To most people, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to track down and target terrorist suspects is most closely associated with the United States and its western allies. Only this month, for example, 55 alleged al-Qaeda fighters were reportedly killed during American-led drone strikes on a training base in southern Yemen.
The attacks were just the latest in a string of operations that have run from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Somalia in recent years, all orchestrated by the CIA, and which have become a hallmark of US President Barack Obama administration’s “war on terror”; so far around 2,500 people have been killed by US UAV’s during his presidency.
Inevitably, this has generated growing international concern about the legality of such operations, the number of innocent civilians, including children, killed along the way, and anxiety about the “games console” morality of warfare in which an operator sits in insulated comfort hundreds or thousands of miles from his victim.
It’s a fair assumption then that most people would also think that the US had developed this technology in the first place, and that the use of drones for “targeted assassinations” was a tactic wholly of America’s devising.
But they’d be wrong.
Well before Sept. 11, and well before the US even thought of sending a missile-laden Predator to take out an enemy, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) was using UAVs to track down Palestinian and Hezbollah “terrorists” and Israeli aeronautic and arms manufacturers were creating a thriving, export-driven drones industry off the back of this strategy.
Crucial to their sales pitch – which would later allow the country to become a global leader in UAV technology – was that their drones had been “tried and tested” in so called battle conditions. Indeed, Israel was the first to country to use drones in combat – during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These were later sold to the US which used them in the First Gulf War.
But Israel’s use of drones really took off after the second Intifada erupted in 2000. It’s been reported that they’ve since played a key role in Israel’s military assassinations programme over Palestinian territories. During Operation Cast Lead, for example, which the rest of the world knows as the 2008-09 Gaza War, drones were crucial in identifying and hitting targets.
Commercially, this appears to have given the Israeli arms industry an unparalleled advantage in a rapidly expanding market. In the last five years Israel has become the world’s biggest UAV exporte, with Israeli drones being used by six NATO armies in Afghanistan.
The UK alone has spent more than $1.25bn on the Hermes UAV made by Israel company, Elbit Systems. France has spent over a half-billion dollars on buying the Heron drone from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
“Fifteen years ago I would have needed to persuade customers to buy,” explained IAI salesman Avi Kamski. “They didn’t understand and it took time. Now we don’t need to explain anything. These are very good time for us. Sales are on the rise every year.”
Yet, ironically, the supposed “battle” credentials of these systems are rarely if ever explained in detail. This is an industry of hints, nods and winks, and of veiled allusions to stunning but unnamed successes — with little mention of the real cost in lives lost. While happy to acknowledge that the US and others have followed their lead, Israeli defence chiefs are notoriously coy about revealing anything to do with their own drones programme – and won’t even confirm that they arm their UAVs.
“The Israeli drones programme is still classified,” says Chris Woods, a UK journalist who specialises in the subject. “The Israeli government refuses to this day even to recognize this programme. As far as I know there is not a single image of an armed Israeli drone in the public domain, I think that’s remarkable that they have been able to keep it out of the public eye for so many years.
“But what we do know is that there are two unmanned aircrafts that Israel uses with weapons. My understanding is that both of those have been weaponized and have been used in drone strikes dating back to 2004, probably. How many drone strikes have taken place since then – dozens, hundreds? There isn’t any consistent data. We’ve had many monitoring organizations watching the CIA’s every move in Pakistan and Yemen . Nobody’s doing the same job for Israel in Gaza and elsewhere.”
Nevertheless, there’s strong evidence to suggest that over the past five years Israeli use of attack drones has continued to escalate – first during the Gaza War, Operation Cast Lead and then during the 2012 operation Pillar of Defence.
Human Rights Watch reviewed six drone strikes carried out during Cast Lead and found they led to the deaths of 29 civilians, eight of them children. In a similar investigation after Pillar of Defense, six drone strikes were shown to have killed 12 civilians. Others are killed on a sporadic basis whenever the IDF chooses to go after a target and innocent civilians happen to get in the way.
But with Israeli officials refusing to discuss the use of UAVs in these sort of attacks, evidence has had to be found on the ground.
Chris-Cobb Smith, a former British artillery officer and a weapons expert, has examined dozens of drone impact sites in Gaza. He says he’s deeply concerned about the indiscriminate nature of some of these attacks and what might lie behind them.
“Even a child going to buy a pen for his baby sister who is given a coin by his grandfather, he walks out of the house and he is struck by one of these missiles. Now, by any stretch of the imagination that is not a legitimate target. It needs to be addressed. Why are these civilians being targeted? Is it a mistake? Is it a problem with intelligence gathering, is it a problem with the optics, or is there something more sinister behind this?”
Other put it even more bluntly. Martin van Creveld is an outspoken Israeli military historian who uses an analogy that can only strike a powerful chord with his countrymen.
“War by definition is a situation in which the killing is mutual. When the killing is not mutual you can’t have war, you have massacre, you have Auschwitz. That is the definition of Auschwitz, when people cannot resist. One side kills and the other side is forced to let himself be killed. So there are very serious moral problems here.”
Israeli filmmaker, Yotam Feldman, who produced this investigation of “Israel’s Drone Dealers” for People and Power, asked van Creveld to clarify this remark.
“You say, ‘it’s not enough to kill people in Gaza with drones, you have to kill them yourself, in order to call yourself a warrior’?”
“Well, yes,” the historian replied. “Otherwise you are a butcher. That’s exactly the difference between a soldier and a butcher. A soldier puts his own life at risk, a butcher doesn’t.”
Little of this seems to bother the customers from the US, UK, Canada, France, Australia, Germany, Spain, Brazil and India who have all bought Israel‘s battle hardened’ UAV technology for their own use. As explained by one anonymous German air force pilot who was training on a recently purchased Israeli drone, “This is a really capable system, and it’s a proven system, and right now it gives us the basic capabilities that we need.”
That, for now at least, seems to be sufficient justification.