Israel’s Worst Kept Secret of Armed Drones and the Shadow of Military Censorship

Israel recently revoked its controversial decades-long policy of censorship with regard to the use of armed drones by its defence forces and their exports executed in collaboration with private military equipment manufacturers. 

The daily denial of our mortality is an integral part of the human survival mechanism. Anthropologist Ernest Becker who asserted this in his book The Denial of Death won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.

In the past 20 years, the residents of Gaza have not been able to deny their mortality. In between rounds of war, they have been hearing the almost incessant buzzing of the drone (aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – UAV) that hovers over their heads, like an angel of death. They have also given it a nickname – “Zanana“. As the Israeli journalist, Amira Hass has documented repeatedly in Haaretz, the buzzing of the drone and the death that threatens to follow suit have become an inseparable part of the inhuman routine of life in Gaza.

Before the Gaza Strip became the central playground of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the Israeli military industries, where new technologies are launched, to be marketed abroad later, Lebanon played that role. As early as 1986, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US compiled a report on the dramatic implications of Israel’s successful use of drones during what is called in Israel ‘the First Lebanon War’ for the future battlefield (the report was reclassified and released to the public on December 22, 2011).

According to the report, the US used more than 3,000 early-model drones in Southeast Asia in the years 1965-1972. Israel purchased the Firebee drone model from the US in the mid-1970s to secure its borders and reduce the risk of a surprise attack. In 1982, Israel used drones in its operations to destroy Syrian military positions in the Lebanon Valley. The report states that the use of drones was a decisive factor in Israel’s success and that the Israeli Air Force is working on the development of a small drone called ‘Harpy’, which could improve its capabilities against mobile Syrian positions.

The report stated that the drones that existed at the time in the world market were capable of carrying a payload of 20 to 500 kg, including munitions, and performing surveillance, electronic warfare, target identification and marking as well as strikes. The CIA estimated that Israel had the ability to become a leading global producer in the field of drones thanks to two factors: Personnel with extensive academic education and engineering experience, and its ability to market its drone technology as one that has already been successfully field tested by the IDF.

Israel had already exported drones to the US Navy, Switzerland and Singapore, the report stated. The advantages of these drones were low cost and relatively simple training and operation. In addition, their use was less likely to lead to escalation compared to fighter jets entering the sovereign territory of another country. The CIA also anticipated that drones – which would actually be loitering weapons or guided missiles – could evade the enemy’s radar at great distances. This estimate turned out to be correct, with the successful development of suicide drone models by Israeli companies, such as Harpy, produced by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

As the IDF was increasing its operational use of drones in the Gaza Strip, armed drones became the most profitable export product of the Israeli military industries towards the end of the 2000s, and this helped increase the volume of Israeli military export transactions from $4.8 billion in 2007 to an average annual sum of about $7 billion starting in 2008.

At the end of the 2010s, due to the emergence of competition with drone manufacturers from Turkey, China and Russia, the cyber industry began to assume a larger share of the total Israeli defence exports, but the state of Israel and its drone manufacturers are still leading world players.

Diplomacy of combat drones  

Israel has pursued a diplomacy of armed drones. One of the most prominent examples is its relationship with the dictatorship of Azerbaijan, a strategic partner of Israel in oil commerce and the fight against Iran. The defence and foreign ministries in Israel allowed Azerbaijan to purchase a kamikaze “Harop” drone from the Israeli Aerospace Industries, and a “Star” (Hermes 900) armed drone made by Elbit. Furthermore, Azerbaijan is allowed to produce its own kamikaze drones on the basis of models produced by Israeli company Aeronautics.

In March 2011 and in September 2016, the Azeri ministry of defence published photos from visits by dictator Ilham Aliyev to a factory where kamikaze models were seen. The Azeris also re-released publications by Aeronautics, along with technical data.

The Israeli foreign ministry and defence ministry allowed the sale of armed drones and kamikaze drones to Azerbaijan, even though as early as 1992 the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) instructed the member states to maintain an arms export embargo on Azerbaijan. Accordingly, European Union states and the UK have abstained from selling weapons to Azerbaijan, and US security exports are extremely limited. The fear underlying these policies concerns the use of Azeri weapons against Armenia in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

At the end of 2020, in another round of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Israeli journalist Itai Engel and the “Uvda” programme crew went to the battle zone and collected evidence of massive use of Israeli-made kamikaze drones. On March 15, 2021, Haaretz published documentation of IAI’s Harop kamikaze drone striking an anti-aircraft battery on Armenian soil.

Azerbaijan has been boasting of its use of Israeli drones. On December 12, 2020, a military victory parade was held in the capital Baku, aired live and available on YouTube, and attended by the Azerbaijani and Turkish presidents. During the parade, weapons that had been used in the fighting were displayed, including armed drones and kamikaze drones by Israeli companies Elbit, Israeli Aerospace Industries and Aeronautics.

A policy of ambiguity   

Despite this blatant publicity by Azerbaijan, Israeli officials have adhered to a policy of ambiguity. Anyone contacting the ministry of defence as to the use of Israeli drones in Azerbaijan has received the same answer:

“The policy of security exports by the State of Israel is determined by qualified officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For strategic, political and security-oriented reasons, the Ministry of Defence does not provide details about the policy.”

When the Israeli State Attorney’s Office filed an indictment against Aeronautics for “violation of the Defense Export Control Law of 2007 by relations with a substantial customer of the company”, the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court issued an indefinite gag order.

For lack of other options, the Israeli media reported that the case involved a company that produces drones, without mentioning the nature of the drones related to the “substantial customer” in the high-stake affair. As mentioned above, this company produces kamikaze drones. Perhaps they were hoping for the Israeli public to think that the drones were merely dropping gummy bears.

While Israeli journalists were prohibited from reporting on the IDF’s use of armed drones, the IDF and the ministry of defence continued to use IDF operational activity which included the use of such drones as a key marketing tool for the Israeli defence industries in their dealings with customers abroad, at arms exhibitions and on social media.

This was the case, for example, in the video clip published by the ministry of defence on its official YouTube channel, “Meet the Hermes 450 – aircraft for special missions”, dated June 2, 2012. In another video clip, published on May 1, 2012, the ministry declared “Hermes 900: The Israeli Air Force’s UAV of the future”, and footage of bombings by these drones was also shown.

Furthermore, in an official Israeli air force video clip dated November 11, 2015, posted on YouTube under the headline “Reception for the Kochav”, squadron commander Lt Col Daniel talked about the new drone, saying that “the Kochav introduces an advanced payload-carrying capacity”.

The ministry of defence’s website stated that “the State of Israel is a powerhouse in the world of unmanned vehicles in general, and in the field of unmanned aircraft in particular”, mentioning, among other things, offensive capabilities and the capacity to carry hundreds of kilograms. The publication stated that the drone models in the service of the IDF, under the responsibility of the UAV Authority in the Ministry of Defence, are “Eitan”, “Kochav” and “Zik”/ (Following the filing of the two petitions detailed below, the reference to the capacity of carrying hundreds of kilograms was changed to “designated payload carried by the aircraft for the purpose of fulfilling the mission”, and also the video of Lt Col Daniel became private.)

On July 29, 2014, the Israeli Air Force’s official website stated that “the Kochav’s missions are similar to those of the Hermes 450, but it doubles the carrying capacity, which allows it to carry a heavier payload during sorties”. On March 19, 2014, it was announced on the Air Force’s official website that the Kochav has an operational advantage, “since it can carry several designated payloads, which allows it to perform several missions in one sortie.”

It is clear that terms such as “designated payloads” or “hundreds of kilograms” do not refer to the shipments of tomatoes and cucumbers by IDF drones to the residents of the Gaza Strip, but rather to lethal munitions.

The use of the IDF for the marketing needs of Israeli security companies has been extremely blatant. For example, a video published on the Air Force’s official YouTube channel under the title “The Kochav UAV Lands in the Air Force”, showing the Hermes 900 UAV, ends with the logos of Elbit, the ministry of defence and the air force against a black background, as if all three are commercial companies partnering in a commercial project.

Easy finger on the trigger

In view of the approval given by the state of Israel to market and sell to foreign countries the same armed drone models used by the IDF, denying the very existence of such drones in the hands of the IDF is similar to the state of Israel selling nuclear weapons while denying their existence.

This is not some hypothetical violation of the Israeli public’s right to know and the principles of transparency. There is tremendous practical importance in a public and legal discussion of the IDF’s massive use of combat drones in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere. The use of these drones carries a relative “low cost”, both financially and in terms of the lack of risk to IDF forces. A drone strike is convenient and reduces the efforts, costs and risks involved in apprehending suspects and bringing them to trial.

