Death from the skies: Israel's new policy of armed drones in the West Bank
The Israeli army chief of staff’s decision in September to allow the use of armed drones in targeted killings in the occupied West Bank has raised concerns about the humanitarian and legal implications of such a policy.
Israeli media had reported that the Israeli army was preparing to implement the use of drones in military raids. Such incursions - numbering more than 2,200 so far in 2022 - have in recent months included the targeted killings of Palestinian militants, especially in Nablus and Jenin.
These raids are generally carried out by Israeli special forces and are frequently confronted by Palestinian gunmen, turning into hours-long gun battles.
However, the reported green light by the Israeli chief of staff Aviv Kochavi to carry out targeted killings using armed drones could have profound legal and human rights consequences on an entirely different level.
"The Israeli army's green light of drone killings comes in the midst of an ongoing escalation in the West Bank"
Israel began the practice of targeted killings through air strikes in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.
The first aerial assassination in the West Bank by Israel was the killing of Hussein Abayat, a Fatah militant leader in Bethlehem, in November 2000. He was killed when Israeli Apache helicopters launched missiles at a van he was travelling in.
Besides Abayat, two Palestinian civilian women aged around 50 were killed and six other civilians were wounded in the incident.
Despite civilian casualties, the Israeli supreme court ruled in 2006 in favour of allowing targeted killings in all their forms.
In the following years, the tactic was used mostly in the Gaza Strip, especially through air strikes, often causing heavy civilian casualties.
“This is the first concern when it comes to drone killings, that they will most probably cause civilian casualties,” Tahseen Alian, a Palestinian legal expert, told The New Arab.
“Apache helicopters during the Second Intifada were manned by pilots, and still they killed innocent people almost with each strike,” said Alian. “Drones are machines, and it is proven by experience in other countries that they kill innocent victims more often than not.”
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s statistics, between 8,858 and 16,901 people have been killed in some 14,040 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia since 2010. Between 910 and 2,200 of the victims were civilians, and 283 to 454 were children.
But aside from civilian casualties, the use of drones for targeted killings raises a more fundamental concern.
According to the European Center for Constitutional and Human rights, US drone warfare “often violates international law, such as strict rules … [and] basic human rights, namely the right to life and physical integrity, by attacking individuals without sufficiently determining their status".
In 2015, following a wave of individual knife attacks against Israelis by Palestinians, mostly young men, Israel amended the focus of its ‘rules of engagement’, allowing for the immediate killing of attackers or suspects.
"Taking into account that the Israeli definition of an 'immediate threat' is loose and not objective, the use of drone technology would most probably result in more human rights violations, unlawful killings, and civilian casualties"
According to the Adalah human rights centre in Israel, “The amendment of these rules of engagement led to a dramatic increase in the unjustifiable use of lethal force by police, (...) including many instances of what appear to be extrajudicial executions”.
Between January and July 2022, Israeli forces killed 53 Palestinians as a result of the excessive use of force, according to the Euro-Med human rights center.
According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, the targeted assassination of Palestinian militants in military raids also classifies as an extra-judicial killing.
“The extra-judicial killing of Palestinians is already a current concern,” pointed out Tahseen Alian. “They will most probably increase with the introduction of drones, due to eased Israeli rules of engagement and the increased capacity of killing anyone anywhere by drones,” he added.
Last week, following a briefing to Israeli media, an Israeli army spokesperson told Israeli journalists that drone attacks would be used only in case of an “immediate need to eliminate a threat”, and not as “a policy of resuming assassinations”.
However, the Israeli army’s green light of drone killings comes in the midst of an ongoing escalation in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have already killed 165 Palestinians during military raids into Palestinian towns and cities, including several targeted killings of Palestinian militants in the northern West Bank.
"People are worried about the possible use of drones in killings because they are sure that civilian casualties will increase," Mohammad Raei, a human rights activist based in Nablus told The New Arab.
"For the last two weeks, Israeli drones haven't left the skies of Nablus, and although they are most probably not armed drones, their sound makes everybody nervous," he said.
"My family and I as well as our neighbours feel already threatened by Israeli raids, and drones make it even more difficult to live our daily lives, thinking that they might soon begin to fire," he added.
"I personally hope that the Israeli occupation doesn't begin to kill with drones, because we all know that it was targeted killings that exacerbated the situation during the Second Intifada and prolonged the violence," Osama Hanini, a young engineer in Ramallah, told The New Arab.
"The current situation, which is already loose and uncertain, would become even more violent and complicated," he said.
"People are worried about the possible use of drones in killings because they are sure that civilian casualties will increase"
“There is no guarantee that the number of killings would not increase after the introduction of drones,” remarked Tahseen Alian.
“Taking into account that the Israeli definition of an ‘immediate threat’ is loose and not objective, the use of drone technology would most probably result in more human rights violations, unlawful killings, and civilian casualties,” he stressed.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi