IDF Warns Hamas of Harsh Military Response if Incendiary Kites and Balloons Into Israel Continue

Officers are reluctant to drag Israelis into days of fighting, but understand that southern residents are losing patience

In this Friday, June 1, 2018 file photo, an Israel soldier extinguishes a fire started by a kite with attached burning cloth launched by Palestinians from Gaza, near the Israel Gaza border.
AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File

The Israeli army sent messages to Hamas through an intermediary this week that it will no longer tolerate incendiary kites and balloons being sent across the border, and will conduct a harsh military response against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip if it continues.

On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Unit said an Israeli aircraft had fired a warning missile near a cell that had launched incendiary balloons from the northern Gaza Strip, in an attempt to make clear that it would not continue its present policy of restraint for much longer.

>> Israel Tightening Gaza Blockade – but Ball Is in Hamas' Court | Analysis

It has been reported in the past that the army has a combat plan for Gaza, which includes the entry of large-scale forces at certain stages and the control of large expanses of territory. At this point, the IDF is not interested in embarking on such an operation because it estimates that such a step would be drawn out and the fighting intense.

The prevailing view among senior IDF officers is that even though the incendiary kites and balloons are causing serious damage to the residents of the south – in both economic and psychological terms – the situation does not justify dragging Israelis into days of fighting, certainly not at a time when the army has turned its attention to its northern border.

If the situation continues to escalate, however, military action in Gaza is possible. The IDF believes such an operation would need to be sufficiently aggressive against Hamas, but at the same time not enough to seriously escalate the situation. The army would likely attack some “high-quality” Hamas targets. It is possible the group would respond, as it did after recent Israeli airstrikes, but this should not develop into a major round of fighting, the army says.

Defense officials understand, though, that when Israeli residents in the Gaza border area lose patience and start pointing an accusing finger at politicians, the pressure on the military to act will also increase.

Journalist Ben Caspit reported last week that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman disagrees with the heads of both the IDF and Shin Bet security service, and is demanding harsh and extensive action against Hamas that would restore Israeli deterrence in the region.

Caspit quoted Lieberman as saying he stands alone against the IDF and Shin Bet in pushing for a harsh response: “These are not kites but a change in the military balance, an ongoing erosion of Israeli deterrence and the growing boldness of Hamas.”

Sources in both the security cabinet and defense establishment say they have no knowledge of any such comments by Lieberman. A senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command said recently that the army’s policies have been approved by politicians. Defense officials were also surprised to hear about Lieberman’s criticism, according to Caspit, with defense sources say they know nothing about them.

It is possible the IDF will still be ordered to take action in Gaza, even without the support or agreement of the Shin Bet, because of the pressure on politicians from southern residents, say defense sources.

Events on the northern front on Wednesday, which included the downing of a Syrian drone inside Israeli airspace and an Israeli response attack on three Syrian army positions in the Golan Heights, exemplify the tensions and uncertainty in the north.

Defense sources say it would be a mistake to undertake a military operation now that would force the IDF to shift its point of gravity to include a second front in the south, which is why the IDF is trying to formulate a specific plan for action in Gaza.