Where drones matter: Notes on Israeli sikul memukad

On the heels of my last post, I now turn to a second geography of drones: how much do drones matter in Israel?

Last Tuesday  (April 30) the Israeli Defense Force targeted and killed Hitham Masshal, a twenty-four year old described by the IDF Spokesperson as a “global jihad-affiliated terrorist”. It was the first targeted killing of a Palestinian in 2013. As many Israeli friends have been quick to point out to me over the last week, an Israeli settler was also killed on that day, stabbed while waiting for a bus near the Palestinian town of Nablus. There are a number of differences between these killings, not least the weapons which were used, but I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on a state-policy that has been publicly acknowledged for over a decade (see here).

Since September 29th 2000, Israel has killed 438 Palestinians using the method of targeted killing. Of these, 279 were the ‘object’ of attack, meaning that Israel intentionally targeted them. The other 159 were ‘collateral damage’, chalked up to accidental or incidental consequences of targeting the other 279. These statistics come from B’Tselem, a very well respected Israeli human rights organisation who keeps tabs on a variety of human rights issues in the Occupied Territories, including – importantly – violence by Palestinians against Israelis. The vast majority of information about targeted killings comes directly from IDF press releases and official statements and I know of no Israeli government body who has taken issue with these statistics, so let us assume for a moment that they are relatively uncontroversial at least from an Israeli point of view (even if some Palestinian organisations would put the number higher).

How many of these were carried out by a drone? A couple of weeks ago, my supervisor Derek Gregory and I were wondering between us whether we could definitively find out when Israel carried out its first targeted killing using a drone, and how many there had been since. We knew that such a seemingly straightforward question would be anything but easy to answer. All targeted killing victims in Palestine are named – by B’Tselem but also often by the IDF – and information about their death is collected and made public. The screenshot below is typical of the kind of information we have about the circumstances of death by targeted killing, and more often than not we know what weapon was used, be it gunfire, helicopter, rocket etc.

Methods and means of killing
Methods and means of killing

The best way to figure out when the first drone killing took place, I thought,  would be to look through the list of names chronologically and see when the words “killed by UAV” appear. The problem is that they never do. I then tried a second strategy. I went through all of the names again to check that every death was accompanied with details about weapon (if not the weapon I was looking for) because I thought that perhaps the second best way to discern when drones were first used was to find out when other weapons were not used. If you have the time, you’ll see what I mean by looking through this. To speed things up press control/find and type in ‘heli’ – you’ll see that the vast majority were killed by gunfire or rockets fired from helicopter: the only exceptions are ground shootings, but there is still no mention of drones or UAVs. Curious.

At this point I turned to former IDF commanders and lawyers I know and asked for assistance. The responses I received shed little light however, and one lawyer who remains a reservist for the IDF told me :

“In fact I am unsure if Israel has ever publicly admitted using drones for this purpose.”

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Israeli drone ownership Source: IISS

I was beginning to wonder quite what Israel was using these drones for, if not for targeted killing. But then it wouldn’t be so out of character for the IDF to say one thing and do another; perhaps it was using drones for killing and not admitting to it? I don’t mean this as a cheap-shot: for years Israel denied that the IDF ever had a policy of targeted killing and suddenly one day in November 2000 the IDF admitted that it did. As the then Prime Minister made clear at the time:

“Sometimes we will announce what we did, sometimes we will not announce what we did. We don’t always have to announce it”

I asked some of Israel’s leading journalists – including Amos Harel – and it soon became apparent that the Israeli military censor prohibits any reference to strikes by drones (this was confirmed in an Amnesty International report on drones in 2009). This is a serious issue and we still dont’ know with 100% certainty when Israel uses drones. From what I have been able to gather, however, and without getting into unfounded assumptions I am reasonably sure that Israel genuinely does not use drones for the actual firing of munitions in targeted killing operations.

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But if that last sentence seems strikingly odd, a qualification should clear things up. It turns out that we were asking the wrong question. Strikes by Israeli drones have never been classified as ‘targeted killings’ as such. Now the interesting thing is that B’Tselem organises its casualty statistics into preduring and post Operation Cast Lead. During that operation, which began in December 2009 and ended in January 2010, the IDF apparently only targeted 20 Palestinians – none of them using a drone. The number is curiously low, so more helpful is too examine all of the fatalities during Cast-Lead. Here, the number is much higher because it includes all forms of killing (not just targeted killing). Press control/find on the combined fatalities page, type in ‘UAV’ and we finally have our answer:  the first documented  and confirmed case of a UAV strike – “gunfire missile fired from a UAV”  – is 27th December 2008 (i.e. the first day of Cast-Lead). The details:

‘Abdallah Munther Jawdat a-Rayes

20 year-old, resident of Gaza city, killed on 27 Dec 2008 next to Gaza city, by gunfire missile fired from a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Did not participate in hostilities. Additional information: Killed with 11 other persons while standing in front of his shop, next to the UNRWA professional training center.