Due to the low cost, there is an inherent fear that when using such drones one will pull the trigger more readily, and we can expect increased attempts to circumvent the rules of international law when these drones are used.

In the US, the use of armed UAVs and the problems associated with it have become a central issue in the public discourse, in the press, on television and in films. Thus, for example, it became clear that during the Obama administration, the US carried out operations known as “signature strikes” – strikes using drones based only on location and behaviour, without concrete intelligence on the identity of those targeted.

In Israeli parlance, drones make it possible to degrade the “target bank” to “lower quality” targets. A one-ton bomb can kill multitudes in a single strike, but its use by a fighter jet is more expensive and complicated. The risk to the pilots’ lives, the cost and the fear of collateral damage limit the use of such weapons. The use of drones, due to their tactical advantages, allows for a trickle of strikes with lesser regard for the killing and injuring of civilians.

Public criticism of the use of combat drones around the world, which increased in response to the growing number of civilians injured in US drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, as well as a prolonged legal battle by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), led the Obama administration to release the American procedure which set the rules for authorising a deadly strike using drones outside US territory.

In Israel, due to a policy of concealment, the state was even willing to mislead the public in a legal proceeding. Inspired by the campaigning of groups and activists in the US, in response to publications by the ministry of defence and the IDF, on November 29, 2016, Israeli human rights activists submitted a petition to the Tel Aviv district court, demanding the release of IDF procedures for obtaining approval from the legal echelons for the use of combat drones, and information as to how international law and Israeli High Court of Justice guidelines are incorporated into these procedures.

The petition was submitted following the IDF’s initial refusal to disclose the procedures on the grounds of potential harm to the security of the state and its foreign relations. Due to the military censorship policy and the concealment of the IDF’s use of armed drones, the state submitted to the court a self-contradictory response – claiming that in fact there is no procedure for the use of combat drones, but adding that a confidential legal opinion explains why it is forbidden to release to the public those procedures that allegedly do not exist.

Journalist Gili Cohen, who covered this story for Haaretz, was not allowed to use the words “combat drones” and reported instead on legal proceedings regarding “unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)”.

Since the state declared that it has no procedures for approving the use of combat drones, the petition was deleted. On May 16, 2017, human rights activists contacted IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot’s office and demanded that he freeze their use until the establishment of procedures in compliance with the provisions of international law and the ruling of the High Court of Justice. On June 18, 2017, the office of the IDF chief of staff responded, noting that in fact the IDF does have procedures, and these have been “legally reviewed and are in line with the law”.

On July 15, 2017, the aforementioned Israeli human rights activists submitted a second petition to the Tel Aviv District Court, in which they argued that the IDF had misled the court in its response to the first petition. The activists noted that “even if the petitioners take part in the State’s make-believe game, and pretend that the IDF does not use combat drones and has none in its possession, the petitioners are still interested in receiving the relevant procedures as to the operation of such drones”.

At the end of the hearing that took place on April 17, 2018, and following questions posed by Judge Shaul Shochat, the IDF agreed to disclose a paraphrase of the relevant procedures as to approving the use of combat drones – but without admitting that the drones are actually in the hands of the IDF.

On July 16, 2018, the activists received the following paraphrase from the IDF:

“In accordance with the mandatory instructions of the IDF, the mission commander is required to verify, on the basis of a real-time situation assessment, that strikes on targets will be carried out in accordance with, among other things, the principle of distinction, the principle of proportionality and the obligation to take precautionary measures, while making sure to use only legal means of warfare, which have been approved as such by the relevant authorities in the IDF.

That is, he must make sure that the strike will be directed against the enemy or against military targets only, that the extent of expected collateral damage is not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage as a result of the strike, and that reasonable measures will be taken to reduce the collateral damage as much as possible. Legal advisors participate in some of the tasks involving the planning of a strike on targets, with an emphasis on the approval procedure as to pre-planned targets.”

However, it was still not allowed to report that the legal case regarded combat drones.

What the Israeli media chose to ignore  

After a decades-long policy of concealment and censorship, on July 20, Israel’s military censorship announced that following “staff work and an in-depth substantive review” it has decided to allow media publication of the IDF’s use of combat drones as part of its operational activities. Haaretz responded with an editorial titled “The Problem of Censorship“.

Why did the Military Censor choose to announce a reversal of its position all of a sudden?

