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In this June 2018 photo, an Israeli tractor works to extinguish a fire started by a kite with an incendiary device launched from Gaza in a wheat field near the Israel/Gaza border. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Gaza’s fire kites and balloon bombs ignite tensions

Many Canadians and Americans are enjoying the fireworks in the sky this week. But Israelis are instead worrying about other kinds of aerial fireworks.

Since April, Palestinian protesters have been flying fire-carrying kites and balloons across the Gaza-Israel border to set fields and forests ablaze. They’ve also launched Gaza’s first significant rocket attacks since 2014.

These events are reminders that Israel and Gaza are only one incident away from war. If full-blown conflict were to erupt, recent research suggests Israel’s defences would minimize its casualties. However, Israel could not completely stop the attacks or their financial drain.

Kites versus quadcopters

The weaponized kites resemble children’s toys floating in the sky. But they carry burning charcoal or oil-soaked rags across the Israel-Gaza border to ignite fires wherever they land.

These unplayful toys are increasingly sophisticated. Some now include time fuses that delay ignition until they cross the border. A few carry explosives instead of fire. Helium-filled balloons and condoms are replacing some kites because they fly farther into Israel.

By mid-June, protesters had launched more than 600 kites and balloons, igniting 412 crop and forest fires. No injuries have been reported. But more than 3,200 hectares (32 square kilometres) of farmland and forests have burned. Agricultural damage is estimated at around US$2 million and firefighting expenses at US$550,000.

The Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) initial response followed the toyland theme. Drone-hobbyist soldiers started ramming the kites with radio-controlled quadcopters.

They can intercept kites within 40 seconds of detection and are downing two thirds of them. But many still get through.

Rockets and airstrikes

In late May, the Palestinians abruptly enhanced their attacks by firing 188 rockets and mortar shells into Israel. That barrage came as a shock, as rocket firing had been rare since 2014. Only 75 flew into Israel from 2015-2017.

The IDF response has also grown stronger. In June, its military drones began firing warning shots near the people making kites. When that failed to deter them, it launched airstrikes on Hamas military facilities in Gaza.

On June 19, 2018 we saw an ominous new escalation sequence. Kites and balloons ignited 20 fires in Israel that day. The IDF retaliated that evening by bombing three targets in Gaza. Militants there then launched 45 rockets and mortar shells, six of which landed in Israeli towns. The IDF finally bombed another 20 targets.

Simple weapons, costly impacts

Both rockets and kites damage property. During Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza in 2012, the direct damage per rocket fired at Israel averaged around US$9,800. It was about US$8,400 during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

By comparison, kites each inflict only about US$4,200 in direct losses. But they cost very little to make.

Kite fires mostly worry farmers, foresters and firefighters near Gaza. But rocket attacks hurt tourism and business activity across Israel. That leads to much larger indirect costs. The country’s economy lost about US$30 million per day during Pillar of Defense and US$24 million daily during Protective Edge.

Also, the kites have not provoked (so far) an expensive Israeli military operation. Pillar of Defense’s airstrikes and rocket interceptions cost the country US$54 million daily. Protective Edge added ground assaults and cost US$59 million daily.

Put another way, each rocket and mortar shell Gaza fired during Pillar of Defense resulted in about US$490,000 of damage, lost business and military expenses in Israel. That soared to US$750,000 each during Protective Edge. Those are big numbers for such small weapons.

Declining casualties

By contrast, Israel’s casualties per rocket were small and declining. In 2012 one Israeli civilian died on average for every 271 rockets fired. By 2014 there was one death per 1,484 rockets. The average number of rockets needed to injure one Israeli similarly jumped from 5.5 to 35.

The rockets themselves did not become less lethal. Rather, Israel’s defences improved. Iron Dome batteries intercepted more rockets, while sirens and shelters protected more civilians. Otherwise, Israeli rocket injuries and deaths during the 2014 conflict could have been 2,200 instead of 85.

Read more: Israeli rocket experience shows bomb shelters matter as much as interceptors

Israel spent heavily to achieve that. It has the second highest per capita military spending in the world. (U.S. military aid helps: US$3.8 billion this year.) It expended billions of dollars developing, deploying and reloading its Iron Dome rocket interceptors. (U.S. funding covered US$1.3 billion.) It spent another half billion dollars upgrading civil defences.

In effect, the country’s defence investments replace human losses with financial ones. The falling casualties and rising expenses make the financial side of aerial attacks relatively more important. Much like the kites, rockets now make Israel bleed mostly cash instead of blood.

Protective Edge, for example, cost the country some US$3.5 billion. But the conflict involved just five rocket and mortar deaths over 42 days. (That’s still five too many. But traffic accidents in 2014 killed six times as many Israelis over similar periods.)

Smouldering frustrations

Overall, Israel’s high-tech defences protect its people but not its finances. They reduce the impact of Gaza’s low-tech aerial assaults but can’t completely stop them.

Ironically, Israel’s defensive success hinders its diplomacy. Its low civilian casualties make it difficult to get international support when its F-16s bomb Gaza. Similar controversy may arise if it starts shooting Palestinian kite-flyers.

Gaza faces its own problems. Its kites and balloons inflict visible damage and inflame tensions. But they risk dangerous escalation. Its rockets could inflict enough casualties to provoke massive Israeli retaliation and expenditures. But they can’t truly threaten Israel’s livelihood or existence.

All this means more frustration for the already frustration-laden Israel-Gaza standoff.

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