"It buzzed like bees around me." Muhammad Allaw, 13, was describing the sound made by an Israeli unmanned drone overhead moments before it fired a rocket that killed his 10-year-old brother Mo'men, crushing his legs and scattering tiny identical cubes of shrapnel throughout his chest. The family had been sitting on the roof of their home at noontime in the al-Shaaf area of Gaza City on January 5. No Israeli ground forces or Palestinian fighters were nearby when the drone struck, literally out of the blue.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become ubiquitous in Gaza's skies in recent years and are key to the notion that Israel can use high-tech precision weaponry to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The facts, however, suggest that any weapon is only as discriminating as the people using it.
Israel is the world's leader in drone technology. It has modified US designs for its own use and even for export (despite the recent diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey, a drone purchase deal between the two countries appears to be on track). Israel's primary armed model, the Hermes, is the Israel Defense Force's answer to the Predator, which is used extensively by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Hermes can hover at 18,000 feet for up to twenty hours at a time. Its sensors can discern people on the ground--they can even distinguish between adults and children. Drones can carry a variety of munitions; those used in Gaza appear to rely primarily on a variant of the US-made Spike anti-tank missile, with a lethal blast radius of ten to twenty meters.
Little wonder, then, that drones were the IDF's weapon of choice when Israel launched its military campaign on December 27 with an attack on the Gaza City police headquarters, which killed at least forty cadets during a police academy graduation ceremony. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, the proposal to attack this event was hotly debated within the IDF for months. IDF lawyers knew that these policemen were presumptively civilians under international law, which would consider them legitimate targets only if they were directly participating in hostilities against Israel. At the site of this attack Human Rights Watch researchers found hundreds of perfectly cubic pieces of metal shrapnel, circuit boards and other parts (including some marked with Motorola serial numbers), and four small impact craters--all consistent with drone-fired missiles.
The assault that killed Mo'men Allaw was one of six drone attacks that Human Rights Watch researchers in the Gaza Strip investigated, in which twenty-nine civilians were killed. Five of six took place in broad daylight, and all of them without any evident military targets in the vicinity, in civilian areas that were removed from fighting and, because they were so densely built-up and distant from border areas, were unlikely sites for launching rockets into Israel. In addition to interviewing more than a dozen witnesses, we gathered extensive physical evidence consistent with drone attacks, such as telltale cubic pieces of shrapnel, and took photographs of the blast patterns left behind in walls and items of clothing speckled with dozens of tiny square holes. Other human rights groups have documented dozens of similar incidents.
One of the deadliest drone attacks occurred a few hours after the initial December 27 air assault. A drone fired a missile at a group of youths who had gathered around a radio as they waited for a bus near the United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters in Gaza City. The missile killed twelve young men, mostly students at the UNRWA-sponsored Gaza Training College across the street.
"We heard a buzzing noise in the air before the explosion," recalled Ibrahim Rayyis, 19, who witnessed the attack from a nearby store. "When I went out to see what happened, my two brothers Hisham and Allam were lying on the ground, blood gushing from their wounds." Their father, Nehru Rayyis, later stumbled upon the body of another relative killed in the attack, 20-year-old Abd Allah, on the floor outside an overflowing morgue in a Gaza hospital.
Human Rights Watch has also documented several cases of children killed while playing on the roofs of their homes. On January 4, the day before Mo'men Allaw was killed, an Israeli drone fired a missile at two children playing on the roof of a two-story home in downtown Gaza City, killing Mahmoud Mashharawi, 12, and Ahmed Subayh, 16. Mahmoud's brother Ashraf, 30, a cameraman who has worked with Britain's Channel 4 television, rushed to the hospital in time to watch his brother die on the operating table.
A few hours later, five children from the al-Habbash family who were on the roof of their home in the al-Shaaf neighborhood were struck by a drone-fired missile, killing 10-year-old Shadhar and 12-year-old Isra. Two of their teenage siblings each lost both of their legs. "We keep chickens on the roof, and the kids were feeding them and playing," their father, Muhammad, a science teacher at an UNRWA school, told us. After the ambulances evacuated his children, he said, he collected pieces of their skin and flesh from the roof.
That Israel's drones essentially treated anyone on a Gaza rooftop as a target was apparent most of all to its own soldiers. "They told us not to go up on the roofs because everyone who goes up on the roof is going to be taken out," an IDF medic stationed in the Zaytoun area on the outskirts of Gaza City during the campaign told Human Rights Watch. His comrades made clear, he said, that if he went up on the roof of a Palestinian home, "somebody from the air will take you down."
However indiscriminately they may have struck, IDF drones probably killed fewer civilians than old-fashioned weapons such as artillery and tank shells during the recent military campaign.
No weapon better symbolizes Israel's indirect occupation of the Gaza Strip. Since removing its military bases and settlers from Gaza in 2005, Israel has disclaimed any responsibility as an occupying power for the well-being of Gaza's populace. But even without permanent garrisons, Israel continues to control Gaza's economy and infrastructure, from its borders and airspace to its power grid and monetary policy. The Israeli blockade of Gaza, tightened in mid-2007 after Hamas took over Palestinian Authority institutions, has created immense hardships on Gaza's civilian population. And just as Israel's control of Gaza's borders allows it to dictate from a safe distance what Gazans can eat, whether they can turn on their lights and what kinds of medical treatment are available to them, drones give Israel the ability to carry out targeted attacks without having to risk "boots on the ground."
Under the laws of war, Israel remains a belligerent force and an occupier in Gaza, and its actions are accordingly regulated by two sets of rules: one for how it may fight and another for ensuring the welfare of the population. Israel uses its drones to pay lip service to the first set of duties and its embargo to wash its hands of the latter. In short, it seeks indefinite control without responsibility. The facts, however, tell a starkly different story: that neither remote-control weapons nor remote-control occupations equal more justice or less bloodshed.