“Hello, R., We’re calling from the ... morning show. You’re a farmer near the Gaza border, right?
“We’d like you to come on the show tomorrow.”
“It’s very important that we hear from farmers on the ground how terrible the kite terror is.”
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“It’s not terror.”
“No. It’s a fire. We put it out and continue to plow.”
“OK, so you can tell us how you feel about it and how terrible it is.”
“I don’t think it’s terrible. When people are killed, it’s terrible. When people are wounded, it’s not nice. This is a fire, most of the time in the brush. Like I told you, we put it out and carry on working.”
“So you won’t come?”
“Hey, maybe you know some farmers who think it’s terrible?”
(True story from this week).
This week the Israeli media continued to follow, with growing anxiety, the damage caused by the incendiary kites and balloons being launched by Palestinians at the fields and groves of communities near the border with the Gaza Strip. A balloon that landed in the yard of a kindergarten in Moshav Tekuma attracted particular attention, with live updates. The teacher was interviewed repeatedly and feted as a contemporary Trumpeldor. Rather than focusing on the scope of the damage and how well the security forces are coping with the challenge, media outlets are treating the latest Palestinian military invention as a major national disaster. This tone has not gone unmissed by the other side. Hamas has been surprised by how worked up Israel has been getting over the fire kites. No wonder they’re trying to squeeze everything they can out of this tactic before possibly halting the assault.
Of the current threats facing Israel’s Southern Command and Gaza Division, the kite and balloon arson only ranks third. The forces deployed around the Gaza Strip are on the lookout for attempts to infiltrate Israeli border communities by tunnel, parachute or a breach in the security fence. Next on the list is addressing the firing of rockets and mortar shells. No one is dismissing the fires. The army and the other security forces are putting tremendous energy into extinguishing the fires and developing more effective solutions to the problem. But in conversations with commanders, they are careful to put the new threat in perspective. The sight of the fires is certainly depressing and they affect local residents’ sense of security, but the threat to human life is minimal.
“All the whining about the kites drives me crazy,” admits one senior officer. “It’s also the complete opposite of what you hear from most of the people who live here. This week a new neighborhood was dedicated in Kibbutz Kissufim. People say openly: We like it here, we want to live here, despite the fires.”
At the start of the week, with criticism intensifying over the failure of the government and the army to stop the kites, the political pressure cooker seemed about to burst. In another attempt to put off a war he believes can still be avoided, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot played a card that goes against much of what he has counseled for the past few years. The army proposed that the government increase the economic pressure on the Gaza Strip and reduce the flow of goods through the Kerem Shalom terminal. Gasoline and heating oil deliveries were suspended until Sunday and a new, time-consuming procedure for obtaining permission to bring in food and medicine was introduced.
In countless meetings with political leaders, Eisenkot stressed the need to separate the terrorists from the general Palestinian population. But this is what happens in a pressure cooker: When your other choice is to intensify the military offensive in a way that could well lead to bringing combat troops deep into the Strip, you opt to first try the less lethal ammunition — and hope for the best.
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Closing Kerem Shalom bought the Israel Defense Forces a little more time, and for now the security cabinet seems to rethinking things. The army, firefighters and police are continuing their efforts to put out the fires. Observation and firefighting teams spread out along the border fence have shortened the response time. Every week, scientists, inventors and industry representatives gather at one of the observation posts near the border to test out new ideas for intercepting the kites and balloons. One idea being pursued is an Waze-type app that would enable users to mark the location of any new fire they spot on a map on their cellphone. The army is keen to find more interception solutions to be prepared in the event of a real war. Terrorist groups are increasingly using drones that fly at low altitude above the ground forces. This is a developing threat that requires an answer.
Since the Israel Air Force began firing warning shots at the cells launching the incendiary devices, the Palestinians have switched to operating from within the densely populated areas. At this point, the helium balloons are doing more damage than the kites. Many are intercepted, with gunfire or by drones, but they are being launched in such volume (and are simple enough to send) that they are enough to ignite a new round of fires daily. The summer winds are problematic too. In the afternoon, the winds blow from the sea and push the balloons deep into Israel. This part of the country is the only one where a summer breeze is cause for regret and not blessed relief.
While the atmosphere on the Gaza border was heating up, the 162nd Armored Division conducted the second and final week of a planned division-wide exercise in the Negev. The forward command cell of the division commander, Brig. Gen. Oded Basiuk, took up a position atop a steep hill south of Kibbutz Nevatim. From the hilltop, it was hard to miss the point of the exercise. Be’er Sheva and the adjacent Bedouin villages stood in for Gaza and its environs. The army is drilling a gradual takeover of built-up areas. The division practiced defeating units of the armed wing of Hamas in its sector. Such an operation could exact an escalating cost from the organization. In Operation Protective Edge, four years ago, the IDF focused on a 1.5-kilometer-wide strip west of the border, with the aim of destroying Hamas’ attack tunnels.
