NAHAL OZ — Using drones, a group of conscripted soldiers and hobbyists pressed into service have managed to bring down over 500 fire kites and balloons launched by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory over the past 10 weeks, a senior officer said Thursday.
The Israeli military anticipated that many more so-called “terror kites” and “terror balloons” would be flown into Israel from Gaza on Friday as part of large-scale “March of Return” protests organized and supported by the Hamas terror group, which rules the coastal enclave.
The Israel Defense Forces has access to several varieties of small unmanned aerial vehicles, along with a host of detection and tracking technologies, that it uses to intercept these incoming airborne arson devices, said Col. Nadav Livne, head of the IDF Ground Forces’ research and development branch.
Standing on a hill outside Kibbutz Nahal Oz, overlooking the Gaza border, Livne told a scrum of reporters that the military believes its drone effort was a success. He denied a claim made by the Kan public broadcaster on Saturday night that the initiative had been deemed a failure due to a comparatively low success rate.
“That did not reflect the army’s stance,” he said.
Since March 30, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of helium balloons and kites bearing flammable materials into Israeli territory, starting over 200 fires, according to authorities.
The flying objects are fitted with a long string to which a Molotov cocktail, pouch of burning fuel or, in a few rare cases, an improvised explosive device is attached.
Nearly 18,000 dunams (4,500 acres) of agricultural fields, forests and grasslands have been burned, causing over NIS 5 million ($1.4 million) worth of damage, officials said.
“It’s not a game, it’s a war,” Livne said.
However, with few exceptions, the military has largely refrained from shooting the people sending these kites and balloons into Israel, despite calls by several politicians for the IDF to begin doing so.
Livne refused to comment on the army’s rules of engagement. Another senior IDF officer on Thursday said that the decision comes from an understanding that while the fires caused by the kites and balloons have caused significant damage they do not represent the type of immediate danger that warrants lethal force.
“It’s a different kind of threat,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The military has developed a number of techniques to locate and bring down these kites and balloons, some of them based on civilian products and others that are classified, Livne said.
“We’re using drone technology, optical technology and combining them with our defense systems to deal with this challenge,” he said.
According to the colonel, two methods that were deemed successful were also straightforward: Ramming small, hardy drones with razor blades attached to them into the kites or balloons or using a larger drone outfitted with a claw to catch the balloon or kite in midair and bring it to the ground.
The drones are all “robust” and can be used “again and again and again,” the colonel said.
In both methods, the drone operators wait until the incoming flying object enters Israeli territory and then bring it down, preferably while it is as close to the border as possible.
Livne explained that the area along the border is “clean,” with very little vegetation or flammable material, making it a good spot for these fire kites and balloons to land.
A pilot of one of the small drones, a major, showed off its capabilities, sending the six-inch by six-inch quadcopter high up into the air above a patch of ground outside Kibbutz Nahal Oz that had already been burnt black by a “fire kite.”
The operator, who could not be named for security reasons, used a large controller and virtual reality goggles to steer the drone. This was not his regular position in the IDF. The major ordinarily serves in the Israeli Navy, but was a long-time drone hobbyist and so was brought in to help.
The major said he’d personally brought down approximately 150 kites and balloons over the past 10 weeks.
Many of the current operators of the small “razor drones” came from similar backgrounds as the major, long-time hobbyists pressed into service. Most of them were no longer serving in the military and were brought in as reservists in the army’s Combat Engineering Corps, Livne said.
The operators are reportedly able to down an incendiary device within 40 seconds of detecting it.
Livne said some operators had a 90 percent success rate.
The colonel would not comment on the number of drones and pilots currently in service.
In order to keep the current reservists or bring on new ones, the army will have to find a budget for the unplanned paid hours.
More than half of the burned land has been in nature reserves, according to initial assessments.
The fires, specifically those in the nature reserves, have also wreaked havoc on local wildlife, according to ecologists.
According to the Nature and Parks Authority, approximately 10,000 dunams in parks and reserves in southern Israel were burned, although a spokesperson for the authority said investigators were still working to determine exactly how much of that was caused by incendiary kites and balloons, and how much was from other sources.
These airborne arson devices have been flown over the Gaza border as part of the weekly Palestinian protests, dubbed the “March of Return,” that began March 30.
In two months of mass protests at the Gaza border, over 120 Palestinians were believed killed and thousands wounded by Israeli military fire. The majority of the fatalities were members of terror groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have acknowledged. Israel said its troops were defending its border and accused Hamas of trying to carry out attacks under the cover of the protests.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that in order to cover the cost of damage to affected fields, the government would consider withholding tax revenue funds from the Palestinian Authority.
The decision raised eyebrows among Israeli analysts, who pointed out that the PA does not control the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the Authority’s primary rival, the Hamas terror group, has ruled the enclave since ousting the PA in a violent coup in 2007. Making the PA financially responsible for the kites could incentivize Hamas to continue encouraging the tactic, analysts have warned.