Israel’s deadly drones have origins in Sinai occupation

An Israeli-made Heron drone.

An Israeli-made Heron drone.


Reports last week attributed the killing of five suspected militants in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to an Israeli drone strike. The 9 August executions mark increased cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian militaries and a return of Israeli drones the place to where they were first conceived — the Sinai peninsula.

Egyptian officials reported two explosions about twenty kilometers west of the Egypt-Israel border, south of Egyptian Rafah. Despite official Egyptian denial, and an Israeli “no comment,” numerous unnamed military sources told Reuters and the AP the explosions were in fact Israeli drone strikes against a Sinai-based militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.

Reuters reports the group confirmed the attack on their website.

USA Today reported that official Israeli-Egyptian cooperation post-coup is “unprecedented” and “indicates a new level of cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.”

Israeli drones originated to attack Sinai

Israeli drone operations are not new to the Sinai peninsula. Indeed they were integral to Zionist colonization during the Israeli conquest of the peninsula (1967-1982).

As Israel built settlements and consolidated its control over occupied Sinai after 1967, “Egypt began to deploy the SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft systems. The appearance of the batteries led to a number of [Israeli Air Force] losses, and harmed the Air Force’s ability to gather intelligence from the frontlines. During the search for a method of intelligence gathering that would not put the lives of air crew at risk, the possibility of acquiring UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] was explored.”

Israel bought US-made Teledyne-Ryan Firebee drones in 1971 and deployed them at the Refidim Airbase in Sinai and the “squadron’s first operational flight was carried out almost immediately.”

During the October 1973 War with Egypt, the Israeli Air Force “was able to reduce its manned aircraft losses by using inexpensive Chukar drones from the US firm Northrop decoys “to deceive and saturate Egyptian [surface-to-air missile] battles along the Suez Canal,” (Kenneth Munson, World Unmanned Aircraft, 1988, p. 8).

These drones were decoys and spy planes, the latter operating like all other spy planes at the time by shooting pictures which were developed and used for surveillance only upon return to base.

Biggest drone exporter

Israel’s response to this was to identify an “operational need for real time intelligence on the front lines.” This “led to the idea of a [drone] carrying a stabilized camera that could broadcast pictures.”

Shortly after the October War, the Israeli government “charged the IAI [Israel Aircraft Industries – now Israel Aerospace Industries] and Tadiran companies with developing small, versatile, low-signature [drones], able to send back real-time intelligence by direct video link, and capable of being operated in the field by ordinary soldiers after only three to six months training,” (Munson, p. 8).

Israel’s efforts to solidify its colonization of Sinai thus instigated its development of modern drones — drones capable of deadly attacks.

By the time IAI and Tadiran succeeded in producing the Scout and Mastiff drones, Israeli losses in the October War, combined with international pressure, had already convinced Israel it must end its occupation of the Sinai. It finally withdrew by 1982.

But Israel’s first drone incursions during the Sinai occupation laid the technological basis – fine tuned over decades of attacks on Palestinians and Lebanese – not only for the modern drones used in the August attacks, but also for Israel to become the world’s most prolific drone exporter.