Gaza Kite War sparks major escalation of violence

A masked Palestinian prepares a balloon that will be attached to flammable materials to be launched into Israel near the Israeli Gaza border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 17, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Update from AIJAC

June 22, 2018

Update 06/18 #04

Readers may be aware that there was another major rocket attack on Israel from Gaza on Tuesday night, with around 45 rockets and mortars fired, causing damage to some homes and hitting an empty kindergarten, with Israel striking Hamas targets in Gaza in return. 

What they may not be aware of is that this latest escalation appears to be an indirect result of the “kite wars” going on around Gaza – which Ahron Shapiro and AIJAC staff discussed in a blog on June 8 –  with kites and balloons attached to incendiary devices and sometimes explosives being sent into Israel in large numbers with the contrivance of Gaza’s Hamas rulers, causing dozens of fires and millions of dollars worth of damage.

This Update is about the connection between the ongoing kite war and the latest bout of rocket violence.

We lead with Judah Ari Gross of the Times of Israel. He explains why weapons built around kites, birthday balloons and inflated condoms, silly as they may sound, are no joke and, given the escalating use of them and the damage they are causing, are creating serious dilemmas and debates in Israel. He notes that the IDF had started firing warning shots to deter the launching of such weapons, but when that was unsuccessful, launched some airstrikes on Hamas targets, which in turn prompted the launching of rockets and mortars by Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. For this fascinating report in full, CLICK HERE.

Next, Haaretz‘s military affairs analyst Amos Harel writes to suggest that the latest events have changed the “rules of the game” between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza border, greatly increasingly the risk of an escalation into a new major conflict. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are trying to change the “response equation”, he says, promising rocket fire into Israel in response to every Israeli military action, with the rocket and mortars launched in response to Israel’s “Kite war” counter-strikes on Tuesday being an example of this new tactic. Harel further explores the reasons Hamas may be doing this – especially in terms of economic problems in Gaza and Palestinian Authority salary cuts to Gaza workers. For Harel’s full analysis of the escalation risks around Gaza now,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, top Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner has a deeper look at the “kite war” dilemmas Israel has to face. How can Israel respond to an onslaught of balloons and kites without either appearing silly or being heavy-handed, while also recognising that they are causing serious harm, and are a very easy and cheap way for Gazans to harm and harass Israelis on a large scale, he asks. He also notes that technological solutions such as drones are uneconomical against weapons that cost perhaps a dollar to make, and that shooting the perpetrators, as some in Israel have advocated, risks harming children or innocents involved. For Rosner’s exploration of why simple kites and balloons can create nasty strategic challenges for Israeli decision makers, CLICK HERE.

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Article1

Condoms, kites, birthday balloons: ‘Silly’ Gaza weapons could lead to real war

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are relentlessly flying a variety of airborne arson and explosive devices into Israel, causing hundreds of fires, millions of shekels in damage

By JUDAH ARI GROSS

Times of Israel, 20 June 2018,

For over two months, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been flying kites, birthday balloons and inflated latex condoms into Israel, relying on the gentle Mediterranean coastal breeze to push them across the border.

Silly as they may sound, these weapons are no joke.

Most of them carry metal mesh pouches containing a burning piece of coal or oil-soaked rag, which have sparked hundreds of fires in southern Israel, destroying thousands of acres of land and causing millions of shekels in damage.

A smaller number carry small explosive devices, which seem to have not yet caused injury because of repeated warnings by police and local government officials not to approach them.

“They are not toys, they are weapons that are intended to kill and inflict damage,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, a cluster of balloons carrying one such small explosive device landed in a backyard in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, getting stuck on a trampoline, a spokesperson for the local government said.

“Balloons on a trampoline in the backyard — that’s a decorative play area and beckons the most innocent ones, and yet our children have lost their innocence because of this phenomenon,” said Meirav Vidal, the mother whose home it was.

“These days it’s important to explain to kids that balloons are also a ‘suspicious object’ that they have to keep away from, to not touch and to call an adult,” Vidal said.

The kites are almost all handmade. Three criss-crossing scraps of wood, bound in the middle with a piece of wire, form a hexagonal frame, which is covered in a piece of plastic sheeting. The tails are often made out of cut-up homework assignments.

