Israeli war jets struck several targets in the north of the Gaza Strip on Sunday. “The strike was carried out in response to the launching of incendiary balloons from Gazan territory into Israel over the course of the day,” claimed the Israeli occupation army.
On Tuesday morning, the occupation forces opened fire on Palestinian areas inside the Gaza Strip. The army claimed that its soldiers opened fire at balloon launchers, from where Palestinians planned to launch explosive balloons towards Israeli settlements near the besieged territory. By Tuesday evening, the Israeli media had reported that at least 60 balloons had been launched from Gaza, setting fire to more than 250 acres across the nominal border.
According to one Israeli security official, “The response of the Israeli army to the launch of explosive balloons could be strong and harsh this time. It could be different to what it was before… The defence establishment discussed the response a couple of hours ago and the decision to respond could be taken soon.”
This followed similar threats made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I want to say to all of Iran’s forces, including in Gaza, there will be a very heavy price for the balloon terror. We will not suffer this, we will act and exact a heavy price. We have done it in the past and we will do it now.”
Netanyahu echoed similar threats made by Defence Minister Benny Gantz. “In the south, Hamas is allowing the continued launching of arson and explosive-carrying balloons into Israel. We are not prepared to accept that and we closed the Kerem Shalom crossing as a result. They would do well to stop disturbing the security and quiet in Israel. If that doesn’t happen, we will need to respond, and forcefully.”
The balloons are meant to be a deterrent to Israel, and a reminder that it should commit to the understandings about easing its siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. Given such rhetoric from the Israeli establishment, though, I spoke to senior Israeli and Palestinian observers to see what they think; the conclusion is that Israel is too weak to carry out its threats.
“Of course, Israel will react to the explosive balloons fired from Gaza into Israel,” said Yossi Melman, an Israeli writer and former intelligence and strategic affairs correspondent for Haaretz. “However, any Israeli reaction will not be so strong in order not to end up in a massive offensive like what happened in 2014.” Israel is not ready for such an offensive, explained Melman, because this is not a strategic reason for war. “Israel is suffering from political, health and economic crises,” he added.
Right-wing Israeli journalist Baruch Yedid, who is close to decision makers in Tel Aviv, ruled out a “deterrent” attack in response to the balloons. He cited “political reasons” and pointed out that Israel might be heading for a fourth General Election in just over two years.
There is also the US presidential election to consider. The pro-Israel lobby in Washington will not want to see prime-time news channels broadcasting images of death and destruction in Gaza’s residential areas in the run up to November’s poll. Importantly, nor will Donald Trump, the leader of the most pro-Israel US administration in history.
Israel is very busy on the northern front with Lebanon at the moment, said Adnan Abu Amer, a Palestinian journalist and expert on Israeli affairs. “It is highly unstable there.” There is a backlog of crises, so Netanyahu’s threats are not serious, he insisted. “Only the threats made by Gantz are serious, but he is alone.” Abu Amer cited remarks made by senior Israeli security officials ruling out a new war against the Palestinians in Gaza.
Instead, claimed both Yedid and Melman, Israel will turn to Qatar, Egypt and the UN to mediate with Hamas on the balloon issue. “Israel is working hard to avoid going to war in Gaza,” the former told me. Melman, however, warned that, “If the situation gets out of control, Israel might start a war, but this is a very remote possibility.”