Israel Sluggish on Tackling Drones Threat, Watchdog Warns

Nor is the state comptroller impressed by the absence of licensing, let alone enforcement, of civilian use of drones in Israel

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Hamas drone during a demonstration in Gaza, 2014.
A Hamas drone during a demonstration in Gaza, 2014.Credit: Khalil Hamara, AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is being sluggish about addressing the use of drones, Israel’s state comptroller warned in a short, expedited report delivered to the Knesset on Wednesday, and disseminated in no time among the media.

Drones are tiny, remote-controlled flying objects that are trivial to buy and operate. State comptroller Joseph Shapira stressed the risks inherent in the absence of regulation (and enforcement) over civilian use of drones – and the mounting risks to Israeli security from their use by terror organizations, in the view of the intelligence community.

Both ISIS and Hezbollah have extensively used drones, in Syria and Iraq, for observation purposes – and also to fire bullets, drop bombs, or to self-destruct over enemy forces in kamikaze fashion.

Regarding the Gaza Strip, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement both use drones for observation on the Israeli-Gaza border. Israeli security forces are bracing for the possibility that the Palestinian organizations will start using them for belligerent purposes as well.

Shapira’s attention was drawn to drones after he wrote his scathing report following Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s war in Gaza in the summer of 2014. The state comptroller and his people concluded that just as the state had failed to see the threat of “terror tunnels” being dug beneath the Gazan border, crossing into Israel,” other developing threats needed identification, so Israel could prepare for them. Israel had not tackled the threat of the tunnels until it materialized.

There is a growing realization that having discovered the combat potential of drones, the terrorist organizations are preparing to considerably increase their use of the flying devices. Yet the state seems to be dragging its feet on doing anything about it, as it did with the tunnels.

The report was written by the state comptroller’s security division, headed by former brigadier general Yossi Beinhorn. As the prices of drones plunged, and since it is easy to buy and operate them, their use by Israel and everyone else increased, he wrote. The proliferation of drones, of which there are estimated to be almost 20,000 civilian ones in Israel already, has led to problems involving safety – and risk of their use by hostile or even criminal elements. Yet the state’s pace of handling the threat lags behind the pace of the problem’s development, Shapira wrote.

“There is a vacuum in [defining the] areas of responsibility and authority,” when it comes to drones, he wrote, which in and of itself makes it difficult to formulate an appropriate response at the national level.

In the U.S., on September 22, an army helicopter was almost brought down over Staten Island by an illegally flying drone, but landed safely. In October, a drone crashed into a commercial airplane as it approached the airport in Quebec City, Canada; again the aircraft managed to land safely.

No regulations on private operators

In 2016, Israel recorded 24 incidents of poor flight safety connected with drones, up from 14 in 2015. (None involved actual collisions.) Yet Israeli aviation authorities have yet to institute registration for drone operators. There are only two posts for inspectors in the field of drones, though whether the posts have been filled, or what their work is, remains obscure. Enforcement is therefore sorely lacking and there are no real sanctions if drones are used carelessly, or criminally.

The National Security Council first addressed the issue of drones two and a half years ago, and recently wrote a draft decision for the cabinet to peruse, but there’s been no real discussion of it. Neither the Israeli army nor the police are eager to take responsibility for the issue.

The army shrugs that it’s an internal security problem.

The army does define drone use as a “unique, worrying, developing threat,” but in practice the Air Force has no “complete” solution to the security threat that drones pose. As for the police, they would need to be allocated positions, resources and time to tackle the issue.

Until the police get organized to do so, says the state comptroller, some other entity capable of moving nimbly should take on the handling of the drones problem. That means Shapira thinks the Israeli army should take the reins over the drones, at least for the time being, the IDF being the only entity capable of getting organized fast. He does not state so explicitly, though.
Meanwhile, Shapira and Beinhorn recommend that somebody be put in charge of handling the drones threat, on an interim basis, until the issue is regulated once and for all.

The IDF spokesman stated that the army welcomes the state comptroller’s report, will study it and correct whatever flaws were found.

“As the report says, the threat is a complex one, and is a technological challenge to many armies around the world. The off-the-shelf solutions aren’t enough,” the army stated, adding that it has been stepping up its efforts to defend the country against drones “in its area of responsibility.” It has been collaborating with other security bodies and notes that two joint teams were recently established, one with the Defense Ministry, to work on developing technological abilities against drones; and a team to coordinate concepts among everybody involved.

The army pledged to allocate resources to fight the threat of drones, prioritized with all other threats – in other words, “intelligent risk management” – and in any case will continue to defend the State of Israel and its airspace. It notes that in the last year, the Air Force downed a number of drones.

In response to the report, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a discussion on the issue of drones in May and convened a cabinet meeting on it in June, adding that the National Security Council has discussed the matter as well. The statement noted that Netanyahu instructed the NSC, Defense Ministry and Public Security Ministry to take charge of national preparedness regarding drones, and that he has consulted with foreign nations on the problem.

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