The balloons come in two main varieties: birthday and inflated latex condoms.

Adding to the absurdity, many of the birthday balloons have printed on them endearing or celebratory lines turned ironic under the circumstances.

“I ♥ you,” was written on one balloon to which a small explosive was attached that landed on a highway in southern Israel last week. It shut down traffic until a police sapper detonated it under controlled conditions.

In at least two cases, balloons covered in hearts with the Arabic word habibi, or “my beloved,” touched down in fields in southern Israel — one in an empty lot, the other in the middle of a peanut field. In those cases as well, a police sapper had to be called in.

The use of the latex condoms raises the question of where they are coming from.

Condoms in Gaza have generally been supplied by either local Palestinian organizations or through international programs. (The United Nation’s World Health Organization does not supply or distribute condoms in the Gaza Strip, a spokesperson for the organization said.)


Palestinians prepare to fill a latex condom with helium, to which they will attach flammable materials to be flown toward Israel near the Gaza border east of the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 17, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Often, a single balloon is flown over the border, bearing an incendiary device or small explosive. However, there have also been cases of multiple balloons being tied together in order to carry larger and heavier payloads.

These dead simple and dirt cheap methods have presented a significant challenge to the mighty Israel Defense Forces.


A balloon with ‘habibi,’ or ‘my beloved,’ written on it, with a small explosive device attached to it, which landed in a field in southern Israel on June 19, 2018. (Eshkol Regional Council)

The military has used drones and other high-tech solutions to some positive effect, but every day the kites and balloons keep coming.

The Defense Ministry has also threatened to limit the supply of helium into the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be used to help run magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.

Recently, the army has turned to deterrence — not stopping the airborne devices themselves, but trying to get the Palestinians to stop launching them.

Over the past two weeks, the IDF has started firing warning shots at the kite- and balloon-flyers and at the tents and cars they use.

After this tactic failed to yield results, the army shifted its focus to the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza.

The military does not believe that Hamas is behind all of these kites and balloons, but says the terrorist group supports the practice and certainly is not working to prevent it.

“We see an effort made by Hamas to encourage and enhance the production and launching of these kites,” Conricus said.

“It might have started spontaneously, but as Hamas saw the damage caused on the Israeli side, it has taken this offensive effort under its control and actively promotes it,” he said.

On Monday and Wednesday, the Israeli Air Force conducted a series of predawn airstrikes on Hamas positions in the coastal enclave in an attempt to get the terrorist group to persuade Gazans to abandon the practice.

It was not immediately clear if this new Israeli tactic will succeed.

Terrorist groups in the Strip immediately responded to the early morning airstrikes on Monday by firing three rockets at southern Israel, though the rest of the day indeed saw a decrease in the number of arson devices flown into Israel. However, Palestinians were back at it again the next day.

And Wednesday’s predawn strikes by the IDF met an even more forceful response, with Hamas and other Gaza-based groups launching almost 50 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel.

As of writing, it was too early to tell if Wednesday’s airstrikes would ultimately prove more effective, or if the back-and-forth between the IDF and Hamas would escalate into broader violence.


File: Masked Palestinians prepare balloons loaded with flammable material to be flown toward Israel, at the Israel-Gaza border in al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip on June 14, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

In the meantime, Israeli politicians have begun to publicly debate the merits and legality of the IDF shooting the kite- and balloon-launchers, rather than firing warning shots near them.

Former IDF general Yoav Galant, who is ordinarily more hawkish, spoke out against shooting the kite-flyers, many of whom are young.

“A lack of experience in the use of force can lead to the intoxication of power. It is a very serious mistake to shoot at an eight-year-old child, certainly in a deliberate manner,” Housing Minister Galant, a member of Kulanu and a former IDF Southern Command chief, told the Ynet news site.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) responded to Galant’s remarks on Twitter, saying that lethal force was justified in this case.

“If someone shoots at your family, you shoot at him… if someone sends burning and exploding balloons, you shoot at him. It is so obvious that I find it hard to believe that I need to explain,” Bennett said.

Bennett later posted photos to the social media platform of a group of Palestinians involved in the launching of incendiary balloons, captioning the pictures: “They are not eight-year-old children. They are trying to kill our eight-year-old children.”


