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The Gospel: Israel's controversial AI used in the Gaza war

The Gospel: Israel's controversial AI used in the Gaza war
7 min read
13 December, 2023
In-depth: Israel's use of new artificial intelligence platforms to generate bombing targets in Gaza has been blamed for the high civilian death toll.

Israel's implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) in Gaza marks another significant shift in the landscape of modern warfare.

However, the widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure in Gaza - along with the alarming death toll surpassing 18,400 - have raised concerns about the use of automation and robotics in operations labelled as counter-insurgencies.

As highlighted in a recent groundbreaking investigation by Israeli outlets +972 Magazine and Local Call, at the forefront of Israel’s offensive is a system called “haBsora” (“the Gospel”).

This AI platform reportedly allows accelerated target selection in Gaza for bombing, as well as faster tracking of Hamas positions, while providing an estimate of likely deaths in advance of an attack.

Indeed, while older systems could have produced 50 targets in a day, the Gospel system now enables the Israeli army to produce 100 targets.

But how exactly does this system work? In short, it creates targets using a method called ‘probabilistic inference,’ a key feature of machine learning algorithms. Essentially, these algorithms analyse large amounts of data to identify patterns.

The effectiveness of these algorithms largely depends on both the quality and the amount of data they process. The algorithms use these patterns to make predictions or suggestions based on likelihood.

If an individual shares sufficient characteristics with others identified as enemy combatants, the system might also label that individual as a combatant. This process is based on the likelihood or probability that they share the same status, not on absolute certainty.

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Israel's AI strategy

Israel’s significant data collection and information gathering has been a core component which has enabled this new strategy.

"Over the years, Israel has amassed a vast amount of intelligence using surveillance equipment, drones, and spies within Hamas, as well as from Palestinians crossing the border,” Antony Loewenstein, independent journalist and author of The Palestine Laboratory, told The New Arab.

“This massive intelligence gathering has enabled Israel to generate and pump out this vast number of targets," he added.

The Gospel’s ability to select targets to bomb is so profound that one former Israeli intelligence official called it a “mass assassination factory”.

While older systems could have produced 50 targets in a day, the Gospel system now enables the Israeli army to produce 100 targets, leading to a dramatic increase in deadly airstrikes during the war. [Getty]

According to the investigation, it allows the army to carry out strikes on residential homes, where a single Hamas member lives, on a massive scale, even those who are junior Hamas operatives.

Yet Palestinian testimonies have indicated that airstrikes have targeted numerous residential buildings where no known member of Hamas resided.

“The use of the new AI targeting system called 'haBsora' is partly responsible for such a high rate of Israeli strikes in Gaza throughout this war,” Dr Rob Geist Pinfold, Lecturer in Peace and Security at Durham University, told The New Arab.

“Israel has long had the capacity to conduct this many strikes but has lacked the intel to do so in a relatively accurate way, so the use of AI bolsters Israel's intelligence and therefore warfighting capabilities,” he added.

“This AI uses existing intelligence to pinpoint potential targets in Gaza and to map the number of theoretical civilian casualties that a strike on those targets would cause. This is all classified by a 'traffic light' system: red would mean that there would be too many Palestinian casualties to justify an attack, whereas green would suggest the opposite.”

Aiding this, Israel has also disclosed the implementation of another AI system, alongside the Gospel, known as the 'Fire Factory'. This system utilises data on military-approved targets to calculate munition loads, prioritise and allocate thousands of targets to aircraft and drones, and propose a schedule for subsequent raids.

Israel's venture into AI-assisted warfare is not new. The Israeli army claimed to have fought the "first AI war" during the 11-day war in Gaza in May 2021, underlining the country's ongoing push towards integrating advanced technology and supercomputing into its military strategy. Meanwhile, Israeli forces had started using AI for target selection in air strikes and logistical planning as of July 2023.

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Ethical concerns

Israel is actively seeking to increase its usage of autonomous warfare, as announced by Israeli Defence Ministry's Director General Eyal Zamir in May 2023. This integration includes the formation of a dedicated military robotics division and a substantial increase in funding for AI research and development.

Key focuses of this initiative were the development of AI-driven swarming strike platforms and autonomous combat systems. As it possesses a small military in numbers while prioritising technological advancements, Israel is also looking to fill the gaps, with the stated ambition of becoming an “AI powerhouse,” in the words of Zamir.

On the one hand, AI can make militaries more efficient and lethal, as militaries can use remote and autonomous systems to select and hit targets.

“The risk here is that this system is generating so many targets that it makes human oversight much harder, suggesting that more ad-hoc decisions are being made, which may partially explain the high civilian death toll,” Dr Rob Geist Pinfold added.

The potential for Israeli AI to generate more targets at a quicker speed is thought to be at least partially responsible for the huge civilian death toll in Gaza. [Getty]

And while advocates of AI in warfare have praised it for enabling militaries to do ‘more with less’ and for enabling more precise targeting that limits civilian casualties, there are profound ethical concerns. Not to mention that there are difficulties in regulating machine learning-based military systems.

"Israel and its allies argue that AI enhances the precision and accuracy of their operations, therefore limiting civilian casualties. Yet there's scant evidence to substantiate this claim,” said Loewenstein.

“Based on what we've seen, the primary objective of Israel's strategy is more about inflicting substantial damage rather than precision, making Gaza unliveable and forcing people to overthrow Hamas,” he added.

Indeed, according to the +972 investigation, top Israeli intelligence officers instructed their operatives to "kill as many Hamas operatives as possible," while relaxing any restrictions around harming Palestinian civilians.

This strategy, involving broad cellular pinpointing, often trades accuracy for speed, leading to potential collateral damage and igniting debates over the ethics of AI in warfare.

Implications for the future of warfare

Israel's use of the Gospel and similar strategies represents a further advancement in the integration of AI into warfare, a leap with historical precedents. From the Vietnam War, marking the initial foray into testing out laser-guided missiles, to the Iraq War, which witnessed the advancement into biometric systems for insurgent identification, along with more advanced guided munitions, the progression of ‘adopting and enhancing' AI equipment in warfare is evident.

Governments across the globe are constantly in fervent pursuit of fresh AI advancements to enhance their militaries. Emphasising the role that the Gaza war may play in this trend, a former White House official, quoted by The Guardian, argued that “other states are going to be watching and learning” from Israel's application of AI in its war.

"Israel has published numerous videos of its airstrikes, and this isn’t done to address just a domestic audience or influencing international public opinion,” said Antony Loewenstein.

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“The primary aim is to showcase their capabilities to other governments, essentially attracting foreign buyers."

Israel’s arms exports are expanding, having doubled in value in the last decade, according to the defence ministry. Among its key customers are states like India, nations in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Arab states that have normalised ties with Israel since the 2020 Abraham Accords.

“Israel is actively marketing its equipment and methods, setting a precedent that is likely to be emulated by other nations in the future, particularly those that say they’re engaged in counter-insurgency operations” added Loewenstein.

“The exact countries that will follow suit may be unknown for now, but the trend is clear."

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey