The Burning Issue — Israel’s Fire Kite Dilemma

For multiple months, the Israeli political elites have been unable to find a tenable solution for the fire kite phenomenon from Gaza. Through the use of firebombs tied to kites, balloons, and condoms, the terrorists have found a practical low-cost weapon that allows them to cause massive damage to Israel while staying out of consideration for a powerful Israeli military response.

Much of the media has either shunned the story or has treated it as something minor or even comical. After all, the use of balloons and condoms as weapons in the 21st century seems silly. How much damage can a balloon do against one of the best equipped armies in the world? The suggestion of condoms as weapons may even elicit a smile.

The misleadingly innocent nature of the weapons allows Palestinian Arabs to mask the intent and the damage caused, and to claim victimhood in case of a conventional military response strike by Israel. Even in the absence of Israeli action, the seemingly bizarre weapon of choice can be juxtaposed against Israel’s array of high-tech weaponry and framed to suggest desperation, lack of “real means of self-defense,” and even to gain sympathy by claiming child-like innocence (balloons and all) especially by engaging teenagers in the task.

This seemingly innocuous threat from the Hamas-controlled enclave has wreaked havoc in the Israeli south. In reality, the threat is only deemed minor because the media has avoided showing the extent of the actual damage, because Israel has not responded forcefully, and because, fortunately, to this day the balloon firebombs have not exacted a direct price in human lives.

In fact, the damage has been extensive. Based on available evidence from the recent months, it is apparent that even these most basic of items can be used to cause great harm or to facilitate the use of other weapons. To date, the Gazans have managed to burn down thousands of acres of agricultural land and nature reserves and have caused tremendous harm to the environment including deaths of the resident wildlife. The recovery of fixing the damage and bringing back plants and fauna will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars – far longer and infinitely more resources than the act of destruction.

In the zero-sum game in which a significant portion of the Palestinian society appears to be mired, anything that inflicts damage on Israel is considered acceptable. Thus, the Gazans have embraced environmental terrorism without regard for their own well-being (as neighbors) and without reverence for the land to which they claim they want to return.

As the Gazan terrorists appear to have found an operational sweet spot, the question is whether Israel is willing to confront this threat and raise the cost of participation in ecological terrorism for the offenders. The cost for this action will be high enough when the Palestinian Arabs stop using this tactic as an immediate consequence of an Israeli response and not due to an independent transition to another means to inflict greater harm on Israel. To complete the thought, we know that the cost that Israel is presently enforcing is insufficient because the Gazans do not feel compelled to abandon the practice.

Various ideas have been entertained to contain the attacks. Unfortunately, the practicality has been mixed at best. Relatively early on, an opinion was floated out to use Israel’s missile defense systems to control the attacks. The obvious problem with this approach is the imbalance of costs between the weapon and the countermeasure. The resource expenditure would prove astronomical and not sustainable for Israel considering the low cost of the weapon for the terrorists.

More recently, Israel has turned to drones and still continues to seek out high-tech solutions to low tech problems. While a cost-effective defensive solution may eventually be found, it will likely address the symptom and not the sickness. The general issue is that arriving at high-tech solutions takes time, which allows the terrorists to effectively cause damage until the countermeasure is found and then implemented.

In the given case, Israel may also try to limit the supply of balloons and condoms in the Gaza Strip; however, this does not appear to be a highly effective measure, as contraband will likely manage to get enough items into Gaza. Furthermore, in isolation, this approach, much like the defensive use of drones, does not force the arsonists to stop the practice, but merely to consider alternative means of delivering the firebombs. In order to dissuade the attacks, stronger punitive measures need to be taken either against the arsonists themselves or against those in power who have the leverage to stop the attacks.

The dangers of not addressing the threat for Israel are significant. Firstly, there is the direct effect on the nation which presents a danger to the citizens and causes tens of millions of dollars in damages. Second, it creates a loophole suggesting that as long as the terrorist organizations or civilians who choose to do their bidding keep the damage to Israel below a certain red line threshold there will be no adequate response. The problem here should be apparent since it creates a low-cost opportunity to cause damage. And while it could be argued that any one instance may cause limited harm, the reality is that the cumulative effect of such attacks, especially if they are relatively free of cost for the actor and not properly mitigated, could be extremely high.

The Israeli establishment bears the responsibility for not being more proactive in addressing the firebomb attacks. The lack of an adequate and timely response from the Israeli elites to the fire kites has a hidden risk that must be considered by the policymakers. Millions of dollars are donated annually as charitable contributions to the Jewish National Fund. Donors generally view their contributions as investments and like to see the positive impact of their charity. The problem arises if Israeli leadership is unable to safeguard the investment by making it extremely easy for the malicious actors to destroy that which has been gained with great effort. As thousands of acres of trees are destroyed and new funds are continually invested in recovery efforts that go for naught and in projects that are promptly burned to the ground, the sponsors may scale back on their contributions.

A nation must have the ability and the will to defend the integrity of its entire territory. Israel cannot sit quietly and then suddenly sound an alarm when the range of the attacks increases to approach Tel Aviv. The enemy must know that the attack on communities just beyond the border will be met with the same decisive action as would an attack deep inside the country.

The issue of burning kites is not one that is easily resolved, as there are numerous factors to consider including political blowback to a forceful response. However, it should be clear to the Israeli establishment that sitting back and allowing terrorists to launch firebombs and terrorize citizens is not an acceptable policy for any nation regardless of political concerns and considerations.

About the Author
Michael Yadov is a Director at the American Forum for Israel. Mr. Yadov is a graduate and current teaching staff member at Fuel For Truth. Michael is an active contributor at Russian American Jewish Experience (RAJE) and has served on the Executive Board of Pace University Hillel.
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