An Israeli military strike in southern Gaza. Photo: Getty
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If Israel has better drones than anyone, why are so many innocent people dying?

Manless in Gaza: the story of how civilians have lost the drone war.

Five weeks into the fighting in Gaza, there has been widespread condemnation over the high number of civilian casualties, especially given Israel’s claim that it uses “the most sophisticated weapons available today in order to pinpoint and target only legitimate military objectives and minimize collateral damage to civilians.”

Israel is a world leader in unmanned technologies, which make up the backbone of its high-tech arsenal. In Gaza we see a maturing of the art of drone warfare: ground robots probe Hamas tunnels, artillery units use mini-drones to look over the battlefield, and in the sky, long endurance unmanned aircraft provide intelligence, paint targets and drop bombs.

Drone warfare extends through time as well as space. Over the years Gazans have become familiar with the distinctive buzzing that means drones are loitering overhead performing “istar” – intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. In less poetic language, they capture information that will be used to compile a list of people and things to destroy at a later date.

Making a list, checking it twice

After the previous major Gaza action, 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, national security analyst Anthony Cordesman studied what went into the making of an Israeli target list. Imagery, communications and human intelligence were used to develop what he described as a “remarkably accurate picture of Hamas targets” that “treated virtually every known Hamas location or residence as a potential area of operations.” 

Gaza is a densely populated, highly urbanized environment, and the problem is that Hamas, like guerrillas everywhere, likes to operate in civilian areas. Israel knows this tactic well, and is also cognizant of war laws that frown on states who kill civilians on their way to the bad guys. But there is a loophole – if the military advantage gained is significant, then the action can be defended as a “military necessity.”  Cordesman found that for Cast Lead, Israel “explicitly evaluated the risk to civilians and the location of sensitive sites like schools, hospitals, mosques, churches, and other holy sites,” against the military advantage to be gained by hitting these targets regardless.

Target more, kill more

Israel has owned up to attacking 4,762  “terror sites”.  That’s a lot of targets in tiny Gaza, however accurate the weapons. We can assume that Israel continues to put a lot of thought into choosing targets. We can also assume that, thanks to its drones, it has a pretty good idea of what it hits. In March, an Israeli officer told CBN News, "the most important thing that the [drones] help during combat is to distinguish terrorist from civilians because most of the enemy techniques here in the region is to operate from civilian areas. We really don't want to hurt civilians during combat."

And yet, hurt them they do. According to UN estimates, some 72 per cent of the nearly 2000 Gazans killed were not Hamas militants, but civilians – children, old ladies, bank tellers, schoolteachers. Even the young men, say their mothers, were out buying bread, not firing rockets.

One of the brakes on going to war used to be the risk to soldiers’ lives, but thanks to drones, armies don’t even have to put boots on the ground or pilots in the air, and with all this hi-tech weaponry, all that high-grade intelligence, all those lawyers advising them, modern militaries think they can dispel the fog of war and take the shot.

The problem is, the more that they think they know what they’re doing, the more inclined they are to do it. The biggest lesson of drone warfare is that it lowers the threshold for military action. As Gaza shows, drones makes militaries feel confident about rushing their bombs into areas where angels may fear to tread but where civilians have little choice.

Ann Rogers is co-author, with John Hill, of Unmanned: drone warfare and global security, published by Pluto Press, 2014. She tweets @unmannedfuture

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.