Kibbutz Malkiya in northern

Dean Sweetland is one of a dozen residents fighting recent wildfires around Kibbutz Malkiya.

Three rusty tankers stand at the edge of Kibbutz Malkiya, on Israel’s border with Lebanon; They are little bigger than a family car and look like something out of an old cartoon.

Nearby is a collection of industrial leaf blowers.

“This is all we have,” explains resident Dean Sweetland. “We only have these, and the leaf blowers, to return fire to the dead areas.”

Dean, a Londoner who moved to the kibbutz eight years ago, is one of a dozen residents left to deal with recent wildfires in the area, sparked by Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon.

“We are alone,” he says. “The flames can reach six meters high. “Sometimes you just can’t get close to him.”

He points to the leaf blowers standing in the sun.

“And we’re fighting it with gardening tools.”

Reuters Flames seen on the side of a road, amid ongoing cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, near Israel's border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, June 4, 2024.Reuters

Israeli officials say the fires, sparked by Hezbollah rockets, have burned 3,500 acres.

In recent days, images of the fires have made headlines in Israel.

The fires, sparked when Hezbollah rockets hit dry brush during soaring summer temperatures, have burned 3,500 acres, according to forest managers.

Monday was “a day of battle,” said Israel Fire and Rescue Commissioner Eyal Caspi, with 94 fires burning in these northern hills.

Most are now out or under control, but rockets fly over homes here several times a day and each one has the potential to start a new fire.

And there are places where firefighters currently don’t go.

“There is a war here and in a war zone the operations are different,” Caspi told Israeli radio station Kan News.

“In certain areas, where there is no immediate danger to human life… where the army knows that firefighters can be injured, they instruct us not to enter. And I support it.”

Smoke rises from forest fires near Israel-Lebanon border

The fires are fueling demands that Israel’s government take action to end the escalating conflict with Hezbollah.

From the back terrace of his shipping container home a few hundred meters from the Lebanese border, Dean Sweetland points out the columns of gray smoke rising from the nearby hills, to the sound of bombs and fighter jets overhead. far.

Most of the other residents of Kibbutz Malkiya were evacuated in the days after Hamas’ attacks on Israel on October 7, when its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon began firing on communities here. Both armed groups are labeled terrorist organizations by Israel, the United States and others.

But Dean, who used to serve in the British Army, stayed. He is part of a group of border community residents rushing to put out fires that fire crews can’t access.

The Israeli army, he claims, is not a solution.

“Especially when we are in Hezbollah’s line of sight, they will see the soldiers and send a rocket,” he says. “We hear the drones when we put out the fires.”

Reuters The wreckage of the plane is found in the garden of a house hit by rocket attacks from Lebanon, amid ongoing cross-border hostilities between Hezbollah and Israeli forces, in Kiryat Shmona, northern Israel, June 4, 2024.Reuters

The city of Kiryat Shmona was hit on Tuesday by rocket fire from Lebanon.

In the early days of the war, Dean says, tanks were parked around the kibbutz and drew a lot of Hezbollah fire.

Now they are gone and, between bombings, the kibbutz is at peace. But Dean and his neighbors feel the void. Families evacuated eight months ago are still living in temporary accommodation further south.

The fires here are a vivid reminder that the Israeli government’s promise to secure these northern areas and return residents to their homes has yet to be fulfilled.

“We feel like we’re the forgotten people,” Dean says. “They don’t care about the north.”

The attitude among many in the country, he says, is to “let it burn.”

“I think we have to eliminate Hezbollah for 10 kilometers, maybe more,” says Yariv Rozenberg, deputy commander of Kibbutz Malkiya’s civil defense team.

“You can’t kill them all and they won’t leave here. But we need more army here and we have to get back to our lives, get our families back.”

As the months go by, pressure is mounting on the Israeli government to resolve this conflict and bring people home.

Israel’s far-right security minister this week called on Israel to burn “all Hezbollah strongholds: destruction, war!”

Others have been more measured. War with Hezbollah would be a much more difficult and dangerous conflict than the one Israel is fighting in Gaza.

Hezbollah deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem told Al Jazeera television station that the group was not seeking to expand the conflict but that any Israeli expansion of the war would be met “with devastation.”

AFP An Israeli firefighter puts out flames in a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon landed on the outskirts of Kiryat Shmona, June 4, 2024. AFP

Israel’s prime minister threatened “very intense measures” against Hezbollah during a visit to Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday.

Before a war cabinet meeting to discuss the situation on Tuesday night, Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the country was “approaching the point where a decision will have to be made.” decision”.

The armed forces, he said, were “prepared and ready to go on an offensive.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visiting troops and firefighters in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday, said the government was prepared for “very strong action in the north.”

“One way or another we will restore security in the north,” he said.

Many believe that a ceasefire in Gaza would help cool the situation further north.

“Gaza is the key,” Dean says. “It needs to be addressed, one way or another. Then Hezbollah will stop, because he is doing this in support of Hamas.”

The conflict in the north is closely linked to the war in Gaza.

For the past eight months, focusing on Gaza, Israel’s leader has tried to keep this conflict contained.

Now he faces a glaring reminder of this other front: caught between the war that has not ended in the south and the war that he does not necessarily want to start.

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