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How the IDF's hi-tech revolution cheapens Palestinian lives

The IDF is developing new technology that will eventually cut down on the need for soldiers to go to the front lines. What does this mean for the Palestinians whose lives will hang on the decision of a machine?

File photo of Israeli soldiers patrolling the northern border. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

File photo of Israeli soldiers patrolling the northern border. (Photo by Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The Israeli army is optimistic that there will be no need for soldiers to be stationed on Israel’s borders in the future. Not because there will be peace, and not because there will be no need to maintain militarized borders. Rather it is because they are working towards unmanned, weaponized patrol vehicles that will do the job instead.

A blog post on the topic published on the IDF’s English-language website, which was was shared on the IDF’s official Facebook page, was accompanied by the comment: “In 10 years there won’t be any soldiers guarding Israel’s borders. And here’s why.”

That this is being used as a point of reassurance speaks volumes about the mentality of the Israeli military. The tone reads as: “Don’t worry, the occupation will still be going on in a decade’s time. But we’ll be using robots to maintain it instead.”

The introduction to the article takes this thrust further, describing how “the induction of these vehicles and robots into the battlefield will dramatically change the future of urban warfare, leading modern-day combat into new and unexpected directions.” It sounds as if this state of perpetual conflict is desirable — something the Israeli army is actively pursuing.

The eventual idea is to have unmanned vehicles and robots on the front lines “making autonomous decisions based on the information they are provided with.” This is in effect proposing that the decision as to whether someone in a combat zone lives or dies will be made by an algorithm. This level of technology is already in play in Russia, where mobile, weaponized robots have been deployed to guard ballistic missile installations. Later on in the piece, Col. Yaron Sagiv of the IDF’s Technology Division states that “[w]e are definitely going in a direction where autonomous soldiers could carry the weight in the war. The intention is to increase the quantity of robots.”

This intention reflects a trend that is increasing around the world. When it comes to patrolling borders, the United States has been using unmanned drones over the Arizona border for several years, which it uses to collect data and send video feeds back to a command center. (The drones are Israeli exports — Elbit Systems’ Hermes-450 model.) At one time, the Department of Homeland Security was considering weaponizing these drones, although the idea has apparently been shelved for the time being. Nonetheless, drone warfare constitutes one of the building blocks of the U.S.’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

In terms of conflict situations, more and more armies are developing and testing technology that would hand over decision-making in combat areas to autonomous machines. The momentum has increased to the point that Human Rights Watch recently released a report calling for such innovations to be banned along with cluster bombs and land mines. The UN’s second multi-lateral meeting on “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems” (LAWS) took place last month, during which the Israeli representative stressed the need to “maintain an open mind” regarding such weaponry.

Activists protest the use of drones by American armed forces, April 13, 2013 in downtown Boston, MA. The protest came as part of the "April Days of Action", a national campaign of counter-drone protests. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

Activists protest the use of drones by American armed forces, April 13, 2013 in downtown Boston, MA. The protest came as part of the “April Days of Action”, a national campaign of counter-drone protests. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

In the spirit of such an open mind, let us consider a major point that is raised by these developments. If, indeed, the IDF is looking to drastically cut down on (or even do away with altogether) the need to have human beings in the battlefield, it removes a critical restraint on Israel’s preparedness to engage in conflict. The sight of soldiers being returned home to be buried is one of the key elements that causes a society to question its government’s participation in a war, and Israelis are particularly sensitive to the fate of IDF soldiers. With this risk alleviated, there will be far less to stay the government’s hand.

Such technology also further “sterilizes” the experience of soldiers participating in conflict. Already in last summer’s Gaza war, testimonies from IDF soldiers repeatedly described their lack of contact with other living beings, save for fellow soldiers; the words “like a video game” crop up again and again. This is partly due to the fact that entire neighborhoods were shelled to ruins before ground troops moved in, but also because so much of the IDF’s activity was based on long-range, indiscriminate fire.

With the advent of technology — tankscooperative automated attack robots and a host of other unmanned units — that keep most soldiers away from the front line, few will ever actually come face-to-face with the consequences of their actions. This is true for armies around the world, not just the IDF, and it raises grave concerns about the future of ethics in warfare, already a near-oxymoronic concept. When your target is nothing more than pixels on a screen, it is far easier to press the button.

