Israel Should Stop Suppressing Debate About Its Drone Policy

There is no reason why Israel can't admit publicly that that the IDF uses drones for strike missions in Gaza. Hiding unmanned warfare from the public view, in stark contrast to the recent U.S. Senate hearings, only shuts down a long-overdue debate on Israel's drone policy.

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The political and media discourse in the United States over recent weeks has focused on the issue of drones, unmanned aerial vehicles that carry out strikes on Al-Qaida targets in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other parts of the globe, tens of thousands of kilometers from America's shores. The Obama administration leaked a legal memo setting out the wide powers of the president to order the killing of terror suspects, including even American citizens, at the touch of a button pressed by a drone operator sitting safely in Nevada.

John Brennan, the president's counter-terrorism adviser, was questioned at length over the administration's drones policy during the Senate's Intelligence Affairs Committee hearings towards his appointment as the next director of the CIA. At the same time, after long months in which leading American newspapers withheld the full details, it was reported that the United States is operating a special airfield for drones in the Saudi Arabian desert, near the Yemeni border.

The intensifying public debate over the military use of drones, and increasingly for police and civilian supervision duties, will roll on for years. In the next few months a special team appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Commission will begin investigating the use of drones by the U.S., Britain and Israel, in strikes where civilians were also killed. But while the subject is dominating headlines around the world, there is one country which has pioneered drone warfare, where the debate is yet to kick off.

The Israeli Air Force is justly proud of the successful operational record of its unmanned squadrons over the last four decades. But the publication of these achievements is permitted only within very narrow guidelines dictated by the defense establishment. The Israeli public is aware only of a limited slice of the IAF's unmanned capabilities and any wider exposure is prevented by the invocation of national security.

Therefore, we can only rely on "foreign sources" that maintain that Israel has being using drones for years to carry out targeted killing in the Gaza Strip. In one of the diplomatic cables of the U.S. State Department published two years ago by Wikileaks, the IDF Advocate-General, Major General Avichai Mandelblit was quoted as saying in a February 2010 meeting with former U.S. ambassador, James Cunningham, that a drone had been used during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in a strike on Hamas fighters in which citizens were killed. "Mandelblit said that the facts were known:" says the cable. "A UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) shot at two Hamas fighters in front of the mosque and 16 unintended casualties resulted inside the mosque due to an open door through which shrapnel entered during a time of prayer." In another of the leaked cables, Mandelblit is quoted saying similar things to the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner in a forum which included other diplomats and senior IDF officer including former Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi.

Assuming these "foreign sources" are accurate, we can understand why when the IDF Spokesman Unit says that "an IAF aircraft hit a terror team in the Gaza Strip," they don't add the second half of that sentence which was used in the past, "our pilots reported accurate hits on the target and returned safely to their base." In every interview published with Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza, and even with ordinary Palestinian citizens there, they all say how they lead their lives under the assumption that Israeli drones are hovering above and can launch a missile at them at any moment.

An Israeli admission that the IDF uses drones for strike missions in Gaza will not decrease the operational capabilities of these systems in any way. The publication may make things a bit more difficult for the IDF's PR people and its lawyers who will have to supply detailed explanation for how such warfare confirms to Israeli and international moral and legal obligations. But these difficulties are no reason to deny this publicly. This isn't the nuclear issue, where geopolitical and historical considerations justify a policy of opacity.

On the contrary, the use of drones for counter-terror operations can be much more ethical than striking a target with manned aircraft or by a commando raid. The drone is capable of loitering over the target area for hours without detection, supplying through its cameras and sensors a definite identification of the target and hitting it with a small and accurate missile, causing a limited explosion, which minimizes collateral damage and innocent casualties. If Israel takes responsibility for these strikes, there is no reason not to acknowledge the weapon systems used to carry them out.

Hundreds of officers routinely operate the drones and thousands of soldiers and commanders in the field are exposed to their use. Frequently the use of drones in operations is necessary and minimizes risk to IDF personnel but it could have long-term psychological effects on those involved. In addition, in cases where mistakes are made a civilians killed or wounded, the public has a right to know what link in the command chain failed and bears responsibility.

If the defense establishment is indeed using drones for strike missions, it must be open about that with the Israeli and international public and justify that use. When things go wrong and civilian casualties are caused, explanations must be given and conclusions drawn for the future. The fact that this has yet to be done gives raise to the suspicion that such mistakes have already occurred and been covered up. Unmanned warfare has become an inseparable part of the modern battlefield and hiding it from the public view does not serve any operational interest, it only shuts down an important debate on principle and practice that should have taken place a long time ago.

An Israeli Air Force drone.Credit: Ilan Assayag