incendiary balloons, a weapon to test the nerves of Naftali Bennett?

The strength of the May 21 ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas was put to the test this week, after incendiary balloons were launched from Gaza into Israeli territory that resulted in retaliatory airstrikes. . France 24 is looking at these devices which almost caused a new escalation in the region.

The new rise in tensions observed in recent days in the region has raised the specter of a break in the ceasefire. Fear sparked by the launching of incendiary balloons into southern Hebrew state from the Gaza Strip on June 16-17, in response to a controversial march by nationalist and far-right activists in occupied East Jerusalem .

These balloon throws caused about 20 fires, according to the Israeli fire service. The Jewish state responded with strikes on positions of the Islamist movement controlling the Palestinian enclave. The army thus claimed to have targeted a Hamas military site and a rocket launch site, located in Gaza City and Khan Younes respectively.

After these Israeli strikes, militants from the al-Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, “fired machine guns” at Israeli villages surrounding the Gaza Strip and drones patrolling the sky, an official told AFP of this movement.

The tension seems to have subsided since. But for some observers, this episode is a test intended to gauge the determination of the new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, and his government. It also shows that the ceasefire only hangs on a thread. A thread hanging from a child’s balloon inflated with helium and carrying flaming wicks or rags, sometimes grenades or homemade explosive devices.

Simple to manufacture and inexpensive

Launched from Gaza and carried into Israeli territory by the winds of the Mediterranean, these IED balloons appeared in the landscape in 2018 amid a series of protests and riots along the border of the Palestinian coastal strip, dubbed the Steps back.

At the time, thousands of Gazans demonstrated every week to demand the lifting of the blockade that Israel has imposed on their territory since the Hamas coup in 2007, and the return of refugees driven out or who fled their lands at the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The rallies almost systematically gave rise to violence and reprisals, with Israeli army soldiers opening fire on those attempting to cross the border.

It was then that the incendiary balloons, simple to manufacture and very inexpensive, were launched by members of the radical Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad, according to the Israeli services. A security challenge of a new kind for the Hebrew state.

File photo from Friday, June 1, 2018, showing an Israeli tractor attempting to put out a fire caused by an incendiary kite launched from Gaza. © Tsafrir Abayov, AP (archives)

Local media claim that bouquets of balloons or kites carrying incendiary devices or improvised explosives have so far not caused any loss of life. However, they have been the source of hundreds of fires and millions of shekels in property damage since 2018, according to Israeli officials. In particular, several thousand hectares of land and forest have been burnt in farming communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip in southern Israel.

“If someone sends incendiary balloons from Gaza, we must shoot to kill … Tactically, we must shoot at those who send incendiary balloons from Gaza,” Naftali Bennett said in October 2018, when he was minister. education. “We did not deal with the problem when it was minor. Now they send us thousands of kites”, he lamented, believing that this type of attack should be considered in the same way as fire from rockets.

Retaliation and technological response

Still, the Israeli government has tried several methods to prevent the throwing of balloons, including strikes directly targeting groups behind the devices, without putting an end to the practice.

In August 2020, in response to fires caused by these devices, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu announced the closure of the commercial crossing point from Kerem Shalom to Gaza, and the freezing of all products except fuel, humanitarian products and food.

“In the south, Hamas allows the continuous launching of incendiary balloons and explosives carrying explosives at Israel,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at the time. “We are not ready to accept this and as a result we have closed the Kerem Shalom crossing. They would do well to stop disturbing the security and the calm in Israel. Otherwise we will have to react, and forcefully.”

In June 2019, after the launch of several incendiary balloons, the Hebrew state had stopped deliveries of fuel to the only power station in the Gaza Strip in order to put pressure on Hamas.

While the Israeli military and defense industries were mobilized to find technological answers to the phenomenon, it was ultimately three engineers from the private sector who, together with researchers at Ben-Gurion University, developed a laser system for the phenomenon. ‘interception judged to be 90% effective.

Called “Lahav Or” (blade of light in Hebrew), the laser has been able, since 2020, to reach targets located up to two kilometers away, which allows it to shoot down balloons and kites in the sky. before they reach Israeli territory.

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