Israel’s far-right could escalate drone warfare against Palestinians

Sophia Goodfriend

Foreign Policy  /   January 20, 2023

The Jewish settler movement has long pushed military strategy to extremes. Now, it’s in government.

NABLUS, West Bank—The drones made it hard to hear Dr. Abdel Rahman Musameh when he spoke to Foreign Policy at his office last November. Musameh, a psychologist at a Doctors Without Borders-run mental health clinic in this Palestinian city of 160,000, said his patients had been complaining about the noise ever since Israeli forces laid siege a month prior, instating a three-week blockade to crack down on a burgeoning militant movement in the northern West Bank.

“You hear the drones in the sky all the time,” Musameh said. “For my patients, it means a feeling of insecurity is around you all the time; you cannot escape it.”

Israeli raids on major cities and refugee camps in the West Bank have become a weekly occurrence since a series of attacks by Palestinian assailants in major Israeli cities took the lives of 19 Israelis last spring. Altogether, 2022 was the bloodiest year for West Bank Palestinians on record since 2005. Israeli fire had killed 146 Palestinians as of December 19, 2022, according to the United Nations. Israel has already killed 17 West Bank Palestinians this year, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.

In September 2022, the Israeli army escalated by greenlighting the use of armed drones in operations in the West Bank. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recently denied armed drones have been used to drop bombs in the territory so far, though there are eyewitness accounts of a drone firing a missile in Nablus last October. That November, Israelis elected their most right-wing government in history, which pledged to annex the West Bank, expel “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel, and legalize dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Meanwhile, armed and surveillance drones, which eyewitnesses say are bigger and louder than those deployed only intermittently in the past, have lingered above Palestinian cities and towns. They are an unsettling omen of what may be to come.

The IDF’s escalation of drone warfare is a result of demographic shifts that have enabled settlers to influence military strategy. Since the late 2010s, the right-wing Jewish settler movement has used unarmed reconnaissance drones to surveil and terrorize Palestinian communities. Now, in prominent positions in the new government, right-wing Israelis have called on the military to use armed drones to drop bombs on major Palestinian cities and resume targeted assassinations in the West Bank.

The last time armed drones flew over the West Bank was during the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising lasting roughly from 2000 to 2005. Half a decade of armed clashes left more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians dead, as Islamic Jihad and Hamas suicide bombers targeted Israeli cafes, buses, and restaurants and the Israeli army raided Palestinian cities and refugee camps in response.

In those years, drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—streaked through the skies, guiding IDF helicopters and ground troops into major Palestinian cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s military censor kept its use of armed drones strictly under wraps, but eyewitness accounts and foreign press reports show that UAVs fired missiles in the West Bank and Gaza as early as 2004 during some targeted assassinations. Israel has never confirmed or denied these reports.

According to B’Tselem, 301 Palestinians were killed in targeted assassinations—via all methods, including by armed UAVs—between the start of the Second Intifada and 2005. Only 188 of the dead were known militants—in other words, the intended targets of the attacks.

As the intifada waned in 2005, a tenuous peace replaced the terror of aerial bombardments in the West Bank. Haaretz reported that military leadership promised aerial warfare would be used as a “last resort,” only when Israel’s army lost “security control on the ground.” Attack drones and helicopters largely disappeared from West Bank skies and were replaced by smaller unarmed reconnaissance drones, used intermittently to patrol protests, enforce home demolitions, and surveil closed military zones.

But in Gaza, armed drone use expanded to become a hallmark of Israel’s military strategy following its so-called disengagement in 2005, when Israel evacuated ground troops and settlements from the besieged territory. Israel only publicly admitted to using armed drones to strike 170 targets in Gaza last year; beyond strikes that hit 10 targets during a “preemptive” IDF operation in August 2022, the IDF did not say when these occurred. But in leaked reports throughout the 2010s, Israeli military leadership admitted to using UAVs in bombardments on the strip. Then, military leadership said surgical armed drone strikes would replace the carnage of analog combat in Gaza, reducing the number of Israeli troops deployed while minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties.

And yet, over the past decade and a half, Palestinians have compiled mountains of evidence to the contrary. Journalistic investigations reveal that Israel’s regular aerial drone bombardments of Gaza have killed hundreds, including women and children wrongly identified as militants. Doctors say many Gazans now suffer from the trauma of anticipatory anxiety: wondering if the drone humming just above their home is armed—and will strike and kill them. In May 2021—during the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas—as well as the August 2022 offensive, swarms of AI-powered armed drones pummeled Gaza city during Israeli bombardments on the strip.

What’s more, researchers note the insecurity of life under drone warfare only bolsters Palestinians’ support for militant groups. Polls indicate that support for Hamas among Palestinians in Gaza and—more recently, the West Bank and Jerusalem—rises during Israeli drone strikes on the strip. Even some architects of Israel’s drone warfare strategy have conceded that it was largely unsuccessful in quelling militant movements across the occupied Palestinian territories.

Still, Israel’s military today is more wedded to drone warfare than ever. At a drone industry trade show in Tel Aviv last November, Brig. Gen. Neri Horowitz announced Israel was expanding drone use across IDF units, including those operating in the West Bank. Horowitz did not specify whether he was referring to surveillance or armed drones, but his comments were widely interpreted to be referring to the latter given the IDF’s September 2022 announcement.

