At border, kite terror, algebra homework and burning fields

Fire-starting ‘attack kites’ from Gaza are a problem, not a strategic threat

At least 200 acres of wheat, barley fields have been destroyed in blazes sparked by new arson ploy; the military is still figuring out how to deal with it

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Palestinians pose behind kites before trying to fly them over the border fence with Israel, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2018. Palestinians taking part in weekly clashes on the border have adopted a new tactic of attaching firebombs to kites to fly over the border fence into Israel. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Palestinians pose behind kites before trying to fly them over the border fence with Israel, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 4, 2018. Palestinians taking part in weekly clashes on the border have adopted a new tactic of attaching firebombs to kites to fly over the border fence into Israel. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The Israeli military has yet to find a comprehensive solution to what has been dubbed “the kite terror,” a new tactic by Palestinians as part of the recent Gaza protests in which kites laden with incendiary material are launched into Israel, where they spark sometimes massive fires in grasslands and agricultural fields.

As of Thursday, Israeli farmers near the Gaza border have asked the Tax Authority for compensation for the approximately 800 dunams (200 acres) of wheat and barley fields destroyed in fires apparently sparked by these kites.

According to the Tax Authority, these requests are still being assessed, but the damage thus far has been estimated in the hundreds of thousands of shekels. As the weather gets hotter and drier, the potential for more and larger fires only grows.

The military’s difficulty in combatting this exceedingly low-tech tactic comes, in part, because the phenomenon is still a relatively new one and because it has not been deemed a sufficiently significant threat to warrant a large-scale, costly effort to develop a specialized response.

That is not to say that the military is dismissive of the threat, an army official said on Friday, but that the response needs to be “proportional.” Simply, there’s no need to develop a hundred-million-dollar solution — some kind of anti-kite missile defense battery — to address a hundred-thousand-dollar problem.

An Israeli soldier holds a kite flown over the border from Gaza in a tactic recently used by Palestinian protesters to start fires in Israeli on the Israel-Gaza border near the kibbutz of Kfar Aza on April 24, 2018. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

“We are taking this very seriously because it has the potential for damage, to property and — heaven forbid — to people,” the army official said.

“The IDF finds solutions. There were rockets, so there’s an Iron Dome [missile defense system]. The kites are a new issue that the army is now figuring out how to deal with,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with standard IDF protocols.

For now, the military’s primary response to these kites is to spot them as they make their way into Israeli territory and extinguish the fires before they get out of control.

The number of incendiary kite launches have reached as many as 15 per day. Friday was shaping up to see an increase in this arson-by-kite, with Palestinians threatening to launch hundreds of them. Photographs and videos were shared on social media on Thursday night showing the preparation of these toys-made-dangerous.

The heads of security for the Israeli communities outside the Gaza Strip warned residents not to touch any fallen kites, even if they do not appear dangerous as they could be boobytrapped. This was not based off specific instructions from the military, as was reported in some news outlets, but simply a common sense precaution.

“This is obvious, we don’t need the army to tell us that,” says Rafi Bavian, the head of security for the Sdot Hanegev region, which abuts the Gaza Strip.

Thousands of Palestinians gathered along the Gaza border on Friday for the latest demonstrations as part of the “March of Return,” an eight-week-long set of protests that began on March 30 and is due to continue until at least mid-May. Though they were initially planned as non-violent demonstrations, the protests were coopted by the Hamas terror group, which rules Gaza and whose leaders have said their goal is to erase the border and “liberate Palestine.”

A Palestinian man uses a slingshot during weekly protests along the Gaza border near the city of Khan Younis on May 4, 2018. (Said Khatir/AFP)

These weekly, sometimes daily, demonstrations have often turned violent, with Palestinians throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops on the other side of the border, who retaliate with live fire and less-lethal riot dispersal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets.

Ahead of the protests on Friday, the Israel Defense Forces released a statement in Arabic calling for Palestinians to abandon plans to launch these “attack kites” into Israel.

Illustrative: Palestinian protesters fly a kite with a burning rag dangling from its tail, during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. Activists use kites with firebombs and burning rags to set ablaze drying wheat fields on the Israeli side. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

“The arson phenomenon is not hidden from our eyes, and we are taking it very seriously,” the army’s Arabic-language spokesperson tweeted. “Attack kites are not a kids game and we don’t see it that way.”

The construction of these kites is rudimentary. Plastic sheets or newspapers stretched over a hexagonal frame made from a few pieces of scrap wood. Some are left plain, others painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag, one kite from April bore a large swastika. The containers of burning fuel are attached with a metal wire and often contain sugar or charcoal to ensure they burn slowly, maximizing the potential for fires to catch.

Palestinians hold a kite adorned with a swastika that is carrying a bomb near the border with Israel east of Gaza City, on April 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Media reports on Thursday indicated that the military may begin instructing soldiers along the border to shoot at kite-flyers, but as of Friday no such directive has been issued to troops, according to the army official.

“There’s been no change in orders,” she said.

Israel’s Hadashot and Channel 10 news also said the army was considering retaliating for kite launches with airstrikes against Hamas infrastructure, as it does each time a rocket is launched from Gaza toward Israel.

The army official downplayed the reports, saying the military was considering a number of responses, but that it was also keeping the risk posed by these kites in proportion. They are certainly a cause for concern for local farmers and residents, but they are not a strategic threat in the way underground attack tunnels and rockets are.

The IDF maintains that the “March of Return” protests are, at their core, a Hamas operation. However, it does not appear that these kites are being crafted and flown by hardened Hamas terror cells, but by unaffiliated teenagers.

A kite, laden with incendiary material, touches down in southern Israel after it was launched from the Gaza Strip as part of Palestinian protests on May 2, 2018. (Screen capture: Rafi Bavian)

The scraps of paper that made the tail of one kite that landed in southern Israel on Wednesday, for instance, appeared to be cut up from someone’s algebra homework, according to Bavian, who found it. That kite landed in an active, irrigated agricultural field and thus was unable to spread, unlike those that land in dry brush.

“It might not be cells of terrorists, but I can show you pictures and videos that these same ‘kids’ with their algebra homework are also throwing burning tires and rocks,” the army official said.

So far, the largest of these fires occurred on Wednesday. The blaze, near Kibbutz Be’eri, consumed dozens of acres of grasslands and agricultural fields over the course of approximately six hours before firefighting teams were able to get it under control.

Smoke and flames rise from grassland Kibbutz Be’eri in southern Israel after Palestinians flew a kite laden with a Molotov cocktail over the border on May 2, 2018. (Screen capture/Rafi Bavian)

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