It’s the latest in a long series of accusations of wartime transgressions leveled at the Israeli military for its conduct during the Gaza campaign. But this report, in some ways, may be the most damning. Relying on eyewitness accounts, investigations of the attack scenes and IDF video, Human Rights Watch could find no evidence “that Palestinian fighters were present in the immediate area” during the six unmanned attacks. “None of the targets were moving quickly or leaving the area, so the drone operators would have had time to determine whether they were observing civilians or combatants, and to hold fire if they were not able to tell the difference.” And that failure to distinguish between the two is a violation of the laws of war, the group says.
Not every drone attack was incriminate, of course. At the tail end of the Gaza war, I saw an IDF remote pilot struggle to determine whether targets were suspected Hamas terrorists, or just ordinarily citizens. I watched as he called off missile launches, to prevent civilians nearby from being struck. But other decisions to fire seem harder to justify, Human Rights Watch notes.
In one daytime attack on December 27, the first day of the Israeli offensive, an IDF drone-launched missile hit a group of students who were waiting for a bus in central Gaza City… killing nine students, two of them women, and three other civilians. The IDF has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded central street with no known military activity in the area at the time.Of course, Israeli drones and equipped with sensors and weapons, specifically designed to keep this sort of thing from happening. The aircraft are equipped with high-resolution infrared and electro-optical cameras. “The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target after a missile has been launched, the drone operator can remotely divert the weapon elsewhere,” the report observes.
Those Spike missiles are anti-tank munitions, modified to carry a “fragmentation sleeve” of tiny, tungsten cubes. With their heavy weight and 3 millimeter size, the cubes keep the missile’s “area of effect relatively small — approximately 20 meters in diameter.” That’s supposed to cut down on stray shrapnel, and on so-called “collateral damage.” But anyone caught inside the Spike’s lethal orbit is in deep trouble. Not only can the cubes puncture thin metal and cinder block. Erik Fosse, a Norwegian doctor working in Gaza, says that the weapon “cause[d] the tissue to be torn from the flesh.”
At the attack sites, “Human Rights Watch also found circuit boards and other missile parts consistent with the Spike. Some of the wounded civilians showed impact marks from the cubic fragments, and in one case x-rays showed metal cubes lodged in the leg and chest of a victim. Victims and witnesses also spoke of hearing the distinctive buzz of the overhead drone — what Palestinians call a zannana — prior to an attack.”