November 21, 2018

The Kite Gunner

How does a country fight kites and balloons without feeling silly? 

How does a country stop kites and balloons that pose a danger without descending into heavy-handedness? 

These questions are not theoretical on the Gaza border, in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) headquarters, in Israel’s Cabinet room. They are very real. Gazans have found a way to hurt and harass Israel. It is low cost and quite efficient. Sail a kite that carries a small fire. Hope for the wind to move it in the right direction. Hope for the summer weather to serve as a magnifier of heat. Then watch the smoke rise. Watch Israeli firefighters sweat. Watch fields burn. Calculate the price of a kite plus a match versus the price of a field, of agricultural equipment, of livestock. Measure your joy at watching your success versus the agony and anxiety of Israelis who watch their property go up in flames. 

Imagine the children of a neighboring country sending such burning kites onto the fields of Texas or the forests of Montana. Imagine the government of that country (not Canada or Mexico — an imaginary neighbor) refusing to do anything about it. In fact, imagine the government encouraging the action. Imagine American farmers asking for a remedy, pleading for help. Imagine the dilemma: Do you kill the perpetrators? Do you kill anyone who holds a kite or a balloon? Do you invest billions to find a technological solution to kite and balloon attacks?   

Of course, you can solve this dilemma by giving the usual useless answer: Do something about Gaza, let Gaza have more freedom, stop the occupation, invest in Gaza, talk to Hamas. But let’s assume this doesn’t work. Let’s assume that for some reason, you — the Israeli — believe that your ability to assess the validity of such an armchair solution is better than the ability of others — say, Americans — who live far, far away and have few clues. 

What do you do then?

You can look for nonviolent solutions. Torpedo the kites, target the balloons as they fly, monitor the skies. A nonviolent solution is always preferable to a violent solution, right?

Well, let’s think about it. What if a balloon costs $1 and the means by which you target the balloon costs $10. Are you obligated to spend 10 times more to avoid a violent solution? And how about a balloon that costs $1 and a means that costs $1,000 or $10,000 —  how about a means that costs $100,000 each? Do you still use it against the balloon rather than shoot the balloonist on the ground? 

And what if a child is flying the kite? And what if shooting the perpetrator might kill others? And what if shooting the perpetrator results in a 90 percent guarantee that the balloon won’t be launched, and the technological nonviolent solution results in only a 60 percent chance of success — that is, there is 40 percent chance that an Israeli field of grain soon will be burning?

On June 17, the Israeli Cabinet discussed Gaza, and other considerations were added to the mix. Some members of the Cabinet believe that the IDF must shoot the perpetrators of kite terrorism. Others believe that the IDF ought to target Hamas leaders until the kites are stopped.

The IDF is reluctant to use such means, not necessarily for moral considerations but rather for operational priorities. Attacking and killing people in Gaza, whether the launchers of kites or the leaders of Hamas, quickly could deteriorate into a southern war. And the IDF doesn’t want a war in the south — not now, when it is more focused on the north and the Syrian front and the need to thwart all Iranian attempts to fortify in the area to Israel’s north. 

Consider this: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the full Cabinet and the IDF chief of staff gathered to ponder what to do with Ahmed and his little kite. That they still haven’t found a solution — that they still didn’t put a stop to the burning of fields — is not because of incompetence. Sometimes, a kite is simple. A child, some fabric or paper, a tail. Sometimes, a kite is a nasty challenge. Its romance and magnificence disappear amid the smoke.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.