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Friday, January 23, 2009

Robot Planes: Life and Death Choices over Gaza

JERUSALEM -- The man was a few seconds from an all-but-certain death, when Gil told everyone to call off the airstrike.


This was Sunday. Gil, a captain in the Israeli Air Force, was sitting in a green-painted metal box on the Palmahim Air Base, south of Tel Aviv. In front of him was a joystick and a set of screens. They showed footage of a Gaza slum, taken by an unarmed Israeli spy drone with an infrared sensor. Gil had the sensor display a dark shade for heat. Which gave the images on Gil's screen an inverted feel; white was black, and black was white.

The man, Gil's superior officers told him, was a known Hamas terrorist. The neighborhood, a militant haven. So when the black blotch of a man stepped out into the alley, and began to fiddle with dark strings that looked suspiciously like wires, Gil's Colonel gave the order to a second aircraft, flying nearby: Take this man out. He's setting up a booby trap for our soldiers.

The double-tailed, 40 foot-long Heron spy drone banked over the Gaza rooftops, and zoomed in on the man, to get a better look at the now-designated target. The man was tying the wire at about eye-level, from one home to another. It was an odd location for a booby trap. But a perfect place to hang clothes. Gil, his voice rising, told everyone to stop. "Don't attack! Don't attack!" he yelled. "The man, he's doing laundry."

Looking back, Gil is pretty sure he made the right decision. But he can't be certain. "I prefer this kind of mistake," he says in a voice, soft as tissue, "than to have the innocent on my conscience."

Israel's war against Hamas was launched, in large part, to send a message to its adversaries: Be afraid. Any attacks on the Jewish state will be met with overwhelming, even brutal, force. Traditionally off-limits sites, like Mosques and hospitals, won't serve as hiding places. Enemy leaders will be hunted down and killed -- even if they're surrounded by their children and wives.

Israeli leaders believe they've accomplished that task. "The Arab view is now that Israel is a crazed animal, locked in a cage, fuming to get out all the time," a senior Foreign Ministry official tells Danger Room, approvingly. "Now, it's the responsibility of the Arab leadership to keep the animal in the cage, by not provoking it."

At the same time, these leaders insist that each one of the strikes in this massive, even-reckless-seeming retaliation against Hamas was taken with the utmost care; thousands of pinpoint attacks, in response to the thousands of Hamas rockets that indiscriminately rained down on Israel.

Balancing these seemingly-contradictory desires -- sending a frightful message, while keeping bystanders out of the cross-fire -- is often left to young men like Gil, a mission commander with Israel's 200th Squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles. His Heron spy drone doesn't have any weapons. But the view from it is often the decisive evidence, for a fighter jet or an armed helicopter to go through with an air strike, or not. "If I say this man is armed, they'll bomb. If I say stop the attacks, they stop," Gil says.

That's different from the American system, where decisions are often made by the commander on the ground, or by a network of legal and intelligence analysts. It means means "a lot of moral dilemmas" for the pale father of two. "You see a Qassam [rocket] launcher with children around it. Now, what do you prefer: Let them fire the rocket, and have it fall on a kid in [the Israeli town of] Sderot? Or drop the bomb, and risk Palestinian children?" he asks.

Gil has a smooth face and red-brown hair that's just showing the first wisps of gray. He wears a green flight suit. A pair of tinted shades sit on top of a custom-made yellow and white yamulke, bearing the insignia of his spy drone unit. (The Israeli military asked that I only use his first name, and photograph him from the back, in exchange for this rare visit to the secretive unit.) A collection of a half-dozen coffee cups sits on his desk. He apologies for the mess, for the half-eaten food in the break room, for the stink coming from the toilet. It's been a long month. Gil's squadron has been flying since 1971 -- but this war was the most taxing yet. During the conflict's peak, the Israelis had six to ten of the 200th's surviellance drones flying over Gaza at all times.

The Heron UAVs, flying on a Rotax 914 turbo-charged engine, have been modified to stay in the sky for more than 40 hours at a clip. Model airplane enthusiasts are recruited to handle the drone's takeoffs and landings. Then the UAV flies on its own, guided by from place to place by a series of waypoints. That clears a pair of troops to handle the Heron's sensors -- and make the hard choices.

Finally, on Tuesday, the 200th was able to relax, just a bit. The reservists were sent home. And the rest of the team sat on a pool table and a pleather couch, and talked about the awful decisions they had to make. The arguments with the ground troops under fire, yelling, "C'mon! Bomb bomb bomb!" The sedan filled with Hamas chieftains, weaving in and out of traffic. The jihadists who walk around unarmed, because they know the drones at watching. The militants that were let go. The innocents that weren't.

"When you see a target, all you want to do is attack," Gil says. "But it's not that simple."