A Burning Dilemma: Another Round or a Change of Reality?

Over the last few months, the phenomenon of incendiary kites launched from the Gaza Strip and setting Israeli fields ablaze has gained momentum. Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Meir Elran and Dr. Carmit Padan discuss the options available to Israel and the implications of Hamas' "new weapon"

Gazans flying incendiary kites toward Israel (Photo: AP)

One may regard the terror kite phenomenon, which has been gaining momentum along the border with the Gaza Strip over the last few months, in different ways and from various angles. This article focuses on the strategic angle. It asserts that the kite phenomenon is only a symptom of a serious chronic illness.

The essence and severity of the challenge the Gaza Strip poses to Israel is just one element – by no means the most serious one – of the overall Palestinian problem. As long as this systemic problem remains unresolved – without even a partial or temporary solution in sight – it will continue to present a significant national security challenge to the State of Israel. The unique and troublesome characteristic of the Gazan threat is based on the lethal combination between the dire economic and social situation in the Strip and the fact that it is totally controlled by Hamas – an alienated Islamist ideological entity that maintains a radical anti-Israeli orientation (relative to Fatah). This unfortunate combination corresponds with the general political picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which explains why is it that for many years now, the Gaza Strip has represented the more activist and radical side of the on-going historic Palestinian conflict with Israel.

The practical implication of this state of affairs is disturbing: until there is progress in all or at least some of three basic elements, lasting tranquility along the Gaza Strip border should not be expected. These elements include the continuous Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hamas' rule in the Gaza Strip, and the deteriorating economic-humanitarian situation there. Hence Gaza will keep producing new threat packages of varying forms so as to force Israel to change its policy according to Hamas' interests.

This was again the sequence recently, when Hamas augmented its protracted rocket and mortar attacks by a considerable effort of building an offensive infrastructure in the form of penetrating tunnels. When Israel blocked this effort, the Gazans came up with the "March of Return" demonstrations at the border fence, which in turn produced the current phenomenon of the incendiary weaponized kites. Therefore, even when Israel comes up with a techno-tactical solution for a new threat from Gaza, it can provide, at best, a pinpoint remedy for a specific issue, but it cannot change the essence of the challenge. If Israel employs more force and the casualty count among the Gazans rises, their hatred and frustration become even more profound, the hold of Hamas grows stronger, and the motivation to invent new "patents" for exerting further pressure on Israel intensifies. These increase the danger of deteriorating into a large-scale military confrontation – a fourth round of fighting – in which Israel is apparently not interested, not just because of the high price tag of a full-scale offensive, but mainly because such an operation cannot change the basic situation, and so on, ad infinitum.

How can Israel Cope with the New Challenge?

In fact, Hamas is the one who manages the new kites' threat (as of April 13), just as it is the producer of the volatile popular demonstrations at the fence. As far as Hamas is concerned, even though the "March of Return" and especially their high casualty count (more than 120 fatalities) granted the Palestinians some measure of a temporary sympathy on the international arena, they have realized that it leads them nowhere. More importantly – their renewed challenge failed – again - to generate domestic pressure within Israel towards easing its squeeze on Gaza.

On the other hand, the launching of weaponized kites has been found to cost no toll of blood on the perpetrators (the "Kite & Balloon Unit"). It boosts the prestige of the "Popular Resistance" inside the Strip and not less importantly – it causes Israeli public opinion to be widely agitated by the relatively large scale sights of burning fields, although the extent of real economic damage they caused was not substantial, on a national scale.

This fresh tactic reflects the terroristic nature of the wide-spread launching of the incendiary kites, intended to disrupt the normal routine and welfare of civilians on the other side, corresponding to the ultimate objective of terrorism to demoralize the civilian sector, as the weakest link in the national system. This effort is designed to hasten the Israeli public to exert pressure on the government to revise its policy in accordance with the interests of Hamas. Once again, Hamas has failed to gain any success in its endeavor. The opposite is the case.

Nevertheless, Hamas assigns a great deal of importance to the incendiary kite and balloon new offensive. Contrary to its policy over the last four years, since the end of Operation 'Protective Edge' in the summer of 2014, the organization has recently renewed its rocket launches and mortar fire attacks in response to the offensive prevention efforts of the IDF. Since last May, Hamas has fired more than two hundred rockets and mortar shells, in separate consecutive incidents. This reflects a significant departure from Hamas' 'hold fire' policy, which also included strict enforcement of Hamas' restrictions on the 'splinter organizations' in Gaza. As a reminder, in 2015, the Palestinians fired twenty-four rockets and mortar shells from the Strip into Israel; in 2016 the number of launches was only fifteen and in 2017 – twenty-nine. Thus far, these high trajectory attacks have inflicted no real damage.

