Editorial

Israel's Conspiracy of Silence Over Its Use of Drones

Military censorship is preventing a debate on the weapon accounting for 70 percent of the air force’s flight hours.

An unmanned Heron drone flies over Ein Shemer Airfield in 2012.
Alon Ron

Thirty years have gone by since navigator Ron Arad was taken captive after abandoning his plane under fire in Lebanon. His fate remains unknown. This month, pilot Ohad Cohen Nov was killed while returning from a bombing run in Gaza.

These incidents will become less frequent as the air force replaces manned planes with drones, or as they’re now also known, remotely operated aircraft. In the new era of military aviation, a plane can spend hours in the air while its operators sit safely at bases, free from the fear of capture or death and spared the vagaries of acceleration, exhaustion and vertigo.

The absence of risk for pilots increases the temptation to use flying robots.  U.S. President Barack Obama has made drones the United States’ main weapon in its war against Islamic terror. Use of the weapon is mounting in Israel as well: Remotely operated aircraft account for 70 percent of the air force’s flight hours.

Israel, however, isn’t up front about their use. Israel doesn’t acknowledge that these aircraft are armed and used in combat, despite plentiful testimony from Palestinians who have seen them strike Gaza, the governments that have bought such aircraft from Israel, and even a military presentation showing how the Zik – the Israel Defense Forces’ main drone – wiped out a Hamas cell that infiltrated Israel during the 2014 Gaza war.

In the United States, the public debate over drone attacks is lively. The discussion is focused on the ethics of robotic weaponry operated by people not in harm’s way, and over the mental toll on those operating the equipment – people killing people thousands of miles away.

At first the Obama administration took a vague approach, but that has gradually changed. It has taken responsibility for the drone activity and has revealed some of the rules for their use. In the end it has restrained their use.

In Israel, official silence and military censorship are preventing such a debate. The result: Media reporting and public attention ignore the air force’s main weapon. The silence is particularly apparent compared to the publicity for the air force’s new manned F-35 jet. What are the rules for approving drone attacks as opposed to attacks by manned aircraft? Do the people operating them suffer unique problems? The authorities refuse to say.

Israel is also a leading drone exporter, but official opaqueness prevents a debate over the recipients of these exports, which include countries that aren’t democracies. This month Israel rejected an American initiative to set rules for the use and export of armed drones, apparently also against the backdrop of competition in markets such as India and Germany.

This wasn’t reported or explained to the public. The time has come to reveal the operations of these aircraft of silence in Israel, as part of the public’s oversight over the military and government.