Within some weeks, the German parliament will be voting on whether to arm Heron TP unmanned aerial vehicles made in Israel, which the German military uses in Afghanistan and Mali. The Israeli drones were supplied to the German army in a 1 billion euro deal signed in 2018 despite enormous public protest in Germany. The deal was approved because the drones were not armed, and thus could not be used for attacks. German soldiers are being trained in Israel to operate the new drones.
Security and military deals with Germany are familiar to us primarily through the acquisition of German submarines and the alleged violations that have been associated with them (Case 3000). These transactions were widely criticized in Israel and Germany, but very little has been said or written about Israeli arms exports to Germany beyond that. Yet since the early 2000s, there have been many significant arms deals with Germany, including the export of 3,000 Spike antiaircraft missiles and 20 fighter-jet navigation systems made by Rafael. This information comes from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Israel’s drone deals with Germany began in 2009, when it first leased drones to the German army for use in Afghanistan. Seven years later there was a similar transaction, this time to operate the drones in Mali. At that point the German military decided it was interested in Israel’s newest drone technology, the Heron TP, known in Hebrew as the Eitan. This is an especially large drone that can attack from the air and carry a load of several tons. The deal was delayed for some five years due to political and public opposition in Germany, where there is still opposition to using attack drones because of the risk that civilians could be harmed.
Much has been said about the problems in using attack drones and the risks they pose to civilians. We can recall the killing of the four boys in Gaza in 2014, or the three young men killed at the Asma school in 2009 to understand the inherent dangers.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch determined that attacks by Israeli drones during Operation Cast Lead and the numerous deaths among Gaza civilians were violations of international law. The Eitan was used by the Israeli air force in 2009 during the operation.
What will the Israeli attack-drone do in Afghanistan? The German army has been in Afghanistan since 2001 as part of the American activity there. According to a report by the group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, more than 100,000 noncombatants have been killed in Afghanistan since then. There is no estimate of how many of them were killed by the German military, although in 2009 more than 120 people were killed by German shelling in the city of Kondoz. That event was widely reported and resonated in Germany. Ten years later, according to the German newspaper Die Welt, there were more civilians killed in Afghanistan by foreign armies, including Germany’s, than by the Taliban. The use of attack drones, which has already been proven to increase civilian casualties, would do tremendous damage in a country like Afghanistan.
The year 2020 will be a year of German decisions that will directly impact on Afghan citizens. In March, the German government extended its military presence in Afghanistan for another year. Now it is seeking approval to arm the Israeli drones that will be flown there. Until now, the harm done to Afghan civilians by the German forces was Germany’s responsibility alone, but if this plan comes to fruition, it will also be our responsibility as Israelis. That’s why we must object to this move now, and make it clear that as Israelis who care about human rights, we demand that the German parliament prevent this predictable disaster and not allow the drones to be armed.
Jonathan Hampel is a researcher for an international human rights group.