At the beginning of the week, when the Palestinians mistakenly interpreted the Israeli response to the fires as paralyzing fear, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit sent the commanders of the brigades that took part in the exercise to be interviewed by the media. The television stations filmed columns of jeeps moving through the Negev and the message was quickly received in Gaza. To the cameras, the brigade commanders talked about their confidence in their units’ capabilities. Between the lines, in other conversations, there was some doubt: The commanders are well aware of the politicians’ hesitance to call for a major ground maneuver. Some predict that when the moment of truth comes, in Gaza or Lebanon, the government will opt to rely solely on the air force and will leave the tanks and armored carriers at the border.
Brig. Gen. Guy Hasson, the commander of the Armored Corps, described to journalists this week the changes the corps is making and presented the new version of the Merkava, the MK IV Barak, tank, which is scheduled to go into service in two and a half years. Like his predecessors, Hasson is loyal to the ground maneuver. Asked about soldiers’ ombudsman Maj. Gen (res.) Yitzhak Brik’s comments about the low level of fitness of the army’s ground units, he replied just as other officers who were asked the same thing in recent weeks have replied: They respect Brik, but they don’t know what he is basing his conclusions on. The army is also minimizing last year’s report by the military comptroller that found the tank brigades to have a very poor level of fitness.
Focus on Gaza
With the demonstrations by the border, the fires and the rockets, Hamas has gotten the international community to renew the discussion, to some extent, about the crisis in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it drew renewed Israeli attention to Gaza, which Israeli public opinion has been increasingly inclined to ignore most of the time. The move by Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh is aimed at breaking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. The blockade is the main cause of the infrastructure and economic problems in Gaza, which is added to Hamas’ strategic isolation.
Recently, in wake of the Israeli threats, Hamas appears to be considering halting the use of the arson kites. Israel will seek a complete stop to them before it will agree to ease the economic pressure on Gaza. But the IDF’s basic recommendation to the political decision-makers remains unchanged. The arson attacks are a symptom of a strategic problem: the increasingly dire humanitarian crisis in the Strip. The challenge is addressing it without allowing Hamas to exploit any easing of strictures to build up its military power. (The recent Egyptian decision, with Israel’s consent, to open the Rafah crossing for trucks also entails the risk that Hamas will exploit this to resume arms smuggling.)
After three military campaigns in the last decade, Gaza is in a very fragile state. One more war and it could completely collapse, and the world will blame Israel. In mid-May, on the day when 60 people were killed by IDF sniper fire during the mass protests that tried to breach the border fence, the Gaza hospital system was barely able to function. There was a shortage of blood, equipment, medicines and medical staff. After another round of fighting, the IDF will lose soldiers, the civilian situation in Gaza will be even worse and it will still be no problem to launch arson kites.
Also this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally got around to appointing for himself a new military secretary. Col. (soon-to-be Brig. Gen.) Avi Blot, commander of the Commando Brigade, won the job. This winter he will replace the current secretary, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, who will be belatedly released to the job that is already waiting for him — commander of the Gaza Division. With a little help from the boss, it won’t happen after a war in Gaza. Blot, like Toledano, is a talented and intelligent officer from the paratroops. As usual, the media made a big fuss over the fact that both of them, like the other candidate whom Netanyahu didn’t really want for the job, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, are religiously observant. One can only wish for Blot to go in peace and return in peace, no simple thing considering where he is being sent.
The IDF maps depicting the battles on the Syrian side of the border in the Golan Heights are divided into three colors: A large and expanding red section represents the areas under the Assad regime’s control. Green represents the shrinking areas held by the rebels, near the border. And in the south, next to the border triangle, there is a black section where the fighters from the local Islamic State group are entrenched. It’s interesting to note the direction of the arrows indicating the movement of the advancing Assad forces. Four small divisions of the Syrian Army, including Shi’ite fighters and Iranian advisors, are attacking from two directions only: north and south. The army is not attacking from east to west because it doesn’t want the fire to “spill” onto the Israeli side of the border and give the IDF a reason to respond.
This offensive is being led by a Russian general who has already been awarded a medal for his actions in combat in Syria. The Russian strategy is familiar: Surround the rebels in the villages, wear them down and then either sign a conciliation agreement or continue grinding them down until they surrender. The Russian air force is careful not to get into an entanglement with the Israeli planes. The IDF is updated by the Russians about the “polygons,” the areas in which airstrikes take place. Some of the civilians fleeing the areas of the battles are migrating westward toward the Israeli border. By midweek there were already close to 20,000 people staying in tent camps by the border.
Israel sees the Assad regime’s return to the Golan Heights as inevitable. For now it is focusing on its security interests, chiefly a renewed Syrian acceptance of the 1974 Separation of Forces agreement that prohibits the army from entering the buffer zone and restricts the number its forces in the limitation areas near the border. The bigger challenge is yet to come — how to ensure that Russia keeps its commitment to keep the Shi’ite militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guards away from the border. Toward the end of this year, this will become the main question. And while the prime minister is projecting optimism, military personnel are increasingly skeptical. Meanwhile, the Arab press reported this week on another Israeli airstrike against an Iranian military compound near the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. The battle continues.