According to the IDF, however, this is supposedly cause for celebration. The apparent guilelessness that accompanies the descriptions of the latest weapons technology is so cynical it is almost difficult to read. In one example, an IDF Spokesperson blog entry from a few years ago breathlessly lists the dimensions and merits of the “Tzefa Shirion,” a mine-clearing device that contains nearly a ton of C4 explosives and produces a 720-960 meter-squared blast radius. “Sounds impressive? Wait till you see it in action,” the blog continues, under which one can watch a video of the weapon detonating in an open field. Gazans have been able to see it in action when it was used to blow up residential streets in Operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge. No mention of the human cost on the IDF’s blog, though — just applause for a good, clean, life-saving explosion.

WATCH: ‘Tzefa Shirion’ rocket being detonated in an open field

Ultimately, the overarching message that permeates most of the IDF’s social media forays on the topic goes as follows: the targets of these weapons (i.e. Palestinians, occasionally Lebanese) are a faceless, nameless, threatening and homogenous entity that obligates the IDF to continuously innovate in “exciting” and “maverick” ways. The subtext suggests a population that is simply there to justify the development and/or purchase of the army’s latest toys, with the attendant endless bankrolling this requires (not to mention the fortune that private companies make exporting this technology). In this reckoning, there is only one set of lives at stake in this land, and it is not those in the crosshairs of the IDF’s expensive, cutting-edge arsenal.

Yes, Israel is indeed a hi-tech nation, and its relentless marketing as such has spilled over into the military domain; it sounds for all the world as if the army is marketing the next level of home entertainment technology and not highly-destructive weapons that are intended to be instrumental in subjugating an occupied population.

So next time you read about Israel as a “start-up miracle,” think about the impact that technology can and does have in this country, and about how it is used. Think about how much money is invested in “the art of war” here, and how such expenditures have rendered so many lives so cheap.

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    1. Pedro X

      Israel’s hi tech revolution brought Israelis Iron Dome protection, without which thousands of Israelis could have been killed by the thousands of rockets launched by Palestinians. Israel’s hi tech revolution has also saved countless Palestinians lives. Israeli innovation has allowed the targeting of Hamas terrorists traveling in cars with minimal damage to people passing by. Israeli drone technology has allowed operators to abort hundreds of attacks on Palestinian positions due to the presence of civilians as identified by the eye of the camera mounted on drones.

      If Israeli hi tech can send robot soldiers into Gaza to fight terrorists, this would be a good thing, albeit, we are not close to seeing a robot force acting alone in the field.

      BTW the Israeli minesweeper is a great thing which combats Hamas’ mining of residential streets. If Hamas plants bombs on residential streets, of course Israel is going to disarm them. Maybe Ms. Roth should question Hamas’ war tactics.

      What Ms. Roth does not like to address is the Palestinian hatred driven, suicidal determination to fight wars with a smarter, stronger, better trained and armed army, navy and air force. The Palestinians could have peace and a state at any time by laying down their arms and accepting Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians have always been more interested in destroying the Jewish state than building their own. Unlike Israel the Palestinians use their civilian population as human shields to protect their missiles and weapons while Israel uses its missiles and weapons to protect its civilian population.

      Israel also protects its population with low tech solutions such as building safe rooms and bomb shelters. The Palestinians shelter their weapons in underground tunnels, hospitals, mosques, schools and in and under civilian homes.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jello

      Your argument is stupid on all levels.
      1) Having autonomous robots saves the lives of Israeli soldiers. This seems to upset you.
      2) Having autonomous robots saves the lives of Arab civilians because they are far more accurate than human soldiers and are not afraid for their lives. They can wait the extra few seconds to fully identify threats and they can place shots better. Most civilian casualties are the result of the desire to keep soldiers completely safe. Autonomous robots remove this as an issue and would likely decrease civilian casualties. I think this bothers you as well, and you should really examine why.
      3) The technology investments are there because Israel places a high value on the lives of her soldiers and civilians, unlike the other side. This too bothers you and also should be examined in depth.
      4) These weapons will be used to protect you and me from the enemies that want to see us dead. They most certainly exist and your desire to deny that fact is worthy of examination as well.
      5) Israeli military superiority is what prevents major wars and keeps the ones that are fought short. This limits casualties on all sides. It is also what makes peace possible. You would be saluting Israeli military advances if you were not in love with the idea of Israel losing and being destroyed.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      The Dutch government warns of violent Jewish colonists – from the Forward:


      “…Jewish colonists live in illegal West Bank settlements and organize demonstrations regularly around and on the road. These colonists are sometimes violent. At times, these colonists throw stones at Palestinians and international vehicles so be alert when traveling around settlements of Jewish colonists, especially in the hills around Nablus and Hebron.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Paul

      1) Even if there’s no occupation, that doesn’t mean we can put our guns down, close up our bases and go home. I don’t imagine Hezbollah in Lebanon doing the same in the next decade either.

      2) At least robots won’t trash Palestinian houses during drills in the middle of the night, threaten teens with arrest for simply being in the wrong place, take photos on a private family’s rooftop for fun, or aim tear gas canisters directly at faces. At the very least they will always aim at the exact right angle for a given weapon, (ie 45º above targets for tear gas) because they will have been programmed to do exactly that.

      Reply to Comment
    5. bar

      Any reasonable person understands that automating defense actually lowers possibility of friction and violence. If you can’t hurt someone with a rock, cinder block or firebomb, then you aren’t going to throw them. If you don’t throw them, you’re not going to get someone to shoot at you. Win-win.

      Reply to Comment
    6. BigCat

      Three rockets shot from Gaza at southern Israel, just A FEW MINUTES AGO:


      One would hope that those who claim to care about Palestinian civilians would be up in arms right now condemning HAMAS and this indiscriminate fire, and protect Palestinian civilians for the harm that might befall them when Israel goes after the terrorists. But that’s not happening, because all these brouhaha bout “human rights” really has nothing to do with the Palestinians, but rather a drive to quench the incessant urge to demonize Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Jackdaw

      The first caveman who switched from spear to bow and arrow, cheapened lives.

      But if a Jew switches weapons!!!

      Natasha has some growing up to do.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben

      The deployment of such weapons in the service of a cruel, perpetual occupation while further distancing Israelis from what is done in their names, while deploying the language of modern soap commercial advertising to sell the idea, is every bit as sinister and Orwellian as Natasha Roth articulately says it is. What I think the extreme nationalists above most like about the “potential” here is that machines, unlike those pesky soldiers, never break the silence.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        FACT: Before there was any “occupation”, before there was an Irgun, even before there was an Israel, since the 1920s, Palestinian Arabs have made it their business to indiscriminately murder Palestinian Jews. Don’t believe me? Read up about the Arab revolt and the Hebron massacre.

        FACT: In 1948, we the Jews accepted UN resolution 181 which recommended the formation of a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Arabs rejected it and rioted.

        FACT: After the Arabs lost their 1948 battle against us, they swore vengeance and they swore that they will eventually eradicate our Jewish state.

        FACT: As part of their strategy to defeat us, after 1948, the Palestinian Arabs formed their so called Fedayeen who continually infiltrated into Israel and carried out random acts of murder against Israeli civilians.

        FACT: In 1967, three Arab armies, Egypt, Syria and Jordan mobilized and lined up along our borders. Once again, they promised to finish the job which they attempted to do in 1948. They promised to destroy us.

        FACT: Indeed, in 1967, Jordan attacked us but they were defeated. That is how come we ended up controlling the West Bank.

        FACT: Despite their defeat, the Palestinian Arabs have not been willing to sign any peace deal and in the meanwhile they continued carrying out indiscriminate acts of terror against our civilians. They justify those attacks by pointing at the “Occupation”. What they don’t realize or don’t want to accept is that we will not end the occupation until they sign a peace deal promising to end the state of hostilities which they perpetrated against us for the last 100 or so years. Nobody else would react differently in our place.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Thanks for the whopping baloney sandwich. We’ve had our fill. It’s just the Palestinians who want peace that your leadership loathes and denigrates most fiercely and your military industrial complex works overtime devising ingenious ways to shut down peaceful protests.

          Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Baloney sandwich? Do you deny the facts in my above posts?

            Go on, I dare you to deny it. It will give me the opportunity to show you up for the lying propagandist that you are.

            Folks, watch this troll scurry for cover or obfuscate. That’s what our Benny, AKA MuslimJew does best.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gustav

            Here is a parody of what it is like to debate Benny…

            GUSTAV: Tuesday follows Monday…

            BEN: Baloney sandwich…

            GUSTAV: The earth orbits the sun…

            BEN: Baloney sandwich…

            GUSTAV: There are no pink flying elephants…

            BEN: Baloney sandwich, there are…

            GUSTAV: It is a nice sunny day…

            BEN: Baloney sandwich, it’s night time…

            GUSTAV: Maybe if you would take off your blinkers and try to see?

            BEN: Nah. Baloney sandwich, baloney sandwich, baloney sandwich…hic, hic, hic…

            Reply to Comment
    9. I have discussed this with Israelis and such remote killing is indeed abhorent. This has been a core part of Israel’s economic growth since 9/11, according to Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine”.

      Reply to Comment