This highlights the more profound aspect of the incendiary kite phenomenon. Apparently, along with the effort to develop preventive measures that would neutralize the kites and helium explosive balloons, Israel has thus far maintained a relatively measured response against the kite operators. This approach combines both offensive and defensive tactics (the IDF has foiled about two-thirds of the kite attacks, mostly by drones). This restrained policy stems from Israel's disinterest in risking deterioration into a full-scale confrontation, or in sustaining the blame for such a deterioration. Furthermore, Israel is presently more concerned about the developments in the Syrian arena. However, the primary question that arises here is to what extent IDF deterrence – maintained since the summer of 2014 – is still valid, when there are signs that Hamas might show less restraint down the road, perhaps willing to take higher risks.

Looking at the incendiary kites' phenomenon from a local Israeli perspective, it is interesting to observe the duality in which the civilians in the region have been living for close to two decades. This duality is reflected by the inhabitants' referring to their life in terms of "Hell" and "Paradise," to describe the sharp and swift transitions effected by changing security situations (and, as a result, between different physical and mental modes), taking place periodically.

Conclusion & Recommendations

The incendiary kites and helium balloon phenomenon, in and by itself, is nothing more than a tactical issue. Its primary importance, under the present circumstances, is in the actual risk of triggering a process, which might develop into an escalating deterioration towards yet another large-scale confrontation between Israel and Hamas. Essentially, Israel has three primary alternatives in this context:

Perceiving a large scale Confrontation as a strategic Advantage: If so understood by the Israeli government, the next confrontation may have two different strategic objectives, the essence of which should shape the planning of the military moves. One – to recharge deterrence which appears to be losing its standing. In this case, the use of force would take the form of a massive use of firepower, mainly through airstrikes, without purposefully occupying territory. Two – to fundamentally change the power status in Gaza, with Hamas' rule as the primary objective for change (notwithstanding the question who replaces Hamas and whether the alternative is better for Israel). In this case, a large-scale ground forces maneuver will be required in addition to the deployment of firepower, to the point of dissecting the Strip or occupying all or most of its territory.

Avoiding a large scale Confrontation: This more probable alternative presumes that Israel is not interested in such a confrontation at this time, when its national security attention is focused on the developments in Syria. Another confrontation in the Gaza Strip could be costly for Israel, especially in the context of disrupting the normal routine of the civilian front, but also because it could take a long time (the last round in the Gaza Strip lasted 51 days). Such a confrontation could deteriorate and even lead to the recapture of the entire Gaza Strip, with all of the disadvantages it entails. This calls for a policy of restraint and a carefully measured use of force. The intensity of the military response in this scenario would depend on the scale of the Palestinian provocation, and on diplomatic considerations, such as the fate and progress of the recent US initiative for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, in cooperation with pragmatic Arab countries.

Changing the Equation in the Gaza Strip: This alternative involves an attempt by Israel to change the complex equation that characterizes the unreasonable situation in Gaza. Some early indications suggest that the Americans are considering a comprehensive economic project for Gaza, possible with the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula. Maj. Gen. Yoav ("Poli") Mordechai (who until recently served as the Coordinator of Government Operations in the Territories), in cooperation with Michael Milstein and Yotam Amitai, published a comprehensive analysis of this alternative in the Strategic Assessment of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in October 2017. The main message of that article is as follows: "(Israel) […] is required to lead a process of turning the (Gaza) Strip into a developing environment with advanced industrial zones, tourist attractions, modern transportation systems and infrastructure that meet the needs of the local inhabitants … Such a process will constitute a 'Marshall Plan' of sorts… to include international initiatives and investments that would make it possible to bring about a real change and effective rehabilitation in the Strip… economically and awareness-wise… without allowing Hamas to object or prevent it… Such a process should be combined with proper security and economic arrangements…" (p.10).

The alternative we recommend is the third one. Various parties have already raised such ideas in the past but they never came to fruition. We can conclude this article with a general submission, according to which the incendiary kite terror could turn out to be just another passing episode in the never-ending clashes between Israel and Hamas. It could also lead to deterioration and to another confrontation, which would mean destruction for the Gazans and a costly dead-end for Israel.

The last alternative, on the other hand, offers both parties some leeway for changing the paradigm and distancing themselves from the same pointless conflict pattern. Additional rounds of confrontation may be required, but it may be possible, under these regrettable circumstances, to hope that wisdom would prevail and produce a historic dialog toward a revolutionary move of constructive change whose essence might guarantee security stability for Israel and the rehabilitation of Gaza for the Palestinians.

***

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Meir Elran and Dr. Carmit Padan are Research Fellows at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS)

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