Analysis |

The Gradual Proliferation of Israeli Assault Drones Was an Open Secret

The IDF's use of assault drones first began as a means of combatting Syrian tanks, expanding into assassination operations, and eventually became employed by both friends and enemies

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli drone over the Gaza Strip in 2014. The Israeli military and Shin Bet developed an effective weapon to identify activists and quickly strike them from the air.
An Israeli drone over the Gaza Strip in 2014. The Israeli military and Shin Bet developed an effective weapon to identify activists and quickly strike them from the air.Credit: Dusan Vranic / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After a slight delay of more than 30 years, the military censor released on Wednesday evening the worst-kept secret in the Middle East. In a surprising statement, the censor’s office informed the media in Israel that after “background work and thorough and practical examination,” the censor had decided to reveal for publication the fact that the Israel Defense Forces uses assault drones in its operational activities. The Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip, who could tell people in the early 2000s about the zanazat (“buzzers”) that fly through the sky before an assassination by the military and the Shin Bet security service, have long ago grown up. Now, Israel’s citizens can also know the truth.

The use of assault drones was part of the concept of the Asufa – a system developed by the army in the 1980s and 1990s as a means of response to a major Syrian land attack (Ehud Barak was one of its spiritual fathers as military deputy chief of staff and chief of staff). The army was still overshadowed in those years by the trauma of the Yom Kippur War and was looking for ways it could ensure its superiority in case of a repeated clash with Syrian armored divisions on the Golan Heights. The response, instead of tanks, was precise weaponry.

The operational idea was that the army would be able to pinpoint Syrian tanks from a distance and destroy them with precise missile fire before they reached attack range on Israeli tanks. Part of the task was given to special ground units (Maglan, Moran and Meitar). The other part used assault drones that were developed by the military industries. The main one was called Zik, which was operated jointly by the Israel Air Force and the Artillery Corps.

The military tested the idea in a number of lengthy exercises, but not in real life, because no war had started between Israel and Syria. The revolution in drone use followed the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. Two months later, Israel embarked on a policy of assassinations of senior leaders of Palestinian terror groups. The first actions were carried out by attack helicopters and later fighter planes; sometimes elite ground forces were also deployed. Two problems emerged. The weaponry fired by the helicopters (and certainly by the aircraft) was heavy and caused severe damage to the surroundings, as well as deaths of non-combatants. The entry of ground forces deep into enemy territory put soldiers at risk.

Gradually, the army and the Shin Bet began employing assault drones, which fired smaller weaponry, as a main means of assassination. Many senior terrorists, including Ahmad Jabari, known as the Hamas chief of staff, and the Lebanese murderer Samir Kuntar (who was released from Israeli prison and operated in the service of Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan, and whose assassination was attributed to Israel) were struck down this way in those years. But especially in the first years, the security establishment kept this a well-guarded secret. The main argument at the time was that this capability was kept under wraps to maintain the element of surprise against the Syrians if war broke out – while the secondary mission meanwhile found for Zik did not have to interfere with this.

The first entanglement came in November 2003. A month before, Israel had conducted an aerial pursuit of an armed band in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Drone fire killed eight people, including civilians. MK Yossi Sarid (Meretz), a veteran member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who had excellent sources of information inside the army, discovered the fact that drone fire was responsible. However, the army’s official remarks (by the IDF spokesman and then-air force commander Dan Halutz) claimed it was a helicopter attack by Hellfire missiles. Sarid sparked a small scandal and demanded explanations from the army. The army spokesman’s office was furious; it turned out the chief of staff had kept them out of the loop regarding the use of classified means.

The secret was kept at the insistence of the security establishment heads, although it was known to the media. The ban on publication quickly became absurd. The army and the Shin Bet developed a very effective weapon to identify activists and quickly strike them from the air using the drones. They were operated from a joint operations room in Tel Aviv. The U.S. Army, which at that time was embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan in the war against terror declared after the 9/11 attacks, learned and adopted some of the Israeli methods. As opposed to the Israelis, the Americans made no effort to conceal their actions. In 2005, a Hollywood film whose plot took place in the Middle East, “Syriana,” precisely recreated an assassination by drone.

Israeli drones gradually proliferated, as did imitations and modes of operation. Friends and enemies made use of them in many countries. Two years ago, during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan reportedly used Israeli drones to attack Armenian forces. And only a week ago, it was reported that Iran was going to supply Russia with hundreds of assault drones for its war in Ukraine. The Iranians, by the way, copy mainly from the Chinese.

Around 2010, IDF officers began to be allowed to mention assault drones in background briefings for the press. However, the censor’s ban on publication remained in force. This was, as noted, a secret that was not a secret, but the policy stayed put long after it was no longer needed. Even the blackout regarding Israeli responsibility for the attack on the Syrian nuclear plant, and the details of the operation, persisted only for 11 years. The decision made on Wednesday night was way overdue.

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