For over two months, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been flying kites, birthday balloons and inflated latex condoms into Israel, relying on the gentle Mediterranean coastal breeze to push them across the border.
Silly as they may sound, these weapons are no joke.
Most of them carry metal mesh pouches containing a burning piece of coal or oil-soaked rag, which have sparked hundreds of fires in southern Israel, destroying thousands of acres of land and causing millions of shekels in damage.
A smaller number carry small explosive devices, which seem to have not yet caused injury because of repeated warnings by police and local government officials not to approach them.
“They are not toys, they are weapons that are intended to kill and inflict damage,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, a cluster of balloons carrying one such small explosive device landed in a backyard in the Eshkol region of southern Israel, getting stuck on a trampoline, a spokesperson for the local government said.
“Balloons on a trampoline in the backyard — that’s a decorative play area and beckons the most innocent ones, and yet our children have lost their innocence because of this phenomenon,” said Meirav Vidal, the mother whose home it was.
“These days it’s important to explain to kids that balloons are also a ‘suspicious object’ that they have to keep away from, to not touch and to call an adult,” Vidal said.
The kites are almost all handmade. Three criss-crossing scraps of wood, bound in the middle with a piece of wire, form a hexagonal frame, which is covered in a piece of plastic sheeting. The tails are often made out of cut-up homework assignments.
The balloons come in two main varieties: birthday and inflated latex condoms.
Adding to the absurdity, many of the birthday balloons have printed on them endearing or celebratory lines turned ironic under the circumstances.
“I ♥ you,” was written on one balloon to which a small explosive was attached that landed on a highway in southern Israel last week. It shut down traffic until a police sapper detonated it under controlled conditions.
In at least two cases, balloons covered in hearts with the Arabic word habibi, or “my beloved,” touched down in fields in southern Israel — one in an empty lot, the other in the middle of a peanut field. In those cases as well, a police sapper had to be called in.
The use of the latex condoms raises the question of where they are coming from.
Condoms in Gaza have generally been supplied by either local Palestinian organizations or through international programs. (The United Nation’s World Health Organization does not supply or distribute condoms in the Gaza Strip, a spokesperson for the organization said.)
Often, a single balloon is flown over the border, bearing an incendiary device or small explosive. However, there have also been cases of multiple balloons being tied together in order to carry larger and heavier payloads.
These dead simple and dirt cheap methods have presented a significant challenge to the mighty Israel Defense Forces.
The military has used drones and other high-tech solutions to some positive effect, but every day the kites and balloons keep coming.
The Defense Ministry has also threatened to limit the supply of helium into the Gaza Strip, which is supposed to be used to help run magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.
Recently, the army has turned to deterrence — not stopping the airborne devices themselves, but trying to get the Palestinians to stop launching them.
Over the past two weeks, the IDF has started firing warning shots at the kite- and balloon-flyers and at the tents and cars they use.
After this tactic failed to yield results, the army shifted its focus to the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza.
The military does not believe that Hamas is behind all of these kites and balloons, but says the terrorist group supports the practice and certainly is not working to prevent it.
“We see an effort made by Hamas to encourage and enhance the production and launching of these kites,” Conricus said.
“It might have started spontaneously, but as Hamas saw the damage caused on the Israeli side, it has taken this offensive effort under its control and actively promotes it,” he said.
On Monday and Wednesday, the Israeli Air Force conducted a series of predawn airstrikes on Hamas positions in the coastal enclave in an attempt to get the terrorist group to persuade Gazans to abandon the practice.
It was not immediately clear if this new Israeli tactic will succeed.
Terrorist groups in the Strip immediately responded to the early morning airstrikes on Monday by firing three rockets at southern Israel, though the rest of the day indeed saw a decrease in the number of arson devices flown into Israel. However, Palestinians were back at it again the next day.
And Wednesday’s predawn strikes by the IDF met an even more forceful response, with Hamas and other Gaza-based groups launching almost 50 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel.
As of writing, it was too early to tell if Wednesday’s airstrikes would ultimately prove more effective, or if the back-and-forth between the IDF and Hamas would escalate into broader violence.
In the meantime, Israeli politicians have begun to publicly debate the merits and legality of the IDF shooting the kite- and balloon-launchers, rather than firing warning shots near them.
Former IDF general Yoav Galant, who is ordinarily more hawkish, spoke out against shooting the kite-flyers, many of whom are young.
“A lack of experience in the use of force can lead to the intoxication of power. It is a very serious mistake to shoot at an eight-year-old child, certainly in a deliberate manner,” Housing Minister Galant, a member of Kulanu and a former IDF Southern Command chief, told the Ynet news site.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) responded to Galant’s remarks on Twitter, saying that lethal force was justified in this case.
“If someone shoots at your family, you shoot at him… if someone sends burning and exploding balloons, you shoot at him. It is so obvious that I find it hard to believe that I need to explain,” Bennett said.
Bennett later posted photos to the social media platform of a group of Palestinians involved in the launching of incendiary balloons, captioning the pictures: “They are not eight-year-old children. They are trying to kill our eight-year-old children.”
הם לא ילדים בני 8.
הם מחבלים שמנסים לרצוח את ילדינו בני ה-8.
הבא להורגך, השכם להורגו. pic.twitter.com/DkAQTxJqcc
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) June 20, 2018
The military, meanwhile, kept up its tactic of firing warning shots at the people launching the kites and balloons.
On Wednesday afternoon, Israeli aircraft fired at two groups of Palestinians launching airborne incendiary devices into Israel — aiming to warn, not to hit.