Lethal Joysticks

The young women operating the 'Spot and Strike' monitoring and remote shooting system sit at a safe distance from the battlefield, but feel as if they are on ground.

A group of 19-year-old female soldiers are in a classroom reciting the material they learned that morning. One repeats the sequence of actions she will have to follow when the course is finished and she is posted back to her base near the Gaza Strip: "Is there permission to fire? Yes. I raise the safety catch. I lower the safety catch. I aim on the target." She moves a black joystick on the desk near her and presses a button. "Boom, boom. I killed one."

These young women know the "boom boom" they hear could soon, under different circumstances, actually mean there has been live fire - that a person has been killed by remote control .

The soldiers, trainees in the course for the "Spot and Strike" system, sit in a tower facing the wilderness of the southern Negev, at the far edge of the Field Intelligence School at the Sayarim base, not far from Ovda. Between their tower and the wide-open desert stands another tower topped by a metal dome. With the press of a button the dome opens to reveal a heavy machine gun. Small tweaks of the joystick aim the barrel. To the right of the gun is a camera, which transmits a clear picture of the target onto a screen opposite the soldier. A press of the button and the figure in the crosshairs is hit by a 0.5-inch bullet.

Spot and Strike was developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and was phased into use by the Israel Defense Forces two years ago. It is now deployed only on the security fence around the Gaza Strip. Every few kilometers there is an unmanned gun tower - another means of thwarting attempted terror attacks and infiltration, of supplementing the Infantry, Armored and Artillery Corps, as well as the air force.

This constitutes the only "weapon" in the IDF operated exclusively by women (due to manpower considerations ). The IDF decided to use female lookouts who sit in the operations room located in every battalion headquarters in the Gaza area. According to the (male ) head of the professional department of the Field Intelligence Corps, Maj. Uri Avital, it is operated only by women who have at least a year's experience in the Gaza area (especially those who have completed a commanders' training course ) and are very familiar with the characteristics of the terrain - and the people living there.

Yaron Angel

Like a PlayStation

These young women have already been watching the monitors for a long time - tracking Palestinian territory adjacent to the border. Day after day, they direct the movement of forces on the ground and in the air to targets, aim weapons fire and warn of people who may be security threats even before they get close to the border. The IDF refuses to say how many terrorists have been shot to date by the system operators, since the system came into use two years ago but the number apparently reaches several dozens.

"This is a significant difference," says Shir Chekhov, 19, from Dimona, who serves at a base opposite the southern Gaza Strip. "You're used to scanning and doing surveillance," she explains. "You are the eyes of the forces in the field. But it's different when you can also kill the terrorist."

Even if the system operator is, as is usual, several kilometers away from the tower she operates, she has a means for hearing the gunfire.

"This gives you the feeling of, 'Wow, I've fired now,'" says Bar Keren, 20, of Rishon Letzion, who is serving at the Kissufim base on the Gaza border. "It's very alluring to be the one to do this. But not everyone wants this job. It's no simple matter to take up a joystick like that of a Sony PlayStation and kill, but ultimately it's for defense."

The one-week training course the soldiers take is relatively simple, but it is based on the extensive training the lookouts already underwent at the start of their service, and the experience they have accumulated. From the advanced surveillance equipment in the operations room, each woman gains up-close knowledge of a certain block of land along the fence. She also learns to recognize the Palestinians who live and visit there, and she must be able to distinguish between who is an innocent civilian and who, by their gait and what they are carrying, might be a terrorist. This stage is called "incriminating."

Avital stresses that ultimately, the lookouts do not determine if someone is an actual target who must be stopped: "The battalion commander or his deputy is the one who gives the 'incriminated' authorization. But the identification comes from the lookout. She is the professional, the authority. She is the one who says, 'I see a terrorist and what he has in his hand is a weapon.' The battalion commander is the one who decides whether to open fire. Sometimes he will only open the dome of the tower, as a deterrent. The Palestinians have already learned what to expect afterward. Sometimes the commander will give an order to shoot near the target, in order to scare him away but not harm him."

The system is controlled from a low platform at the intelligence-gathering war room, its walls covered in screens. Only when an order is given, does a lookout who has been qualified for the task go sit there. The procedure to authorize opening fire is complex, but takes less than two minutes. Also, to maintain maximal supervision, the weapons system has a double safety-catch mechanism; one of them is operated by an officer in the adjacent battalion war room.

"The lookouts make the first identification," explains Avital. "Immediately thereafter the shift commander will come to examine the screen. If she decides there is an incident, this is transmitted to the operations war room and there they decide whether to use Spot and Strike. The battalion commander himself will often come in to the war room and look at the system screen before deciding."

When the training program for the operators was being developed, the IDF wanted to learn from the experience of another country's army, but couldn't find a force doing anything similar.

During the course, two days are devoted to a psychological workshop, in which the trainees talk with the training base's organizational consultant about high-stress situations and their fears. In recent months a decision was made to follow up with the operators after the course as well, to enable them to talk with mental health officers about their situation.

"It's always important to remember," says Col. Tal Braun, commander of the Field Intelligence School, "that in the end, this isn't just a technical act of pulling the trigger. It is responsibility for doing a deed that someone who doesn't understand and isn't knowledgeable could interpret as an overly violent act. But I don't want them to feel like this is like a Sony PlayStation. It is not detached from the surroundings: The shooting is done in conformity with the orders for opening fire in the sector. It is a part of the operational reality."

He adds there has not been any incident in which a soldier who has been through the course did not succeed in performing the task of shooting. "There is continuous follow-up on the ground - it isn't enough that she has been through training once. This is part of our awareness in the corps and we are very sensitive to the signs."

Keren admits that the job places a large burden on the shoulders of the female soldiers. "But I don't just shoot because I feel like it," she says. "It goes through a process and decisions by the operations officer, the deputy battalion commander, the battalion commander - he's the one who decides yes or no. It is not [all done] at our rank. I can only make recommendations about incriminating."

Avital believes the soldiers are well-trained and prepared for the task. "When a soldier is killed in a force to which she has given directions, because the terrorist nevertheless managed to open fire - for her it's as though she's there on the ground," he says.

"She hears every breath of the company commander who is running and reporting over the communications system. She hears the shooting and the wounded man comes to her to the war room with the wound. She is not at all cut off. They feel very heavy responsibility when they are on the system. I haven't seen a girl who has taken down a terrorist and crowed over this. But there is purely professional satisfaction, that she has succeeded in being effective and protecting the [civilian] areas."