The ongoing military tension in Gaza Strip under Israeli blockade has evolved into something different in the past two years.
First organised in May 30, 2018 by Palestinian groups, “The Great March of Return” has been attended by people Gaza en masse ever since. These protests gifted a new “weapon” that is still in use today to the conflict in the area: Incendiary balloons.
Even though, the root of these types of tools of war can be traced back to the 17th century according to military history, activities of Gaza based groups further enhanced the identity of these weapons.
Gaza Strip is a military conflict zone where political moves have a huge impact on. In that regard, the way Palestinian armed groups utilize these weapons is being used as a pretext for the ongoing military activity.
Evolution process of the incendiary balloons
Incendiary balloons that first emerged during March-April 2018 period were in a more primitive state compared to their only two year old successors. The prominent way of utilizing this new type of weapon was to tie incendiary substance to a simple kite so it could carry its cargo to the settlements close to Gaza Strip with the help of wind.
Efficiency of this weapon with the main objective of starting a fire has been proven as time passed which naturally drove their innovators to further sophisticate. First, the size of kites and their load changed then Gazan groups came up with a whole different system: Flying balloons.
Colored balloons, large plastic bags and even some cases condoms were used in the making of these weapons. Incendiary payload attached to the balloons would also be subjected to a similar “innovation” process. Early versions that were mostly fabric or paper materials covered with incendiary liquid were replaced with more effective devices such as various caliber mortar rounds, RPG ammunitions, molotov cocktails, hand made explosives and even tear gas capsules and other incendiary material as the time progressed.
It seems like Gazan groups have abandoned the use of kite for the most part and instead started to utilize balloons filled with volatile gas and explosives. The main reason behind this shift is the increased range and power of destruction that comes with the new system. As a result of latest innovations, Gazan groups possess weapons that can reach towns like Beersheba (Bir al-Sabi) which are 40 kilometers away from Gaza Strip.
What do incendiary balloons do?
What makes the incendiary balloons sent from Gaza such an effective tool of war is the size of their impacts. Groups that operate within Gaza target various locations such as forests and densely vegitated areas, cultivated lands, settlements and military establishments with these balloons. It is safe to say that the most vulnerable among those targets are forests and cultivated lands. Especially combined with the effect of summer heat that usually goes above 40 celcius degrees incendiary balloons cause tens of fires every day.
Destruction of hundreds of acres land spells both an economic and political defeat for Israel. People that live around Gaza Strip and south of the country have been blaming the government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu for not taking necessary action since the emerge of incendiary balloons. Faced with accusations of corruption during Israel’s latest election process Netanyahu caught extra heat because of incendiary balloons. As of today, Israel is yet to come up with an effective solution for Gazan balloons.
Before this, the main tool of Gazan groups for inflicting military, political and economic damage upon Israel were rocket attacks. Israel with the help of newly established air defence systems and retaliatory operations has managed to control these attacks to an extent. After this period an unnamed, de facto rule of engagement was established between Gaza and Israel.
Incendiary balloons seemingly not violating the aforementioned rule of engagement have been used for the past two years by Gazan groups because Israel could not come up with a solution and does not want to retaliate heavily.
What does Israel do to prevent the attacks?
Israel has tried a wide range of solutions in order to put a stop to the attacks to no avail so far. None of those solutions managed to remedy the situation for the most part.
The first attempt by Israeli security forces was to use quadcopter drones against kites and balloons but improvised explosive devices used by Gazan groups made it too risky for drones to intervene which led Israelis to scratch the idea.
Another precaution is laser based weapons. Introduced in late 2019, these weapons were deployed along Gaza Strip to shoot down the balloons however they are yet to prove successful.
The most effective counter so far seems to be the armed drone attacks targeting the people sending the balloons over. Israel managed to prevent a series of attacks by Gazan groups during autumn and summer period employing such measures. However, the use of large scale force namely armed drones pushed the already strained de-facto military engagement rule between Gazan groups and Israel to an unsustainable point. Israel’s attacks triggered rocket attacks from the Gaza side which resulted with Israel commencing even more concentrated attacks and when things got out of control Gaza Strip spiraled into a state of violence.
As of now, Israel still has no eligible solution other than employing direct military force to prevent incendiary balloons which opened up the possibility of using military options to obtain political gain. Both Israelis and Gazan groups think they can force the other into making political and economical concessions via military leverage. This new balance of power seems to be working in favor of Gazan groups more than Israel.
