“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.