Launching IED balloons on January 18, 2020 by the Sons of al-Zawari unit, in the eastern part of the al-Maghazi refugee camp (central Gaza) Facebook page of Imad Ibn Palestine Janaury 18, 2018.
- The launching of balloons is only one aspect of the pressure Hamas continues to exert on Israel, and to a certain extent on Egypt. The pressure continues, even after the reduction in the frequency of the return marches, as a part of Hamas’ policy of controlled, regulated violent. Its objective is to wrest additional humanitarian and economic concessions as part of the lull arrangement, and to make it easier to exit and enter the Gaza Strip (“easing the siege”).
- Hamas makes sure to implement that policy without being dragged into a vast military confrontation with Israel (such as Operation Protective Edge), which in ITIC assessment Hamas has no interest in. Thus expanding the scope of balloon launches, or their reduction and cessation, is determined by Hamas according to the developments on the ground and in the contacts for a lull arrangement.
IED balloons launched into Israel by the designated unit called the Sons of al-Zawari. The balloon launches was represented as a response to the killing of three operatives who infiltrated into Israeli territory (Sons of al-Zawari Facebook page, January 22, 2020). The three operatives threw IEDs at IDF soldiers, and were shot and killed.
- The current wave of balloon launchings has not yet caused significant physical damage but it disrupts daily life and causes psychological harm to the Israeli population living in the south in general and near the Gaza Strip in particular. The balloon launches are accompanied by psychological warfare expressed by threats to increase the number and range of the launches, and to develop more sophisticated methods, such as balloons with toxic substances, drones and quadcopters carrying IEDs, etc.
Why did balloon launchings return?
- The first kites were flown into Israel in small numbers during the third week of the return marches (April 2018). As the marches progressed, the balloon launchers expanded their methods. Burning substances were attached to the kites and they became incendiary kites, setting fire to extensive areas near the Gaza Strip. Later, in addition to the kites terrorists in the Gaza Strip began launching clusters of balloons with IEDs attached. In addition, Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip institutionalized balloon terrorism by establishing designated units for launching balloons. Beyond physical damage, balloon terrorism disrupted the daily life of Israelis living near the Gaza Strip and caused psychological harm.
- Beginning in March 2019 the activities of the balloon-launching units waned until it ceased almost entirely. That happened because of the Egyptian-mediated contacts for an arrangement, one of several measures instituted at the time to calm the situation. In ITIC assessment balloon launchings ceased because Hamas instructed the balloon units to suspend their activities. The launchings stopped but the threat of their renewal was occasionally noted by the media.
- After the return marches were suspended at the end of 2019 balloon terrorism was renewed (in the first half of January 2020), accompanied by a propaganda campaign. In ITIC assessment, the launches were renewed because Hamas decided to continue to exert its controlled pressure on Israel, allegedly because Israel was making difficulties in implementing the lull understandings. According to the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, Hamas insisted it “will not be silent in the face of Israel’s [alleged] delays in implementing the understandings, and that Israel will not receive the lull for free” (al-Akhbar, January 18, 2020).
- Another Hamas objective, in ITIC assessment, is to send Egypt a message relating to difficulties in their relations (caused by the visit of a Hamas delegation to Iran to participate in the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, which displeased Egypt). The message was in all probability intended to urge Egypt to regularize its relations with Hamas, with an implied threat that otherwise there would be negative consequences for the security situation in the Gaza Strip.
- So far, the renewal of balloon launches has lasted for the past two and half weeks. According to the Israeli media sixty balloon clusters have landed in Israel. Winds have taken them tens of miles from the Gaza Strip. In response the Israeli Air Force recently attacked Hamas targets in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. In that way Israel sent the message (yet again) that it regards Hamas as responsible for launching balloons as well as other violent measures carried out from the Gaza Strip.
Networks in the Gaza Strip specializing in launching balloons
- Although Hamas determines overall balloon-launching policy, the launches themselves are carried out by a number of designated networks specializing in preparing and launching balloons. In ITIC assessment most of the networks have close affiliations to Hamas or other terrorist organizations. It was previously reported that a joint operations room had been set up by the various balloon-launching networks, but it apparently stopped its activities when the launches ceased in March 2019 (it is unknown if the joint operations room has renewed its activities with the current renewal of balloon launches).
- The first network to “specialize” in and institutionalize launching balloons was the Sons of al-Zawari unit. In ITIC assessment the unit is closely affiliated with Hamas and may possibly be directed by it. However, Hamas prefers to remain vague on the subject (which increases its freedom of action) and does not directly involve itself in the activities of the Sons of al-Zawari or any other balloon-launching network. The spokesmen for the Sons of al-Zawari and Supreme National Authority of the Great Return March prefer to relate the launches to the “legitimate” and “individual measures” of “young revolutionaries” and do not relate them to Hamas or other terrorist organizations (al-Andalou News, Sabq24, January 18, 2020; al-Ain, January 16, 2020).
The following are other networks of balloon-launchers:
- Ahfad al-Nasser: A network affiliated with the Popular Resistance Committees. The head of the network is aka “Abu Malek”. One of its operatives, aka “Abu Atayia”, recently said the network had used new methods to launch balloons. He also claimed that many clusters of toxic incendiary and IED balloons had been launched at the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, and that in the coming days “many surprises” could be expected (Qawm, January 19, 2020).
- The Sons of al-Qoqa units of the Popular Resistance Movement: On January 19, 2020, the network claimed responsibility for launching “hundreds of incendiary and IED balloons” between the evening of January 17 and January 19, 2020. They stressed they would not stop the campaign until their objectives had been achieved. The statement added that Israel should know that the Sons of al-Qoqa units were preparing quadcopters, balloons and explosives (Twitter account of the Popular Resistance Movement, January 19, 2020; Ghaza al-A’an, January 19, 2020).
- The Wadia Hadad squads, which belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): On January 17, 2020, Gazan journalist Hassan Aslih reported that the Wadia Hadad squads, affiliated with the PFLP, announced the launching of large clusters of balloons from the eastern Gaza Strip (Twitter account of Gazan journalist Hassan Aslih, January 17, 2020).