This is yet to be answered. In the past, censorship policies regarding other technologies were changed when the IDF and the ministry of defence wanted to allow defence companies to present these technologies at arms exhibitions and pursue lucrative deals with foreign countries. However, Israeli-made combat drones are selling very well anyway.

Regarding the question of why the Military Censor’s decision came several decades too late, one can also lay the blame on Israeli newspaper and electronic media editorial boards. When these wish to push back against censorship or contrived gag orders, they know how to do so by constantly publishing all details which are not under the order, and by showing the absurdity of concealing the information, until the Military Censor or the State Attorney realise that “this can’t go on”, thereby lifting the gag order partially or fully in order to assuage public criticism.

This move does not always work out, but it often does. The Israeli media failed to attempt this approach in the case of armed drones, apart from a few exceptional cases which generated public interest within Israel regardless of the type of military technology used.

The fact that the IDF’s use of combat drones was of not much interest to Israeli newspaper and electronic media editors has also been reflected in the wave of publications following the Military Censor’s announcement of the reversal of its policy.

The Israeli media was quick to revisit juicy stories that were previously censored, such as the use of a combat drone against “Hamas Chief of Staff” Ahmed Jabari in the Gaza Strip. So far, no Israeli newspaper or news channel has revisited the full list of civilians killed and injured by Israeli drone strikes in the Gaza Strip – those whose bodies and property have unwillingly become “collateral damage” in the IDF’s operations.

In 2014, Haaretz published a report compiled by Palestinian researcher Dr. Atef Abu Saif, “Sleepless in Gaza“, on behalf of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. According to the report, during Israel’s wars in Gaza (called in Israel “Pillar of Defence” and “Cast Lead” military operations), IDF drones carried out more than a hundred strikes, in which more than 120 civilians were killed, of whom around 30 were children.

Over the years, the issue of the IDF’s use of combat drones or their export to dictatorships has interested specific journalists in Israel, such as Amira Hess (Haaretz), Yossi Melman (Haaretz and Maariv), Gili Cohen (Haaretz and later the Public Broadcasting Corporation), Ami Rojkes Dombe (Israel Defense) and Itai Engel (the Uvda TV program). Hass in particular has pushed the limits in her regular reporting on IDF combat drone operations in the Gaza Strip and the suffering this has inflicted on its inhabitants.

Moreover, while censorship regarding the IDF’s use of combat drones has been lifted, the censorship policy regarding the export of such drones to foreign countries remains in place, absurdly, and applies even to countries that choose on their own initiative to publicise their use of Israeli drones. Israeli journalists can quote foreign publications, but find it difficult to publish information coming directly from Israeli sources.

The Military Censor’s position received indirect support from the Israeli Supreme Court, which accepted the distinction between foreign and Israeli publications. In her ruling on December 17, 2019, Chief Justice Esther Hayut rejected an appeal filed by human rights activists and agreed with the position put forward by the ministries of foreign affairs and defence, which argued against the disclosure of information on the sales of surveillance drones that helped the government of Sri Lanka commit war crimes during the civil war there (the drones helped target civilians and civilian targets).

This is despite the fact that the Sri Lankan government has published official information about this on its own initiative. Hayut wrote: “The disclosure of such and such information by the Sri Lankan government or in UN reports does nothing to change this conclusion and it does not allay one’s fear of harm to the State’s security and foreign relations in case the requested information is disclosed”.

Hayut fully concurred with the decision by Judge Shaul Shochat of the Tel Aviv District Court, who accepted the state’s position that due to a confidentiality agreement with Sri Lanka, even if the latter violated its obligation under the agreement, this does not detract from the State of Israel’s obligations under the agreement.

Israeli newspaper and media editors should have cried out loud a long time ago, warning that they are no longer willing to play the Military Censor and ministry of defence’s ridiculous game on Israel’s combat drones. They should have pushed the limits all the way, as they have shown themselves capable on other issues. What would the authorities do? Arrest them all? Even if most journalists in Israel do not personally care about “collateral damage” victims in the Gaza Strip or in Nagorno-Karabakh, they should at least practice integrity and professionalism.

Contrary to the conclusion put forward by some Israeli journalists following the reversal of the Military Censor’s policy, the lesson to be learned from the combat drones affair is not the need to question the credibility and discretion of the censors, but the need to question the very legitimacy of the Military Censor and any cooperation with this institution. This censorship apparatus should be dead and buried, the sooner the better.