Israeli Army's Drone Commander: Surgical Strikes Were Key in Operation Pillar of Defense

One year following the IDF operation in Gaza, the army commander discusses the IDF's use of unmanned aerial vehicles and the implications for the drone operators on the ground.

One year after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, the commander of the first squadron of the Heron-1 unmanned aerial vehicles has spoken out about the role drones played in it, and about the soldiers who man them from afar.

According to the weekly Economist, the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, which opened the IDF’s operation in Gaza, was carried out using an unmanned Hermes 450 drone. In a document which reached Wikileaks, the former military advocate general and current cabinet secretary Maj. Gen. (Res.) Avichai Mandelblit is quoted as saying that the IDF uses armed unmanned drones to eliminate armed militants from the air.

Such unmanned drones played a major part in that operation, but the IDF does not confirm using remotely controlled weapons. “I can’t relate to quotes or posts in Wikileaks”, says Lt. Col. Shay, stressing that his squadron focuses on intelligence gathering and “on ensuring that we do everything possible to avoid harming civilians who aren’t designated as targets.”

According to figures provided by the human rights organization B’Tselem, 167 Palestinians died in Operation Pillar of Defense, a figure which includes 87 non-combatant men, women and children. The IDF presented different numbers, putting the number of non-combatant victims at 60.

One outstanding incident was the attack on the house of the Al-Dalou family, in which 12 Palestinians died - among them four children and five women from the same family. The IDF advocate general decided six months ago that no criminal investigation would be launched, since no criminal actions had taken place.

The onus is on the operators of unmanned drones to verify that that there are no uninvolved civilians in the vicinity of an attack. This is particularly a significant issue when considering the overcrowded conditions of the Gaza Strip: An error in judgement or in the analysis of an aerial photograph can easily result in the death of innocent civilians. “Ultimately, we are at war," explains the commander. "As much as the IDF strives to carry out the most precise surgical strikes, mistakes can happen in the air or on the ground. That’s part of our operational conditions with these systems."

“Operation Pillar of Defense ended the way it did because of these surgical operations," he adds. "When we take to the air we understand that part of our mission is to ensure minimal civilian casualties.”

The absence of discussion within Israel about the use of drones, which according to foreign sources are controlled by operators situated far away from the strike zone, does not impact the way they are used, nor does it affect the operators, says Shay.

“As the commander of this squadron, which deals mostly in collecting intelligence, we deal with such moral dilemmas all the time. We have no reservations about our mode of operations, since we know that we do our best to fulfill our mission of striking at terrorists while causing minimal harm to uninvolved people.”

When asked in how many of the Air Force’s reported 1,235 strikes in that operation was his squadron involved, he replied, “Many of them.” During the eight days of Operation Pillar of Defense his squadron quadrupled its normal flying hours. This had implications for the drone operators, who worked longer hours, participating in the battle while physically absent from it.

According to research conducted by the U.S. Defense Department, the rate of drone operators who suffer from post-traumatic stress is equal to the rate seen in combat pilots who flew over Iraq and Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Shay says that he’s read these reports but does not see this happening in his squadron. “I don’t see such intense post-traumatic responses, as reported in that research. As commanders we do have to deal with similar problems, but with all the moral dilemmas facing us and the questions that arise, part of the process is to understand that we have no choice but to deal with some of these unpleasant sights. Where we live, the threat is immediate, and there is always an understanding of the need to protect our homes. Believing in the justice of our cause, while employing our best judgement, makes the operators comfortable with what they do, they understand the necessity. They realize that they face dilemmas not everyone faces.”

Over the last year, the IDF has been grappling with the thorny issue of how to define an IDF combatant. Drone operators fall in-between categories; they do not physically take part in battles, but are intimately involved throughout the course of the fighting.

The drone operators themselves have split opinions on the matter. Some former soldiers say that they often participate in the battle more than an infantry soldier who waits for his orders outside the fighting zone.

Lt. Col. Shay is unhestitant to define his men as fighters. “But I understand the concept of putting your life on the line. As a commander, I see the difference.” His men, he says, are participating in actions demanded by "a new world of content, a different one." But while the world is changing, he concludes, their mission remains the same - defending their homes.

Olivier Fitoussi