The drones never sleep

Clouds of tear gas smoke rise from canisters on the ground as a group of Palestinian men run for safety

Palestinian protesters run from tear gas canisters fired by an Israeli quadcopter drone.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Atallah al-Attar, 35, gets anxious in the evenings.

He lives on his family’s farm in the town of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, close to the boundary with Israel.

Evenings are when Israeli drones most often fly overhead.

On this particular January afternoon, he softly explained why he has an acute fear of drones.

“The incident is very painful,” he said.

In May 2019, he was working as a security guard at a wedding venue in Beit Lahiya. He was taking a break with a friend, Khaled Abu Qleeq, 24, when they saw and heard Israeli drones flying overhead, which was not unusual.

Al-Attar thought the drones were just surveilling the area, but then the men felt the explosion.

“The explosion made a huge sound and the shrapnel from the missile flew at us,” al-Attar said.

Shrapnel hit al-Attar in the eye and the legs. The pain was excruciating, but he mostly recalls his friend’s cries for help.

One moment, al-Attar remembers, Abu Qleeq was eating a meal and drinking coffee in a nearby shipping container. The next, debris and shrapnel had hit Abu Qleeq in the head, and by the time an ambulance arrived, he was unconscious.

It was while al-Attar was receiving treatment for his wounds at the hospital that he learned of Abu Qleeq’s death.

The most lethal weapon

A subsequent Human Rights Watch report stated that the Israeli drone had bombed “a metal shipping container outside a businessman’s villa” and found that none of the individuals killed or injured by the Israeli strike had any ties to “armed Palestinian groups.”

Doctors amputated al-Attar’s foot, and he now walks with crutches. He has four children, but he is currently unable to work, neither as a security guard nor on his family’s farm, harvesting strawberries and grain.

“Israeli drones are not only for reconnaissance and killing – they also sabotage border farms by spraying pesticides,” he said. “I’ve seen this before, and the drones give me constant anxiety. They killed my friend and they almost killed me.”

Human rights group Al Mezan found that Israeli drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have killed at least 2,146 Palestinians and damaged 3,332 homes from 2000 to 2022.

Israel “began using drones in the extrajudicial killings of Palestinians” in 2004, according to Al Mezan and, nearly a decade later, they “have grown to be the most lethal weapons, particularly in assassinations and attacks on crowds.”

Drones “have much longer flying times,” states Human Rights Watch, and “some are able to operate continuously for more than 24 hours.”

Military researcher Yousef al-Sharqawi, a retired Palestinian Authority major-general, said that Israel’s most used drones in Gaza are the Quadcopter and the Hermes 450, the latter of which conducts nighttime surveillance with its infrared sensors and can carry missiles.

“Drones take videos, track and assassinate; they also direct bomber aircrafts,” he said. “Israel is looking to develop these drones to have the most powerful drones in the Middle East, but in Gaza they are the most lethal weapons and violate international humanitarian law.”

Palestinian factions have downed drones in Gaza, most recently on 27 January, and with Hamas saying that “important, sensitive information” was obtained.

The drone nightmare of 2014

Israel’s war on Gaza during the summer of 2014 brutally demonstrated the destructive reach of drones.

While Defense for Children International-Palestine found evidence suggesting that Israeli forces directly targeted children that summer, with drones killing at least 164 children, other attacks carried out by Israel throughout Gaza targeted many more civilians.

Anwar al-Zaanin, 43, an employee of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, had reported that an Israeli strike had damaged a waterline near his home in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun, and the municipality sent workers to repair it.

Sofian Abu Harbid, 49, and Majdi Shabat, 50, were repairing the waterline when an Israeli drone dropped yet another missile nearby.

All three men were injured by the strike and taken to the hospital. Abu Harbid’s leg was fractured, and Shabat sustained injuries to his back, arms and hands. Al-Zaanin was more seriously wounded and died later.

Now, Abu Harbid refuses to work while Israeli drones are in the sky, as the attack produced a lasting psychological trauma.

“The event is still terrifying to me,” he said. “At first, the presence of drones just meant it was monitoring our movements, but now, the army intends to hurt and kill us from all directions, sea, land and air. The Israeli army can kill us without justification.”

Taking up residence

Hala Abu Hajir, 38, lives in the village of Johr al-Deek, east of Gaza City. She is a widow and the mother of four children.

Drones are active in the area, she explains. Like al-Attar, who was injured by the drone strike in Beit Lahiya, Abu Hajir also notes that the drones come out most often in the evenings. They are so high-pitched and loud – a deafening vibration – that it feels like they are another occupant in her home.

During the 2014 war, she was walking with her children when she saw an Israeli drone drop missiles on a car and a motorcycle.

She is now more afraid of drones than warplanes.

“Sometimes, when my children are playing near the house and they hear the sound of drones, they run back into the house,” she said. “They’re afraid the drones are going to bomb them.”

She believes their fear is justified, and she is also afraid.

Evenings at home should be peaceful, she said, but the drones make this impossible. There is barely a moment when she is not thinking of the drones and what they’re capable of. The attacks feel unpredictable, even though their buzzing sound is unmistakable.

“Whenever I hear the drones,” she said, “I feel danger nearby. Tension, headaches, anxiety, and sometimes I can’t sleep.”

Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.