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2014 | Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza, by A. Roger, Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 7 (4) 2014

This article sets forth that from a military perspective, drones offer three clear benefits over manned systems: they can enter areas where manned missions would be considered too dangerous (access), a drone can loiter above an area for a long time, increasing endurance (persistence) which provides for better intelligence gathering and analysis that enable better targeting (accuracy). Although this combination should be able to reduce collateral damage, the author argues that it contributes to civilian casualties. This proposition is underpinned by a case study of Operation Protective Edge (OPE), an Israeli military action that took place between July 8 and August 26, 2014 in the Gaza strip and that is characterised by a large numbers of drone bombings.

Under international humanitarian law (IHL), civilian harm is not unlawful per se, as long as a military action is proportionate to the threat, discriminates between combatants and civilians and is militarily necessary. While drones are designed in such a manner that they significantly meet these conditions, the author sets forth three reasons why civilian harm is nevertheless inflicted by drone strikes. Firstly, drones mitigate the risk of death or injury to pilots that manned missions involve. Therefore the military is more inclined to use them, which increases the quantity of harm, including collateral damage. Secondly, global power imbalances appear to render some civilians expendable or disposable in economic, political and military terms, possibly reducing the resistance to causing collateral damage. Thirdly, the mediated and distant nature of their deployment may facilitate the  ‘creation’ and dehumanization of targets.

Gaza

Prior to launching OPE, the Israeli army used surveillance drones to pre-select its targets to be subsequently hit by bomb-laden drones during the operation. Whether these bombings were directed at legitimate targets under the laws of war is questionable, given the high numbers of civilian casualties and injuries, and the scale of destruction of private properties. According to the author, the Israeli Defence Forces repeatedly failed to verify that its targets indeed constituted legitimate targets. Moreover, given that Gaza is highly urbanized, there was a significant risk of causing disproportional civilian harm. Overall, there is little transparency around how Israel selects its targets and the author purports that Israel’s view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” For its part, Israel maintains the attacks on Gaza were lawful and assesses the civilian harm as collateral damage, not infringing applicable international law.

In conclusion, whereas in theory, drones technology has the potential to reduce civilian harm, Gaza practice exemplifies how it can do the opposite.