On 6 April, the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz published an article titled, “Israeli army document confirms use of attack drones in terrorist assassinations.”
But the very next day the article was removed following orders from the Israeli military censor.
Though numerous Israeli drone strikes have been documented by human rights groups during the last decade, the government does not officially acknowledge that it uses drones both in combat and to conduct assassinations.
In that short-lived article, Haaretz had reported information included in the Israeli army’s non-classified report on its activities in 2014.
That document contained information on two incidents when Israel used armed drones to target Palestinians during its bombardment of Gaza in the summer of that year.
Though the Israeli army report was published in 2015, the admission of drone use went unnoticed until Haaretz published its article earlier this month.
After the Haaretz article had been hurriedly deleted, the military replaced the original document with one that had removed the references to the drone attacks.
The military censor forbid other Israeli publications from publishing anything on the use of drones mentioned in the original report.
However, a copy of the original Israeli military report remains online.
It states that on 8 July 2014, the Israeli army used a Zik – the Hebrew nickname for drone – to attack four Palestinian fighters (whom the army describes as “terrorists”) on a beach in present-day Israel.
The document also states that more than a week later the army used a drone to kill 13 Palestinian fighters trying to enter present-day Israel.
In fact, both incidents had been widely reported in the Israeli press at the time, with the army presenting them as significant military achievements – even going so far as to release footage of the attacks.
It now appears this footage showcases Israeli drone strikes.
The army’s report only lists nine so-called “central events” from Israel’s attack on Gaza during the summer of 2014. Because the government does not release any information on its use of combat drones, precise figures on how many drone strikes occurred are unknown.
Drones allow governments, led by the United States, to conduct military operations in non-traditional battlefields, such as in countries where there is no declared war.
That Israel uses attack drones for extrajudicial executions – or “targeted prevention,” in Israel’s official and sterilized terms – is an open secret, one the government has refused to acknowledge despite extensive evidence.
Based on information received from the Israeli military, the cable referred to an incident in which a drone fired two missiles at two Palestinians outside a mosque. The second strike hit the men, with shrapnel from the attack hitting civilians inside the mosque.
In January this year, The Intercept website revealed that American and British intelligence agencies were secretly monitoring the live video feeds from Israeli drones and fighter jets. Some of the snapshots taken during 2009 and 2010 suggested the drones were carrying missiles.
“Although they are not clear enough to be conclusive, the images offer rare visual evidence to support reports that Israel flies attack drones,” The Intercept reported.
“There’s a good chance that we are looking at the first images of an armed Israeli drone in the public domain,” Chris Woods, an investigative journalist, told The Intercept.
“[Israel has] gone to extraordinary lengths to suppress information on weaponized drones,” he continued. Woods is the author Sudden Justice, a history of drone warfare.
Publicly, Israel will only acknowledge using drones to collect intelligence.
The UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph has reported, however, that 65 per cent of aerial operations by the Israeli military are now conducted by drones.
So in spite of Israel’s insistence on not officially acknowledging its use of armed drones, its military has surely been prolific in its extrajudicial execution program, a practice for which drone technology is integral and that the United States has robustly embraced.
Many view Israel has having forged the rationale for conducting assassinations, which the United States has adopted with vigor.
In 2005, Avi Dichter, then director of Israel’s Shin Bet secret service, described targeted assassinations as “the sexiest trend in counterterrorism” and claimed “the state of Israel has turned targeted killings into an art form.”
In 2006, Israel’s high court approved extrajudicial killings, saying the practice would be legal in exceptional cases.
The US has since killed thousands of people, including a significant number of civilians, in drone strikes.
According to Al Mezan, Israel killed almost 2,000 people in Gaza with drone strikes between 2004 and 2014.
Daniel Reisner, former head of the Israeli army’s legal department, told Haaretz in 2009, “If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it … International law progresses through violations.”
Israeli representatives, then, have openly boasted that they have paved the path for one of the most controversial practices in modern warfare: killing by remote control.
So why is Israel censoring coverage of its own drone activities?