Cultural signifigance of incendiary balloons
Apart from the political and military aspect of it, incendiary balloons also have a cultural signifigance for Gaza.
During the time when Great March of Return first started Palestinian locals and media outlets named these weapons “The Return Balloons” which is a reference to the Palestinians driven out of their homeland by Israel coming back home. This cultural rhetoric has great value in the eyes of Palestinians who see the struggle against Israel as a natural fare and a general right.
This cultural significance shows itself in the messages sent over to Israeli settlements and media. Gazan groups, knowing very well that their actions will be on the local Israeli news attach messages and pictures to balloons they fly.
Balloons often have slogans belonging to various Gazan groups and propaganda material on them. They are sometimes decorated with pictures of members of Palestinian armed groups killed by Israel in the past, people who are significant to Gaza, activists who openly speak up about Palestine cause.
This cultural aspect makes incendiary balloons something more than just a political and military asset. They reflect upon the hopes of people of Gaza centered around “resistance against Israel” rhetoric.
Which groups are included in the process in Gaza?
There are many active armed groups in Gaza. All of these groups are thought be participating in balloon attacks yet only one group openly steps forward and uses its name: Saif al-Islam. Apart from that, the major actors are as follows; Sons of Zawari, Sons of Quqa, Ahfad al Nasser, Waad al Tahrir.
Sons of Zawari
This group is believed to be an affiliate of Hamas. The first and biggest of the incendiary balloon attackers Sons of Zawari has a sub-group called Sons of Yassin named after the founding leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.
The group is named after Muhammad al Zawari, an engineer and a prominent leader figure within Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, armed wing of Hamas. Zawari helped Hamas improve itself in various military areas including manufacturing drones. The Tunisian engineer was killed on 15th of December, 2016 in Sfax, Tunus as a result of an assassination. It is believed that Israel was behind the incident that killed the inventor of Hamas’ Ababeel-1 drone.
Sons of Zawari consists many active groups from various regions within Gaza. Among these groups there are a few named after dead member of Qassam such as “Martyr Muhammad Abu Harb” and “Martyr Muhammad Humayda” that catch the eye.
Sons of Quqa
This group is an affiliate of Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades which is the armed wing of Popular Resistance Committees. Formed by the old members of Al Fatah back in 2000, Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades is the third largest armed organisation in Gaza.
Sons of Quqa is named after one of the most prominent explosive experts of Hamas’ armed winged Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Muhammed al Quqa. Al Quqa died on 5th of February, 2017 as a result of an accidental explosion in Gaza while he was manufacturing explosives.
Ahfad al Nasser
The second most active group with incendiary balloons after Sons of Zawari is called Ahfad al Nasser. This organisation is an affiliate of Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades.
Barq is known to be an affiliate of Iranian supported The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine’s armed winged Saraya al Quds. They have no active operations in terms of balloon attacks.
Waad al Tahrir
This organisation is affiliated with Mujahideen Brigades. Founded in 2001 Mujahideen Brigades is the military wing of Palestinian Mujahideen Movement that separated itself from Al Fatah. Waad al Tahrir is the third most active group that participates in balloon attacks.
Among the most active groups of the late era Saif al-Islam is the first and only group that has officially announced its role in balloon attacks. Group has participated in attacks during August, 2020 using its own name and threatening to carry out the longest distance attack yet in Beersheba.
Relatively the best organised Salafi jihadi community in Gaza, Saif al-Islam has entered a process or re-organisation lately. They are a part of the operation room led by Qassam Brigades and consists of the most prominent groups in Gaza. The group is thought to be in good terms with Hamas too.
‘Martyr Wadi Haddad’ Group
Operating under The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, this group also participates in balloon attacks against Israel in a limited way.
Incendiary balloon attacks seems to have secured its position as a vital factor for conflict dynamics along Gaza Strip in the short and middle term.
Gaza based armed groups are probably not going to stop sending incendiary balloons over to Israel any time soon. Political agreements for short periods of time are going to be only way to make them take a break which puts the conflict between Gaza and Israel on a very fragile platform.
If the tension along Gaza Strip fails to be solved through political means, it is quite possible for the current crisis to evolve into a military struggle which makes the observation of incendiary balloon usage a subject worthy of close attention.