Clearing the Fog on Israeli Drone Use in Gaza

Foreign media outlets say Israel uses UAVs for attacks in the Strip. A Palestinian researcher refutes claims that such strikes are 'surgical.’

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In a conference room in the West Bank City of Ramallah, beneath a large portrait of the early 20th-century Polish-Jewish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, a discussion was held last week of the use by the United States and Israel of unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and attack. The participants also talked about ways to counter this kind of “video game” warfare, as a Gazan researcher termed it.

The debate was initiated by the Palestinian branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a German institute “committed to democratic socialism” that is affiliated with, but independent from, Germany’s Party (Die Linke).

It was based on a study commissioned by the Ramallah office from Dr. Atef Abu Saif, who teaches political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, to fill a hole in the research. While many states as well as the United Nations have studied the increasingly criticized use of drone attacks, figures on Israel’s use of UAVs in the Gaza Strip are not available, at least not to the general public.

According to foreign and Palestinian reports, the Israel Air Force uses UAVs extensively in its attacks on Gaza, but the Israeli military has never confirmed that it uses such weapons systems. Abu Saif’s report, “Sleepless in Gaza, Israeli Drone War against Gaza,” adds to studies and reports in the world media refuting claims by their manufacturers and countries that use them that UAVs carry out “surgical strikes” that don’t harm innocent civilians or minimize harm to them.

The Obama administration, for example, has claimed on several occasions that the civilian casualties from a drone strike, if any, are in the “single-digits.” According to a number of U.S. and British studies, the true numbers are much higher.

In the absence of official U.S. or Israeli reports of their use of UAVs, including figures on casualties, international and Palestinian organizations have learned to identify drone attacks from the types of injuries sustained, from shrapnel found at the scene and from eyewitnesses who reported seeing or hearing aircraft before and during the strike.

“It’s like a video game, but it’s us and our lives they’re playing with,” said Abu Saif, who recommends expanding the documentation and follow-up of UAV victims in the Strip.

Abu Saif writes that based on estimates, during the 23 days of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Israel carried out 42 UAV attacks that killed 87 civilians, among them 29 children. Another 73 civilians were wounded in these strikes. In Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012), Israeli drone attacks killed 36 Palestinians, of whom 24 were civilians (four of them children). Based on estimates by the Gaza-based Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza, while UAV attacks in November 2012 constituted 5 percent of all the Israeli attacks, they were responsible for 20 percent of the deaths (36 of 178).

Relying on a ruling by the International Criminal Court regarding crimes committed in Yugoslavia, Abu Saif says that the Israeli act of killing people when they are with their families or busy with some civilian activity, and justifying it by claiming that they were “combatants” in the past or intended to be such in the future, is immoral and illegal. There is a growing public discourse overseas that is increasingly critical of the ease with which “someone sitting in an air conditioned office, inside a military base far away from the operations theatre, studies information and analyzes photos gathered and decides that the life of someone else has to reach its end,” writes Abu Saif.

Abu Saif also went over questions raised by other researchers. For example, if drones are so precise that their operators can tell what color clothes the target is wearing, how is it that so many civilians are hurt and killed? One of the answers is that, according to foreign and Palestinian reports, the drones target not only specific armed men or those deemed “combatants” based on intelligence information, but also behavior patterns or certain actions that the control room commanders interpret as being terror-related. Riding a motorcycle is one example, or the gathering of several people in an open area (who could be farmers), spending time on the roof (children playing or feeding pigeons) or carrying long objects. Such attacks are called “signature strikes,” Abu Saif writes.

Abu Saif’s study integrates publicly available information published on the Internet by Israeli weapons manufacturers, investigations by Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups of Israeli attack victims, international studies, media reports, interviews and personal experience.

According to Abu Saif, drones are a fact of life in Gaza, frequently buzzing in the background. But when the buzzing of the drone (called “zanana” in colloquial Arabic) increases, daily life is disrupted; people believe this means an attack is near and they have no way of knowing if they are near the target or if they themselves are the target because of their “suspicious” behavior. Schoolchildren and students find it difficult to concentrate, especially during exam periods, many suffer post-traumatic flashbacks and family and social gatherings are quickly dispersed. “Through their usage of drones, [the Israelis] have become present in the bedrooms of the people in Gaza,” Abu Saif quotes Al-Mezan director Esam Younis as saying. Journalist Asma al-Roul is quoted in the same vein, saying, “I feel like I am naked. All what I do is seen by the drone.”

Abu Saif expounds on the conclusion of many researchers, writers and observers that the territories Israel occupied in 1967, especially the Gaza Strip, have become weapons testing laboratories. Operational successes on the bodies of the Palestinians raise the weapons’ value on the global arms market, which is how Israel has become one of the world’s top arms exporters, particularly of UAVs, Abu Saif writes. “Consequently, the international community, and mainly Europe, is participating in many different ways in the Israeli drone war against Palestinians in Gaza.”

Abu Saif was born in the Jabalya refugee camp to a family expelled from Jaffa in 1948. He managed to complete his undergraduate studies at Bir Zeit University before Israel limited and then barred entirely the travel of university students from Gaza into the West Bank. He went abroad, to England and Italy, for his graduate studies.

Abu Saif was not actually present at the Ramallah meeting; he did not receive permission from the Israeli authorities to come to the West Bank. He delivered his presentation in a prerecorded video and took party in the discussion using Skype.

When asked by Haaretz how the technological sophistication of Israel’s warfare affects the Palestinian option of an armed struggle, he replied: “In my opinion, in this unequal balance of military power, it’s a political struggle that can bear fruits. But I assume that there are people, for whom the intensified Israeli use of drones only triggers them to plan and imagine the launching of more cross-walls rockets to Israel.”

The Israeli strike in Gaza that killed Hamas' Ahmed Jabari in November, 2012, two months before an Israeli election. "There were other dates in which we could have killed Jabari," said IDF general Yoav Galant. Credit: AFP
The Israeli-made Eitan drone.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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