Of the twelve killed, eleven were civilians and did not participate in hostilities. Precise numbers for drone strikes are difficult to come by, but re-reading all of the reports by the human rights organisations at the time it looks as though there were 42 separate strikes. One of those reports, Precisely Wrongby Human Rights Watch, investigated six of these incidents that reportedly killed 29 civilians and an unknown number of combatants. These strikes are plotted on the map below. The curious thing about the report is not its author (as some have claimed), but the fact that it singles-out drone strikes at all. Quite how and why drone strikes were different from the other aerial strikes, which were far more devastating and widespread, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Israel does use drones to target and kill, but for whatever reason has only used them only during periods of intense fighting (or has otherwise used and denied using drones during other periods). The upshot of all this is that drone strikes have slipped through the strange taxonomic classification of casualty-counts. Drones are used to target and kill but not for the express purpose of this policy called targeted killing. Post Cast Lead, drone strikes continued – there have been four strikes and eight casualties since  – but not under the category of ‘targeted killing’ (Since February 2009, B’Tselem stopped listing whether strikes were carried out via drone or helicopter and the ambiguous term ‘Aircraft’  is used).
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At first, its a very strange thing to get ones head around: drones are absolutely essential for surveillance and processes of targeting and IDF personel have talked openly to me about this. But on the other hand they are rarely used to kill. The Israel ‘model’ is thus very different from the U.S. one. Yet drone still matter and specifically they matter to targeted killing even if they have not become the weapon of choice. Any targeted killing operation requires a vast amount of intelligence. Drones have become essential tools for the collection of visual data which is used for both pre-planned strikes and combat-support missions. One Israeli drone operator who flew missions in Gaza during operation Cast-Lead spoke about the drone sensors’ visual capabilities. He told the Israeli online military journal Shavuz that he was able to detect clothing colours, a large radio, and a weapon:

“We identified a terrorist that looked like an Israeli soldier. Our camera enabled us to see him very clearly. He was wearing a green parka jacket and he was walking with a huge radio that looked just like an army radio. We saw that he was not wearing an army helmet and he was hunching down with a weapon, close to the wall wearing black trousers. It was very clear to us that he was not a soldier. We saw him leaving an explosive device at a distance of 100 meters from the [Israeli] forces along with a dummy. These kinds of cases make it clear for me that I must help my friends that are fighting on the ground.”

Human Rights Watch picked up on this passage and used it to reveal an apparent paradox: how is it that with such capacities of seeing, such intimate detail and scope, drones killed so many innocent civilians. If one can see the colour of a jacket, one can surely distinguish between civilians and combatants? The point is well taken, but the military refrain is simple: mistakes happen, or these were not mistakes and civilian deaths were deemed proportional to the military advantage gained by killing even one suspect terrorist.  I don’t think this passage sheds any light on the fact that crimes were committed, but I do believe it tells us something fundamental about the power of drones within the surveillance and targeting apparatus.
The Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron drone. Source: http://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/
The Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron drone. Source: http://www.unmannedsystemstechnology.com/
Thus while, in Israel, the primary purpose of drones may not be to kill per se, one can easily see how essential drones are to the killing apparatus. A number of commentators have hailed drone warfare as heralding the ‘death of distance’; they fasten upon the remote nature of killing and the ‘joystick’ mentality to argue that distance no longer matters: targets can be taken out everywhere from anywhere. This death, if indeed it is a death, has been a long time in the making and distance – not to mention geography – still matters a great deal, I think. For me, the drone hails not so much the death of cartesian distance – the point from A to B – but the  compression of  distance between targeting and killing, and between live video feed surveillance and death. Intelligence gathering and clear lines of sight are not incidental to targeting; they are its deus ex machine and it is in this way that drones have come to matter first and foremost in Israel.
All of this leaves me wondering about the abstraction of bombing and the relationship between the processes which render and reduce people and places into targets – points on a map, white blobs on a thermal imaging screen – and their actual and eventual destruction. The question then is this: is there not a sense in which  before drones fire, or  even when they do not fire at all they are intimately involved in very real destruction and death? Do drones necessarily need to fire in order to kill?
Its worth noting that according to Israeli double-speak, targeted killing was never about killing; it is, and always has been about the living. The Hebrew name for the policy – which translates terribly – is sikul memukad. ‘Sikul’ means focus/focused and ‘memukad’ means prevention. Drones hardly kill then, and neither do the helicopter gunships: Israel doesn’t do targeted killing, it does ‘focused prevention’.


Add yours →

  1. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Craig Jones on Israel’s use of drones.

  2. Reblogged this on Biometric State and commented:
    Interesting post on the Israeli use of Drones

  3. Interesting and enlightening and a great lesson on data collection technics. As an Israeli I was horrified to see (again) how many Palestinians were murdered for the continuation of my country’s colonial conquest. Just a note on translation, sikul is the word for prevention and memukad is the word for focus

  4. As for the meaning of the euphemism commonly used, it is exactly the opposite: sikul means “prevention” and memukad means “focused”.

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