Analysis

Palestinian Kite Launchers Lose Altitude Amid Fear of Another Gaza War

The kite fliers find satisfaction in the very development of a cheap tool that bewilders the strong Israeli army. But more Palestinians ask whether their creativity is worth a deterioration that will cause the death of thousands of Gazans

Palestinians prepare kites loaded with flammable material to be thrown at the Israeli side, near the Israel-Gaza border in the central Gaza Strip, June 4, 2018. Picture taken June 4, 2018
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

An incendiary kite usually costs somewhere between four and 20 shekels ($5.50), depending on its size. The success of these kites in embarrassing and bewildering the strongest army in the region and damaging the verdant kibbutzim, which sit on the land of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948, is a source of pride for many Palestinians both inside and outside Gaza. Once again, Gaza’s young people have proved their creativity and powers of invention, people said admiringly this week when asked about this new phase of the effort to challenge the Israeli occupation.

Admiration for their creativity and success in embarrassing Israel initially obscured the fact that the kite fliers never said whether they had any specific political goal. And if so, what was it beyond “the right of return and lifting the blockade”? – two common slogans that, when said in the same breath, contradict each other, as some of my more critical interlocutors pointed out. Only gradually were the goals formulated, and it’s not clear whether this was done by the kite fliers themselves or the people who analyzed and justified the practice. 

The goals are as follows: Express collective and personal anger; respond to the Israeli snipers who shot, seriously wounded and killed unarmed demonstrators;  cross the border by another means; and create a balance of threats with communities on the Israeli side until the Gaza blockade is lifted. Nobody specifies exactly which blockade – the one that became more stringent two years ago or the one that was eased four years ago? The one that applies to goods, or also the one that applies to people? Israel’s life-threatening delays in granting exit permits to sick people, or its ban on students studying in the West Bank?

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Analyzing the new phenomenon, people in Gaza also point to the young kite fliers themselves – bored in the absence of work, frustrated by their inability to help support their families, up late at night and sleeping late in the morning, penned in a cage, separated from the world. And now, suddenly, they’ve become the center of attention. They have value.

‘Grandchildren’ of a drone expert

Maybe it’s too much to demand that young men, between 17 and 22, who created the incendiary kite, will also craft concrete political goals. The first incendiary kite was launched on April 11 in the Bureij area, less than 2 kilometers (0.6 miles) from the Israeli border, from one of the tent camps set up on March 30 as a starting point for the March of Return. Afterward, the system spread to other March of Return encampments.

Media reports are careful not to identify the inventors by name. At first they called themselves “the grandchildren of Alzoari,” after Mohammed Alzoari, the Tunisian engineer who developed drones for Hamas’ military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, and was killed in late 2016, allegedly by Israel. The choice of Alzoari reflects emotional if not organizational ties to Hamas. “Grandchildren,” with a glimmer of typical Gazan humor, indicates awareness of the technological distance between drones and kites.

Later, the name changed to “the incendiary kite and balloon unit, sons of Alzoari.” The transition to “sons” and “unit” reflects the institutionalization of the practice and its adoption by Hamas.

The kites may be cheap, but releasing a few thousand in a single day – as the unit’s spokesmen promised to do on the Id al-Fitr holiday last month – requires a whole different level of organization. Launching helium balloons is easier, but each balloon costs more than a kite, so they’re used less frequently. Only a disciplined group with a proper funding source can launch in quantities that will get noticed.

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The official adoption of this method mainly proves Hamas’ determination to control what is happening, but this didn't pass without criticism. Other political organizations that were partners in organizing the weekends of the March of Return complained that this  symbolic and popular tool of the struggle (in the Palestinian jargon “popular” is mistakenly identified as “peaceful,” nonviolent) undermined the original intent. They said that the minute the method is adopted and organized from above, it becomes violent. Writers' envy had a role too in the criticism, one may assume: Once again Hamas is getting the credit.

Just as the launchers of Qassam rockets in the past became more professional and technologically advanced, over the past three months the kite launchers have gradually mastered this tool. They’ve learned the right ratio between the distance to the fields on the other side of the fence, the wind speed and length of the kite’s tail. At a press conference, after traces of a kite were found in the Beit Shemesh area near Jerusalem on July 1,  the “kites unit” boasted about a new model that can fly up to 48 kilometers (30 miles).

Like their big brothers in Iz al-Din al-Qassam, they too like to raise expectations. For the young men cut off from the world, the development of a means to advance the struggle and their professionalism are victories in and of themselves, a personal achievement. What’s forgotten is that not only has the blockade not been lifted, it has been tightened.

The kites unit also sought to express its independence when it announced this week that it “does not take orders from anyone” and that the reports on a decision to halt the launching of the kites was just Israeli propaganda. This is a well-known process in armed groups: The means becomes the end, even sacred. 

Hamas and the threat of war

As of the time this article was written Thursday afternoon, word went about a cell of kite launchers who were attacked by Israeli fire – one Palestinian was killed and three were wounded – and in response two mortar shells were fired at Israel from Gaza.

It's a Palestinian tradition to first voice criticism of a certain sanctified struggle's method behind closed doors, among friends, and then to release  some whispers: Even so-and-so from Islamic Jihad has expressed concern that the kites will drag Gaza into a harsh war, and so-and-so from Hamas said something similar.

Then comes the turn of Facebook posts, along the same vein, until signed articles are published, such as one by Sufian Abu Zaida, a veteran Fatah leader and former senior official of the Palestinian Authority. He’s a former prisoner who resigned from the movement's leadership after Mahmoud Abbas expelled from Fatah the supporters and associates of Mohammed Dahlan – the former head of preventative security in Gaza.

When Abu Zaida lived in the West Bank for a spell, he dared to criticize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his authoritarian regime. He returned to Gaza, and not in order to shut up. 

“The ball is now in the Palestinian court, or to be more precise, in the court of the Hamas leadership,” Abu Zaida wrote in an article published this week, noting that he could testify that Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, doesn’t worry about his own safety or that of his family when making decisions. In other words, he’s not acting in order to save his own skin at the expense of others.

“But the question is, is it wise to enter an unlimited war by continuing to launch incendiary kites,” Abu Zaida asks about the “creative weapon invented by Gaza that hasn’t caused the death of a single Israeli, though its continued use will bring about the martyrdom of hundreds or even thousands of Palestinians.” 

It’s clear that the halting of the kites won’t lift the blockade and end the Israeli attacks, he writes. At the same time, the Palestinian campaign for freedom won’t stop with the end of the kites. It has been going on for decades; it didn’t start with the kites and won’t end when they do.

Hamas’ leaders are listening to advice, Abu Zaida writes – and he knows what he’s talking about. He asks Hamas: Do we really want to drag Israel into an aggressive act, do we have an interest in doing so, does this serve our needs and interests, and does it contribute to the Return and the lifting of the blockade and an improved situation for the people? If so, let’s continue to launch kites, even double the number.
 
Abu Zaida’s second question is whether the views of the people, who will have to bear the greatest share of the burden, is important in reaching these decisions. If so, and if Gazans are asked about their opinions – whether to continue to launch kites even at the price of a war – the people will say no, Abu Zaida writes. To remove any doubt, he says: No one in Gaza wants war.