Unable to Stop Flaming Kites, Israel Moves to Choke Off Gaza Commerce
SOURCE: THE NEW YORK TIMES
BY: DAVID M. HALBFINGER
JERUSALEM — Unable to thwart the waves of incendiary devices lofted into Israel on kites and birthday balloons from the Gaza Strip, the Israeli government opted for a punitive response on Monday, clamping down on cargo shipments in and out of Gaza in hopes that its rulers would halt the airborne arson themselves.
The new restrictions at Gaza’s main cargo crossing ban the import of all goods except food, medicine and “humanitarian equipment,” as well as all exports.
The militant organization Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has encouraged the arsonist kite fliers, called the move a “crime against humanity.” Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a rival Gaza militant group, called it a “declaration of war.”
The measures were intended to press Hamas to crack down on the arson. “We will weigh down heavier on Hamas’s leadership, effective immediately,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said to applause as he announced the partial closing at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday.
But the restrictions also seemed aimed at satisfying a domestic audience that has grown impatient with Mr. Netanyahu’s inability to provide an effective answer to the fire raining down on communities across a wide area of southern Israel, or to articulate a broader strategy for addressing Gaza’s underlying problems.
The restrictions represented a sharp reversal by leaders of the Israeli military, in particular Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who have called for alleviating economic pressure on Gaza, including by increasing economic aid, as a way to reduce the likelihood that tensions there could boil over into another war with Israel.
Analysts warned that reducing commerce at Kerem Shalom would only choke off what was left of the territory’s economic vitality at a time when it was already near collapse.
“I am frustrated by my own government,” said Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the newspaper Yediot Ahronot who has clamored for Israel to offer a broad package of economic aid to Gaza in return for its demilitarization. “It’s not enough to be right, you should be clever, and it’s not a clever step on behalf of Israel.”
The immediate goal of the restrictions is to prod Hamas to abandon what has been an ingenious and, for Israel, exasperating tactic. Since April, Gaza militants have been turning kites and balloons into improvised firebombs, burning hundreds of acres of Israeli farmland and forcing firefighting crews from all over the country to race from fire to fire dowsing flames before they can spread.
The Israeli Army says it has used drones to bring down 670 kites and balloons, but hundreds more have gotten through. By mid-June, officials said, 412 blazes had been set — and the military has conceded that it is unable to stop them.
On Monday alone, at least 28 new arson fires caused by incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons had broken out by early evening.
“What’s happening in the south and the devastation to the farmers, and the environmental situation — I was down there recently, it’s toxic to breathe in those communities, it’s awful, and I agree there needs to be a response,” said Tania Hary, executive director of the Israeli advocacy group Gisha, which promotes freedom of movement for Palestinians. “But the response needs to be proportionate to the threat, and actions which are aimed to punish nearly two million people in the strip are certainly not proportionate.”
Some right-wing Israeli politicians have called for kite launchers to be killed, but the army has refused to use lethal force, going only so far as to fire warning shots and to destroy vehicles belonging to kite launchers. Instead, seeing the damage done by the kites as mainly an economic threat to agriculture, Israel has opted for an economic response.
In addition to the clampdown at Kerem Shalom, Israel said it was restricting Gaza’s fishermen to six nautical miles offshore, after having allowed them to fish as far as nine miles into the Mediterranean for the past three months.
Short of military action, analysts said, Israel has few options, since its blockade already severely restricts the movement of people in and out of Gaza. “The only measure that Israel has in its tool kit is to close the border,” said Celine Touboul, deputy director general of Israel’s Economic Cooperation Foundation.
Nearly all the goods that enter Gaza arrive through Kerem Shalom: Through the first six months of 2018, according to United Nations figures, 48,424 truckloads of goods were imported there. Of those, about a third contained food and medical supplies, items that would be exempt from the new restrictions.
Construction materials and nonfood consumable goods, which now appear to be barred by Israel, accounted for the bulk of the rest.
“There’s not a whole lot of stock on the shelves of Gaza, so it means that in a number of days you could already see shortages,” said Ms. Hary of Gisha.
The new restrictions at Kerem Shalom could quickly be subsumed into a larger diplomatic struggle involving Israel, Egypt, the United States and the Palestinian Authority over how to ease suffering in Gaza, and who should bear responsibility for it.
Israel and Egypt have together maintained a punishing 11-year blockade of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is imposing its own financial sanctions on Hamas, which have cost tens of thousands of Gazans their jobs and have kept the lights on in most Gaza homes for only a few hours at a time. The United States has laid much of the blame for Gaza’s dire straits at the feet of the authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Nathan Thrall, a Gaza expert at the International Crisis Group, noted that Israel and Egypt, neither of which wants responsibility for Gaza and its problems, maintained a kind of tug of war such that, whenever Egypt opened the Rafah crossing, it worried that Israel would close its own Gaza crossings, leaving Egypt as the only outlet.
If Egypt allowed more goods into Gaza at Rafah, “that’s a win for Gazans, because Egyptian goods are much cheaper, and they’re not taxed by the P.A.,” Mr. Thrall said. “If Gaza’s leaders could orchestrate that, they’d have a greater ability to tax those goods and get money to keep the government afloat.”