Israel’s secret air war in Gaza and the West Bank

A strike in the West Bank

Drone strikes in the conflict aren’t limited to Gaza. On Saturday, NBC News visited a damaged Palestinian Authority Fatah party building in the Balata refugee camp, near Nablus, in the West Bank. The drone strike Friday appeared to have created a hole in its ceiling. 

The IDF said it had targeted a “hide-out used by terrorists,” and both the IDF and residents said a member of the armed wing of Fatah was killed. Residents said five people, in all, died in the bombing.

One of them was a man walking by the building, according to witnesses. Another was a 15-year-old boy who died inside it. An interview with his mother that was posted online said he was at his grandfather’s house and then went to the Fatah center before the strike occurred. “My fate,” his mother said, “was to become the mother of a martyr.”

On Saturday, the bodies of the dead were covered in flags and carried through the streets by crowds of men, some masked and firing automatic weapons in the air. A mobile sound system played songs celebrating Palestinian fighters. 

During the funeral, a drone could be seen flying overhead. “Even after the bombing, it’s still roaming around,” a man said. “It monitors everything in the area.”

‘I see children’

It takes two people to fly a weaponized drone: the pilot of the drone and a second person who operates the “ball,” handling the signals intelligence and imagery.

IDF officials gave NBC News exclusive access to five videos showing what Israeli drone pilots saw surveilling possible targets in Gaza during the first weeks of the war.  

In the videos, two IDF pilots discuss whether or not to strike. They talk about people, sometimes children, walking close enough to targets that they choose to cancel the strikes or delay them until civilians have left the area.

“There are at least six or seven people wandering the area of the school wearing black. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” an IDF pilot counts in Hebrew. The black and white video shows dark gray images that appear to be people moving on the ground below.

Another IDF pilot refers to an area that comes into view and says in Hebrew, “I estimate there are 10 here at least, even 20 or 30. I am mentioning again, we think this is not within the policy.”

In a second video, an IDF pilot is heard saying, “I see children right beside the building.” Later in the video, another pilot asks, “Could you show me where the children are?” The first pilot replies: “Now it’s out of our eyesight. We can’t see, but in the area that I’m marking, in that space, there are many people, including children.” At the end of the video, a pilot says: “We are leaving this target. It isn’t approved.” 

One of the drone pilots interviewed by NBC News said such conversations were common. “We have to stay sharp,” he said. “That’s why we are constantly speaking about the children at the scene and whoever or whatever gets into our picture and why we have to abort airstrikes and call off airstrikes.”

The principles of war

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko, a co-author of the forthcoming book “The Legitimacy of Drone Warfare: Evaluating Public Perceptions,” reviewed the five Israeli drone videos for NBC News.

“First and foremost, this is a complicated business set against the sort of terrain that we’re operating within,” he said, referring to Gaza. “You can see how congested, contested and built-up it is.”

He said international humanitarian law requires combatants to abide by the principles of distinction (between civilians and combatants), proportionality (the use of commensurate force) and military necessity (the need to achieve a legitimate military objective). The rules apply to both ground operations and airstrikes, including drone attacks. 

Lushenko said drone strikes conducted by Israel have most likely resulted in civilian casualties — though probably fewer than would be caused by large bombs dropped by planes — and that the deaths may have been unintentional.  


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