The military, meanwhile, kept up its tactic of firing warning shots at the people launching the kites and balloons.

On Wednesday afternoon, Israeli aircraft fired at two groups of Palestinians launching airborne incendiary devices into Israel — aiming to warn, not to hit.

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Article 2

Hamas, Islamic Jihad just rewrote the rules – and the next Gaza war is staring Israel in the face

The night of exchanges of fire on the Gaza border indicates a fundamental change in the security situation there

Amos Harel

Haaretz, Jun. 21, 2018


An Israeli strike in the Gaza Strip, June 20, 2018ABED ABU RYASH/AFP

The night of exchanges of fire on the Gaza border indicates a fundamental change in the security situation there. Israel and Hamas are now in a completely different reality than the one that prevailed in the Gaza Strip for almost four years since the end of Operation Protective Edge.

The main achievement of that operation from Israel’s point of view – relative calm that gradually restored a sense of security to those living near the Gaza border – is eroding. It has been replaced by violent demonstrations, riddled with casualties on the Palestinian side, burning kites that torch Israeli fields and groves, and now rockets and mortars.

This is the second time in less than three weeks that Palestinian organizations, led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have launched a unusually high number of rockets and mortar shells into the Negev. On May 29, there were more than 150; on Tuesday night, 45. The way these things develop is familiar; when the time between flare-ups is reduced and the numbers reach such levels, the road to another Protective Edge-type operation gets shorter.

Yet this is not a decree of fate. The summer of 2018 is not identical to the summer of 2014. In both cases, Israeli intelligence believed that Hamas had no interest in starting a war. But four years ago, the flames were actually fanned by fumes from the West Bank – the kidnapping and murder of the three boys in Gush Etzion. When the bodies of the youths were discovered, a war atmosphere prevailed in the public and political arena, which also intensified the government’s responses to the tension with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. A week later, the war broke out. This time, despite the anger over the burned fields, the intensity of the pressure is not the same.

The effort exerted by Hamas to promote the demonstrations near the fence since the end of March has not yielded much benefit. The casualties drew international condemnation and somewhat greased the wheels of the BDS movement, but did not produce practical concessions by Israel. It was the kites, a simpler method, with which Hamas was able to circumvent the IDF’s blocking maneuvers along the fence.

The army, in an attempt to stop the launch of the incendiary kites and balloons, began firing warning shots near the squad members preparing them. When that did not help, the IDF began attacking Hamas strongholds and warehouses. Now Hamas and Islamic Jihad are trying to change the response equation, as they announced Wednesday. From now on, they said, every Israeli air strike will be met with rocket and mortar fire into the Negev.

Some of Hamas’ considerations relate to internal Palestinian concerns. The opening of the Rafah crossing by the Egyptians during Ramadan somewhat eased the pressure (the Egyptians also allowed more than 800 trucks of supplies into the Gaza Strip). But the Hamas leadership in Gaza is concerned with the dire situation of Gaza’s infrastructure, combined with the economic sanctions imposed against it, including the Palestinian Authority’s cuts to the salaries of its own officials in the Gaza Strip. In the coming month, the staff salaries at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) will also be significantly reduced due to U.S. enmity toward the agency.

This is dealing a huge blow to the income of workers in the Gaza Strip. It seems that at least part of Hamas’ message is thus aimed at the PA, through Israel. Hamas believes that Israel, for its own reasons, is not eager for a military confrontation in the Gaza Strip and that the continued military friction might spur Israel to help it to obtain more money, including from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s propagandists are attacking the army for being soft on Gazan terror, from the kites to the rockets – as if the government isn’t the one determining the policy toward the Strip. At an officers’ graduation ceremony Wednesday, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman were content to make general threats. Expressing public support for the army gives them nothing to build on, of course.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett continues to demand direct hits on the kite launchers, who are “not innocent 8-year-olds,” as he puts it. But the political echelon’s orders remain the same: The north is more important than Gaza, and in Gaza the story is blocking and containment. As long as Netanyahu can avoid it, Israel will not go to war there.

