Alongside mass demonstrations near the Gaza-Israel border fence, Palestinian activists have been lighting paper kites on fire and launching them into the air. The kites, swept by the warm wind, cross the border fence from above and set fire to Israeli fields and crops.
Several hours before setting off for Europe on June 4, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on social media that he had instructed his national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to start proceedings against the Palestinian Authority (PA) for damages caused by the fire kites from Gaza. Specifically, Israel would deduct the damages from tax revenues it collects for the PA and use the money to compensate Israeli farmers whose fields have been burned in the recent wave of airborne arson attacks.
Some 5,000 dunams (1,236 acres) of crops have gone up in flames on the Israeli border with Gaza in blazes ignited by these incendiary kites, causing damages estimated at millions of shekels. At a June 4 meeting of the Yisrael Beitenu Knesset faction, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman referred to the wave of arson, saying, “We will settle the score with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the rest of the terrorists operating against us from the Gaza Strip.” Liberman did not elaborate, but given the economic and humanitarian crisis plaguing the Gaza Strip, Israel clearly cannot “settle the score” by imposing punitive sanctions. As proven in a 24-hour flare-up of violence between Gaza and Israel last week, military action is not particularly effective, either.
Liberman reported to his party’s lawmakers that since the mass protests against Israel began along the border fence on March 30, the Palestinians had launched some 600 firebombs into Israeli territory. Israel intercepted about 400 using various technological means, while the rest landed and blackened 9,000 dunams (2,224 acres) of land, including crops and forests. Amazingly, a high-tech superpower such as Israel, with advanced military capabilities that can intercept most of the rockets and missiles fired at its territory from Gaza, is finding it hard to come up with an effective response to a weaponized piece of paper developed by Gaza’s desperate residents.
On June 4, the deputy head of the military’s southern command, Brig. Gen. Yossi Bachar, took senior American officers on a tour of the border and described the challenge posed by the wave of arson. Bachar told the visitors that Israel would not practice restraint for much longer in light of the attacks and noted that the kites could also carry small explosive devices and endanger firefighters.
The kites are launched not only during the mass protests held by Gaza residents along the border, but also on most weekdays in the afternoon hours, when the wind blows to the east, easily carrying the kites into Israel. Israeli lookouts can see the kites clearly in real time, but for now, the troops are not authorized to “neutralize” the Palestinian dispatchers (shoot in their direction). Although the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) view the kite attacks as terrorism in every sense of the word, the attitude toward them is different. Shooting the dispatchers, who are perceived as unarmed and not a danger to Israeli lives, could result in international condemnation. Therefore, for now, the only way to handle this phenomenon is with technological means that are not foolproof.
The same dilemma faces politicians. While the prime minister and defense minister generally instruct the IDF to attack Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza in response to rockets or mortar fire, they have practiced restraint vis-a-vis the kites, which have resulted in damage to property but not to life, so as not to escalate tensions with Gaza. Economic sanctions against Hamas are also out of the question for fear of deepening the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and further exacerbating the security threat on the southern border.
Netanyahu discussed this dilemma with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on June 4. Israel, he said, was examining ways to avoid a complete collapse in Gaza, including “improvements of the border crossings.” At the same time, as Netanyahu revealed, Israel will try to exact the price of the kite damages from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rather than exerting economic pressure on Hamas, Israel would collect the payment from the organization’s harshest Palestinian opponent.
On May 7, the Knesset gave initial approval to proposed legislation sponsored by Liberman authorizing Israel to withhold taxes and duties it collects at its ports for the PA in the amount paid to Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israeli jails and to the families of Palestinians killed in terror attacks against Israel. Under the 1994 Paris Accord with the Palestinians, Israel is committed to handing over the tax revenues every month.
Whereas Liberman’s initiative enjoys broad Knesset support based on the argument that funding the families of terrorists encourages terrorism, Netanyahu’s plan could have the opposite effect to the one he intends. It would probably encourage additional kite terrorism.
Hamas regards Abbas as a sworn enemy who has undermined all efforts at reconciliation and imposed economic sanctions on Gaza that exacerbated the crisis there. There’s no doubting it would like to see him punished. Hamas would be happy to attack Israel, even without claiming responsibility, if only to have Abbas bear the brunt of Israeli punishment. For the organization, continued fire kite attacks would serve two purposes: damaging Israeli property and hurting Abbas economically.
Liberman and Netanyahu make no secret of their aversion for Abbas and their desire to see him step off the stage. Economic hardship in the PA could hasten his retirement. Is that what they are aiming for?
Israel is learning the hard way the repercussions of the siege it imposed on Gaza when Hamas ousted Fatah and took over the Strip in 2007. Although the situation in the West Bank cannot be compared to the misery afflicting Gaza, the PA is also facing major economic challenges. When the wave of anti-Israel terror attacks known as the individual intifada broke out in November 2015, Israeli analysts attributed it to the difficult economic situation in the PA and the despair of unemployed young Palestinians.
Therefore, Netanyahu’s proposal to “fine” the PA will not end the fire kites on the Gaza border, and it risks setting off another conflagration — this time in the West Bank.