An Israeli military strike in southern Gaza. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.