What none of the ministers are talking about out loud is the effort to achieve a political settlement. The Trump administration is dealing with this in addition to looking to present the president’s peace initiative. The pace of violent events in Gaza, however, is overtaking the discussions on rehabilitating Gaza’s infrastructure and may deteriorate into war.

The state comptroller’s report on Protective Edge criticized the government and National Security Council for not formulating an Israeli strategy for the Gaza Strip, for not discussing political alternatives on the eve of the operation, and for not acting to improve the rickety infrastructure in Gaza (which has deteriorated further since then), despite warnings from the coordinator of government activities in the territories.

A senior IDF official who was involved in talks after Protective Edge and has since left the army said he could predict, with high probability, how the indirect negotiations with Hamas would go in Cairo after the next round of fighting. Whatever issues will be discussed then, he said, can and should be discussed now.

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Article 3

The Kite Gunner

BY SHMUEL ROSNER

 Jewish Journal, JUN 21, 2018


How does a country fight kites and balloons without feeling silly?

How does a country stop kites and balloons that pose a danger without descending into heavy-handedness?

These questions are not theoretical on the Gaza border, in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) headquarters, in Israel’s Cabinet room. They are very real. Gazans have found a way to hurt and harass Israel. It is low cost and quite efficient. Sail a kite that carries a small fire. Hope for the wind to move it in the right direction. Hope for the summer weather to serve as a magnifier of heat. Then watch the smoke rise. Watch Israeli firefighters sweat. Watch fields burn. Calculate the price of a kite plus a match versus the price of a field, of agricultural equipment, of livestock. Measure your joy at watching your success versus the agony and anxiety of Israelis who watch their property go up in flames.

Imagine the children of a neighboring country sending such burning kites onto the fields of Texas or the forests of Montana. Imagine the government of that country (not Canada or Mexico — an imaginary neighbor) refusing to do anything about it. In fact, imagine the government encouraging the action. Imagine American farmers asking for a remedy, pleading for help. Imagine the dilemma: Do you kill the perpetrators? Do you kill anyone who holds a kite or a balloon? Do you invest billions to find a technological solution to kite and balloon attacks?

Of course, you can solve this dilemma by giving the usual useless answer: Do something about Gaza, let Gaza have more freedom, stop the occupation, invest in Gaza, talk to Hamas. But let’s assume this doesn’t work. Let’s assume that for some reason, you — the Israeli — believe that your ability to assess the validity of such an armchair solution is better than the ability of others — say, Americans — who live far, far away and have few clues.

What do you do then?

You can look for nonviolent solutions. Torpedo the kites, target the balloons as they fly, monitor the skies. A nonviolent solution is always preferable to a violent solution, right?

Well, let’s think about it. What if a balloon costs $1 and the means by which you target the balloon costs $10. Are you obligated to spend 10 times more to avoid a violent solution? And how about a balloon that costs $1 and a means that costs $1,000 or $10,000 —  how about a means that costs $100,000 each? Do you still use it against the balloon rather than shoot the balloonist on the ground?

And what if a child is flying the kite? And what if shooting the perpetrator might kill others? And what if shooting the perpetrator results in a 90 percent guarantee that the balloon won’t be launched, and the technological nonviolent solution results in only a 60 percent chance of success — that is, there is 40 percent chance that an Israeli field of grain soon will be burning?

On June 17, the Israeli Cabinet discussed Gaza, and other considerations were added to the mix. Some members of the Cabinet believe that the IDF must shoot the perpetrators of kite terrorism. Others believe that the IDF ought to target Hamas leaders until the kites are stopped.

The IDF is reluctant to use such means, not necessarily for moral considerations but rather for operational priorities. Attacking and killing people in Gaza, whether the launchers of kites or the leaders of Hamas, quickly could deteriorate into a southern war. And the IDF doesn’t want a war in the south — not now, when it is more focused on the north and the Syrian front and the need to thwart all Iranian attempts to fortify in the area to Israel’s north.

Consider this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the full Cabinet and the IDF chief of staff gathered to ponder what to do with Ahmed and his little kite. That they still haven’t found a solution — that they still didn’t put a stop to the burning of fields — is not because of incompetence. Sometimes, a kite is simple. A child, some fabric or paper, a tail. Sometimes, a kite is a nasty challenge. Its romance and magnificence disappear amid the smoke.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.