The escalation of drone warfare in the West Bank is a consequence of settlers’ influence on the IDF. Settlers have long been explicit proponents of the army’s use of drones in the West Bank, using their own small surveillance drones to spy on Palestinians and coordinate Palestinian home demolitions and the suppression of peaceful protests with Israeli troops.

In Masafer Yatta, a collection of Palestinian villages just south of Hebron, for example, the army and settlers have flown small surveillance drones since the mid-2010s, according to Basel Adera, a journalist born and raised in the area. The army uses its drones to map Palestinian neighborhoods or shoot tear gas during home demolitions; the settlers deploy theirs to surveil and terrorize Palestinians, calling in the army when they spot new Palestinian homes being built and flying drones next to herds of sheep until they run wild across the arid valleys.

“The settlers bring the drones very close to the house, to the doors, and up to our tents,” Adera explained to Foreign Policy during an interview outside his home in November 2022. For him, the constant hum of drones “is a reminder that the soldiers and the settlers are always coming to raid or that they are just watching everyone. Who wants to live like this?”

According to researchers, IDF combat units are increasingly populated by such settlers, many of whom adhere to political-religious Zionist extremism and balk at commanders’ orders of restraint. Settlers’ overrepresentation in combat units has sparked a dramatic rise in military violence and intimidation against Palestinian civilians over the past five years. In 2022, one such ultra-orthodox unit was linked to the death of 78-year-old Palestinian American Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad and came under international condemnation after videos surfaced of battalion soldiers assaulting Palestinians civilians outside of Ramallah.

Against this backdrop of rising extremism within its ranks, IDF officials have touted automated weapons as a way to minimize confrontations between civilians and an occupying army.

“Most of the time, drones are not a weapon,” Liran Antebi, an Israeli UAV expert and instructor at Israel’s Air Force Flight Academy, said during an interview with Foreign Policy in November 2022. “Drones are used to gather intelligence to lower the cost of counterinsurgency on both sides, on the side of the army and the civilian population on the ground living among insurgents.” Reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead is, as Antebi put it, the necessary precondition of giving the Israeli army “eyes when we are not present.”

Human rights advocates, however, say the embrace of automated warfare further dehumanizes Palestinians and risks bolstering the military’s growing extremism. “[Combat] soldiers now mostly see Palestinians from a control room or from a weapons console where they are taught to view them as terrorists or terrorists in training,” said Ori Givati, advocacy director of the Israeli organization Breaking the Silence, which documents military abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories. “And that language lets them occupy their homes, arrest them, and shoot them because they do not see them as human.”

Adera has observed aerial surveillance increase in his area in recent months. Since September, he said, larger, louder, possibly armed drones controlled by the Israeli military had flown alongside the smaller reconnaissance drones that have periodically disturbed quotidian life in the area. Despite offering Israeli troops constant surveillance of the South Hebron Hills, the drones have not prevented post-election settler violence. During a Jewish religious celebration in mid-November, 30,000 settlers descended on Hebron’s/Al-Kahlil’s  Old City, vandalizing Palestinian homes, lobbing rocks at civilians, and even attacking Israeli soldiers.

Palestinians have reported that the military seems to be giving more leeway to the settler groups that frequently protest in the West Bank and that appear newly emboldened after November’s elections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition includes National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Ben Gvir was barred from compulsory military service in the IDF because of his extremist views and, in 2007, was convicted of racist incitement against Palestinians. Smotrich has called for an overhaul of IDF strategy in the West Bank to “sear trauma on the other side.”

While Palestinians and human rights organizations tend to view the Israeli army as the face of an inhumane occupation, Israelis have historically regarded the military as a trusted, politically independent institution. Now, military leadership worries that Ben Gvir and Smotrich will dissolve any remaining distinction between the military and the militant settler movement, galvanizing soldiers and settlers alike to act with impunity. Amos Gilad, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, told reporters last November that Smotrich would be a “major disaster” for Israeli military policy in the West Bank. Ben Gvir already proved that his new political responsibilities would not quell his hard-line stance when he marched into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on January 3 in contravention of international agreements. The Second Intifada erupted after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon did the same in 2000.

Givati, who served in a combat unit in the West Bank in the mid-2010s, told Foreign Policy that the elections marked “an intensification of the kind of violence we have been seeing for years,” rather than a marked change in governing ideology. “We will see more weapons, more aerial attacks, more violence, more incursions into Palestinians cities.”

Days before taking power, the new government promised to legalize dozens of illegal outposts and pledged full annexation of the West Bank. Individual members of the governing coalition have said that Israel has thus far been “too merciful” to Palestinians and have more recently called for a “final war” in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Even if the new government is not yet dropping bombs, drones have already transformed life for Palestinian civilians across the West Bank. Musameh said the constant sound of drones has left many of his patients with the pernicious feeling that violence is just around the corner.

“Previous Israeli governments never did something on the ground, like pushing a peace plan or giving us real rights,” Musameh said. “The new government is the real face; this is the real face of the occupation that’s been here all along.”

Sophia Goodfriend is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Duke University, with expertise in digital rights and digital surveillance in Israel and Palestine; she is based in Jerusalem