Analysis

Israel and Hamas Are on the Verge of the First Kite War

Hamas is signaling to Israel it will respond with rockets if the kites' flyers are targeted

Palestinian demonstrators fly a flaming kite toward the Israeli side during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border, southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

UPDATE: Major escalation: 45 Gaza rockets at Israel overnight Tuesday, IDF strikes 25 Hamas targets

The fires raging along Israel's border with Gaza as a result of kites and helium balloons with payloads of gasoline released by Palestinians from the Strip, has compelled the Israeli military to gradually intensify its response.

On Sunday, the Israel Air Force bombed Hamas military targets in the Strip as the kite-bombs continued to fly. But the army still urges the cabinet not to cross the line: not to try to kill the organizers, lest it trigger a general escalation on the border. The launch of three rockets from Gaza towards the Negev last night, in response to the Israeli strikes, shows this is also Hamas's threat against Israel: If you attack us because of the kites, we'll go back to rockets.

Israeli firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire caused by incendiaries tied to kites flown by Palestinian protesters from across the Gaza border. Kissufim, Israel, June 5, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

>> Read more: Living in a War Zone: Why Are So Many Israelis Settling Near Gaza?

It seems that in its long struggle against Israel, Hamas keeps finding simpler, but no less effective, means to apply pressure. The organization's gain from the protests that began on March 30 along the border fence was limited. More than 120 Gazans died but Israel did not retreat from its positions, and the IDF managed to thwart attempts to infiltrate the border.  Meanwhile, the memorial period that could serve as an excuse to summon the masses has passed; the summer heat has arrived unusually early; and the Gazans' attention has turned at least partly to other matters, at first Ramadan (which is now over) and then the World Cup.

The tactical use of kites and helium balloons has proved pretty effective for Hamas. True, not many actually spark fires, but they're very cheap and easy to use. The heat and the wind fan the flames, and the psychological damage the fires cause along the border is worse than any actual damage done. The depressing sights of blackened crops places public pressure on the government to do something.

Palestinian protesters prepare kites loaded with flammable material to be flown toward Israel, al-Bureij, central Gaza Strip, June 14, 2018.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

But unexpected obstacles ensued. Unlike other violent acts along the border, the kites are launched from deep inside the Strip, a long way away from the fence, beyond the reach of Israeli snipers.

Some ministers suggested targeted killings of ringleaders. The army feels that this measure, which would involve aerial strikes, would be disproportionate. The army says one can't kill an entire group of people by bombing from the air just because someone involved in the kite flying may be among the crowd. By the way, according to intelligence reports, the campaign itself is led by Hamas: it is encouraging people to let loose these flaming kites, and provides the money and other means to those involved, many of them youngsters.

The IDF has taken some steps as a temporary solution, and is developing a series of measures. It has used civilian drones as interceptors, and they somewhat work against kites, less so against the helium balloons. Meanwhile they're working on devising other technologies. On the belligerent front, the Air Force has fired warning shots at groups preparing kites, has bombed storage depots where stocks of kites are kept, and bombed cars used by the units involved. On Sunday night, for the first time in this context, the Hamas targets included military and naval sites and weapons production facilities.

The rockets fired at the Negev after the bombing raids on Sunday night, even if done by small factions Israel calls "rogue," looks like a clear signal. Hamas is trying to dictate the rules of the game. The organization wants the routine of flaming kites to go on, and Israel would be taking the risk of sparking an escalation in rocket attacks if it steps up its responses to the kites.

On the most recent day of battle, May 29, almost 150 rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza towards the border region: finally Egypt intervened and achieved a ceasefire. Hamas does not appear to have learned any lessons, despite the Israeli victory rhetoric.

But there are other considerations in the background. The political echelon's explicit directive to the IDF is that the North matters more than Gaza. Accordingly, we cannot allow the Strip – through activity apparently encouraged by Iran – to divert attention from the main Israeli campaign, which is to remove Iranian forces and Shi'ite militias from Syria. Regarding the Strip, in any case it would be advisable to wait for the anti-tunneling barrier to be completed, which is expected sometime this year. This is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the army in closed forums and this is what Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot tried to explain to the cabinet yesterday.

Some ministers, aware of Netanyahu's approach, have challenged the IDF's logic, but without directly challenging the prime minister. Meanwhile the limited military steps taken against the kite-flying rings aren't achieving the desired results. Hamas, using simple means, is managing to exact a higher price from Israel than the demonstrations did.

Meanwhile, the U.S. administration has launched a new move to raise money from the Gulf nations to improve the state of Gazan infrastructure. But until that happens, the tensions between Israel and Hamas could seriously escalate. What Israel wants at this point is quite clear: it wants the calm back so it can focus its attention on the north.

As usual the question is what Hamas really wants and whether the leadership is desperate enough even to risk another war, the first to be triggered by kites.