Five years ago, Drone Wars published a ground breaking report examining Israel’s production, use and proliferation of military drones. Today we are pleased to publish ‘Precise Strikes: Fractured Bodies, Fractured Lives’ which brings our 2014 report up-to-date. The report looks beyond the veil of secrecy that surrounds Israel’s development and deployment of armed drones to explore their use and impact, particularly in Gaza in the five years since 2014.
Israel has been manufacturing and using unmanned military technology since the 1970s. Yet its use of drones to launch attacks continues to be shrouded in secrecy and denial. This despite clear evidence, including leaked video footage, that Israel has used drones both for reconnaissance and monitoring purposes, as well as to launch attacks. According to Ha’aretz, drones now account for 70% of the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) flight hours.
While advocates present drones in humanitarian terms as effectively minimising civilian casualties in so-called ‘virtuous wars’, serious concerns have been raised by human rights organisations, UN Special Rapporteurs, survivors of drone attacks, and national parliaments. The lived experience of drone warfare in Palestine highlights the cost to life and human rights of remote-controlled weaponry, indicating that discourses of precision and risk-reduction do little to convey the terror and threat of omnipresent overhead drones.
Israel, in line with other states with drone fleets, has argued that the technology offers more precision than manned missions, minimising the risk to civilians. However, the government has shunned accountability by keeping drone use from the public eye. A sustained public relations offensive aims to convince observers that this remote-controlled warfare satisfies the legal conditions of proportionality, distinction, and necessity with regard to risk to civilian life. Without explicitly naming the use of drones in attack missions, the Israeli Foreign Ministry stresses that it uses “the most sophisticated weapons available today in order to pinpoint and target only legitimate military objectives and minimise collateral damage to civilians.”
Emphasising these attributes, advocates of drone technology present it in humanitarian terms, as an innovation which can eliminate a perceived threat while saving innocent lives. With this ethical framing, Israel has publicly undertaken targeted killing campaigns since the second intifada, with drones the weapon of choice. Having “invented the targeted assassination thesis”, says Colonel Daniel Reisner, the former head of the International Law Department of the IDF, “we had to push it” and this has coincided with a push to depict drones as “extremely precise”. However, such claims do little to account for the widespread civilian deaths, injury and psychological trauma caused by Israel’s use of drones.
As stated in our 2014 report, Israel’s official stance of secrecy and denial belies the ample evidence of drone attacks in Gaza from Palestinian and international sources since 2004. This report focuses on drone use in Gaza in the five years since, demonstrating the clear and extensive harm it has caused to Palestinians, despite Israel’s claims for the humanitarian credentials of the technology.
While Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, states that Israel’s use of armed drones is something of an open secret, official detail of their use remain classified, as do official casualty estimates. Independent estimates are difficult to obtain and are, in any case, provisional, partly because the source of an attack – by drone or other means – is difficult to discern from the ground.
Nonetheless, those monitoring from the ground in Gaza believe that the proportion of attacks carried out by drones is increasing. According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, drones were estimated to account for 37% of Palestinian fatalities during Operation Protective Edge; of the approximately 2,100 Palestinians killed during the offensive, 70% had allegedly not taken part in the fighting, including 519 minors. A 2019 Lancet study of 254 patients with traumatic amputations in Gaza found that drone attacks were the most common cause of their injury, and that these injuries tended to be more severe than those caused by explosive weapons from other sources (e.g. tanks).
Meanwhile, Israel continues to benefit from the lucrative export of drone technology. With unmanned military systems now becoming commonplace globally – and the number of countries operating drones with combat capabilities increasing fourfold between 2013 and 2018 – Israel’s drone exports are likely to remain profitable. A salesman for the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) declared in relation to the company’s drone exports, “These are very good times for us. Sales are on the rise every year.”
With drone warfare increasingly accepted and celebrated in Israel and beyond as a new ‘humanitarian’ form of war, Israel’s production and use of weaponised drones continues to grow. Meanwhile the trauma and destruction beneath the drones in Gaza, largely unseen by the Israeli public, also increases.