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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Could Israel's hi-tech response to kite runners spark Gaza's next war?

Israel is escalating action against flaming flying devices, and Hamas could respond

This picture taken from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli army drone intercepting a Palestinian kite on June 8, 2018. Jack Guez / AFP
This picture taken from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli army drone intercepting a Palestinian kite on June 8, 2018. Jack Guez / AFP

Israel is escalating its response to kites and helium balloons launched from the Gaza Strip, with calls growing to eradicate the flaming low-tech devices seen in Israel as a new and perilous form of Hamas terrorism.

But the group has come to view the flimsy kites, attached with gas-soaked rags and sometimes explosives, as a resonant resistance tool against Israel's strangling 11-year siege of the coastal enclave, and it seems unlikely to easily abandon their use any time soon.

How far Israel escalates and how Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007, responds could determine whether a new war erupts for what would be the fourth time in a decade.

Each side has its reasons for avoiding conflict. Israel wants to focus its attention on Iran's presence in Syria and Hamas is anxious to avoid another devastating Israeli onslaught that could lead to its loss of power.

But tensions in the conflict have been high in recent months. Israeli snipers have killed 132 Palestinian protesters and wounded thousands in weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border. Israel says Hamas uses the protests as cover for attacks and that Palestinians pose a threat to border communities. Last week, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn Israel for using "excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate" force at the border.

Concerns rose Monday as the Israeli air force struck Hamas targets in Gaza for the first time with the explicit purpose of deterring kite arson, which is bedeviling the Middle East's most sophisticated military with its F-35s and Iron Dome missile defence system. The kites have caused no casualties, but have sparked daily fires and greater apprehension near the Gaza border.

Gazans thought not to be affiliated with Hamas, but allowed by the group to act, responded to Monday's airstrikes by firing three rockets at Israel. The exchange illustrated the continued combustibility of a border that on May 29 erupted into the worst exchange of rockets, mortars and airstrikes since the seven-week 2014 war.

The risk of an escalation to war over the kites is very real, says Galia Golan, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “Assuming Israel goes on doing what it's doing, at what point does Hamas feel it must respond with rockets and you get a full scale war? I can't say.”

The kites can be assembled with an incendiary device at a cost of up to $2, according to youths who prepare them. They say their tactic is a response to Israeli aggression and a bid to break the siege.

In recent days, Israeli planes have fired warning shots near groups working on launching kites. But that strategy is insufficient, according to hard-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett. "We need to stop shooting next to the target and start shooting at the target," he said on Monday.

The government is also under pressure from leaders in border communities to use more force. They say the Palestinians have recently upped the ante by deploying kites equipped with explosives, not just flaming ones.

Ofer Liberman, agricultural director for Kibbutz Nir-Am, which lost part of its citrus groves in a blaze Saturday, has been one of those to voice his anger. “The fact that this is continuing shows that not enough is being done. It has to stop. This is what we tell the decision makers.”

Kites and balloons have caused more than 430 fires since the end of March when the rallies began, according to Yigal Zohar, commander of the Ashkelon regional fire station. Fifteen thousand dunams of Israeli land has been destroyed, he said. Israeli authorities estimate the cost of the damage at $2 million dollars.

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But Israel's military has warned the residents that if it responds with even greater force, a new round of conflict would be in the works. “The alternative to kite terror is war,” an army spokesperson told residents, according to the Times of Israel. “If we respond too strongly it could lead to escalation."

Observers say that the kite launches will continue despite Israel’s action. Hamas has no interest in stopping them because they focus attention on Israel, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.

"Hamas knows that at the end of the day if the [public's] feeling is not directed against Israel, sooner or later it will be against Hamas itself.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly said in closed meetings that it is better to put off an all-out confrontation until after Israel completes the building of an underground wall to thwart Hamas cross-border tunnels.

Gazans are similarly cautious about the struggle over the kites erupting into a full-scale war. "There could be another escalation like we saw three weeks ago, but it could be brought under control by third parties,” such as the Egyptians, says Mr Abusada. “It seems war is not the solution."

But Israel’s hi-tech response – with drones and fighter jets – to the low-tech threat belies how much it has unsettled the country’s security and political elite, dictating the forceful response to the primitive flying devices.

"This needs to be seen as terrorism in every way. The destruction it sows is very substantial,” says Shaul Shay, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.

If the Israeli government’s cautious message is ignored then “the steps will have to be much sharper,” he says, including “hitting those who send the boys to launch the kites”.

That response could make the path to a new Gaza war very real.