In summers gone by, Gaza's western beach would be filled with colourful kites flown by young Palestinians. Now, that scene has moved east to its land border with Israel, where hundreds of them soar for what young men say is another purpose: their freedom.
Dozens of Palestinian teenagers and men gather at a protest site near the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, where they are spending their summer vacations flying the flimsy kites and balloons tailed with burning rags soaked in gasoline that cross into Israeli territory.
They are using the makeshift flying devices, aided by the wind, in an attempt to burn crop fields in southern Israel and to damage Israeli military posts that support the snipers who have killed more than 120 Palestinians and wounded thousands in weekly rallies.
Protesters are calling for a return to their lands in what is now modern-day Israel and say the marches are aimed at breaking an 11-year siege of its economy after the territory’s rulers, Hamas, took control in 2007.
“It is our only way to send a message to our enemy that these are our lands,” says Abu Mohammed Al Tayyar, the 21-year-old spokesperson of the “Gaza kite unit” who prefers to use the nickname for “pilot” in Arabic.
"We started by flying a kite decorated with the Palestinian flag to send it to our occupied cites, then we developed the idea to attach rags soaked in gasoline with the tails of the kites,” he tells The National.
It is the latest tactic to be employed by Palestinian protesters against Israel’s high-tech military in the recent unrest that young men view as a David versus Goliath scenario. Israel says Hamas has fomented the unrest that has turned so bloody, but Gazans and rights groups accuse Israel of disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks against unarmed protesters.
Al Tayyar says many more will be flown in the coming days. “We will break the siege on Gaza even if we have to send hundreds of thousands of kites over the border.”
The young spokesperson says he and others began using balloons because they are less visible to the Israeli military and fly for longer distances, deeper into Israel, sometimes for four to five kilometres. He denies that they have used helium to dispatch them.
Others who fly the kites and balloons say it is their way of trying to break the blockade on the territory that has left it “unliveable” for the 1.8 million residents who reside here. Ravaged by three wars since 2008, the territory’s unemployment sits at around 44 per cent and electricity remains restricted by Israel, Egypt and the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority to just four hours a day.
“In another country, youth like us are waiting for the summer to travel or to fulfil some of their summer plans,” says 27-year-old Abu Al Mateez, who graduated with a media degree but remains unemployed so spends his free time at the border area.
“Here in Gaza we are fighting with our simple materials to break the siege so we can have plans like theirs one day,” he continues.
The cost of the devices is minimal. The kites are made for around two dollars (Dh 7.35) while the balloons are even cheaper at 50 cents (Dh 1.84).
The incendiary kites and balloons have challenged Israel’s military and irked the country’s political elite. The army has tried to down the kites with drones and cabinet ministers have called for the kite makers to be viewed in the same vein as Hamas fighters who launch rockets into Israeli territory.
One politician, Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, has called for the assassination of those flying the kites. Early Sunday, an Israeli jet struck the vehicle of a suspected kite-flyer and other Israeli aircrafts fired warning shots at Palestinians “who launched arson balloons”.
An Israeli parliamentary committee last week said the fires have destroyed more than 6,000 acres of land in recent weeks, causing some $2 million in damages.
Israel says it plans to deduct from tax funds it collects for the Palestinians to compensate farmers and it has announced a limit to helium entering Gaza, despite Al Tayyar’s denials that they don't use it, after the balloons caused large fires.
But the young Palestinian men who have grown up under the crippling siege on Gaza’s economy remain unfazed by the Israeli threats.
Inside a tent at the protest site near Bureij, 20-year-old Abu Omar builds kites with simple tools, such as paper, glue, string and wood sticks.
“I build around 40 kites a day with the help of my friends, and we tend to fly all of them in the same day,” the teenager says.
Under the rising hot sun, sweat soaks through the back of his jet black shirt. He is flying his kite, which is made from nylon to make it less visible. He stands behind a mound of sand to cover himself from any incoming Israeli sniper fire.
“I can't fly to see our occupied cities, so the kites made it instead of me,” the teenager says. “It makes me feel free.”