Analysis

Hamas’s goal: To convince Israel that tolerating fire kites is preferable to war

Gaza’s Islamist rulers know Israel’s government is deeply wary of entering another major conflict, but each new round of hostility brings such conflict closer

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israelis at a kibbutz near Gaza inspect the scene where a rocket fired from the Strip fell near houses, smashing windows, on June 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis at a kibbutz near Gaza inspect the scene where a rocket fired from the Strip fell near houses, smashing windows, on June 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The face-off between Hamas and Israel surrounding the “fire kites” and incendiary balloons flown from Gaza into Israel is intensifying. After what has become another routine day, Tuesday, of these incendiary weapons sparking fires in southern Israel, Israel shortly after midnight staged airstrikes on Hamas positions west of Rafah. Barely an hour later Hamas began a barrage of responses — firing rockets into residential areas close to Gaza — and the back-and-forth hostilities continued for hours predawn Wednesday.

The two sides are determined to lay down new ground rules. Israel is endeavoring to make it clear that it cannot tolerate the ongoing airborne attacks from Gaza — the kites and balloons carrying flammable materials and explosives and causing immense damage. And thus its reprisal attacks on Hamas facilities.

And Hamas, which on Wednesday morning was hailing its achievement in launching at least 45 rockets at Israel, is seeking to make plain that it will not tolerate attacks on its positions as a response to the kites. Hamas wants to assert that it considers the fire kites to be an entirely legitimate tool and that Israeli airstrikes in response are not acceptable.

What this adds up to is a case of each side trying to constrain the operations of the other, via an escalation. As of this writing, this escalation could be defined as calibrated. The problem is that with each new round of hostility, the potential for far greater conflict grows.

What we’ve seen repeatedly now are attacks, counter-attacks, pauses, and then further and more serious hostilities.

Hamas’s broader goal at the moment is to seek to impress upon Israel that the price of the next war would be so devastating that it is better either to reconcile itself to the fire kites or to permit substantial economic relief for Gaza at the earliest opportunity.

Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh (3rd-L) attends morning prayers during the first day of the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza city on June 15, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Hamas is well aware of how wary Israel is of entering another major conflict, and it hears the voices in Israel urging the government to improve conditions in Gaza. Only last week the security cabinet held a discussion about possible solutions to the situation in the Strip. But it appears that Hamas doesn’t quite understand all the political considerations that led the cabinet to decide not to decide: At the end of the special session, it became clear that the Israeli government was not in a hurry to take dramatic decisions of one kind or another — to escalate military activity or to accelerate economic relief — because of a variety of political considerations.

Even the idea of targeting those who are launching the fire kites is not being implemented for now, because of the concern in the IDF that this could lead to war and because of the legal implications of such a step. Government minister Tzachi Hanegbi said on Tuesday, indeed, that Israel would emphatically not target the young Gazans who launch the kites, that those ministers who demand such action are “populists,” and that the address for a military response is the cynical Hamas leaders who instigate the attacks.

The problem is that the reliance on strikes at Hamas facilities is itself part of a recipe for escalation. Overnight, the dozens of Israeli strikes at Hamas targets caused almost no injuries, with the exception of two Hamas activists who were very lightly hurt. Plainly the Israeli strikes were intended to convey a message and nothing more. And yet, Hamas responded with relatively heavy rocket and mortar fire on the south — here too without injury to Israelis.

Self-evidently, if this continues, sooner or later people will be injured on one or both sides, and the era of calibration will be over.

The kites and balloons themselves are being organized by Hamas. Though hardly a glorious feat of creativity by the Hamas military wing, or a particularly subtle move, it is nonetheless effective. Hamas is not only utilizing condoms with flammable material but also sometimes more sophisticated means — including some kites carrying explosives that explode above the heads of soldiers and civilians, and others carrying fragmentation grenades.

On Sunday, the IDF did strike the car of one of those responsible for these attacks, but even this strike was intended merely to hit the vehicle, not the terrorist. His car was in fact destroyed — a total write-off, to use the insurers’ term. The man himself is still with us.

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