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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Israel’s drone age

On the rapidly changing legal norms of warfare in the Occupied Territories and beyond

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

Unmanned aerial vehicle in Israeli military service. Photo by the Israel Defense Forces/Wikimedia Commons.

On January 3, 2020, Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani was assassinated by a US-operated drone attack in Baghdad, Iraq, while on his way to meet with the country’s prime minister. Soleimani was then-head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, and a crucial architect of Iran’s “axis of resistance” to US influence in the Middle East.

From the perspective of the United States, Soleimani was not only “the military center of gravity of Iran’s regional hegemonic efforts,” but the leader of a designated terrorist group. Thus, under the thinnest of legal pretenses, the former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper could claim that the operation was a matter of national self-defence before an imminent threat. Only days later did the US declare its rationale to the United Nations Security Council, as top officials struggled to produce a legal basis for the extrajudicial killing, eventually citing the Bush-era Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq—an almost 20-year-old blueprint for a permanent state of exception.

Most of the world greeted this line with incredulity. The Iraqi government responded to the death of Soleimani, alongside Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, as a “massive breach of sovereignty,” while Iran pledged swift retaliation. Nearby, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu salivated: “Just as Israel has the right of self-defence, the United States has exactly the same right,” he said: “President Trump deserves all the credit for acting swiftly, forcefully and decisively.” Agnes Callamard, then-UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, wrote with concern that “for the first time, in January 2020, a State armed drone targeted a high-level official of a foreign state on the territory of a third one—a significant development and an escalation.”

This week marked the third anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination, widely regarded as a pivotal moment in 21st century warfare, and its reverberations were tragically felt in both Iran and Iraq. On January 3, dozens were killed and hundreds injured in an explosion near Soleimani’s tomb in Kerman. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by Islamic State. This eruption of violence, however, was not the only or most consequential recollection of the 2020 attack to have taken place this week. Just one day prior, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out a drone assassination of Saleh al-Arouri, deputy leader of Hamas and commander of the Al-Qassam Brigades, in Beirut. While Knesset members were counseled to remain silent on the matter, senior Israeli advisor Mark Regev defiantly informed the press that “whoever did this” had not in fact attacked a bordering state, but carried out a “surgical strike” against Hamas. Meanwhile, Hezbollah correctly identified the incident as a flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty. Hamas decried the killing as a terrorist attack.

It is clear enough that Israel, which professes self-defence even as it razes captive territory, intends to change the staging of this war, drawing its allies into a potential Armageddon. While the operation’s relatively good press in the US heralds the killing as “an important symbolic achievement” and “a blow, but not a knockout, for Hamas,” less lurid commentary cautions of full regional war. Hezbollah’s military capacity far exceeds that of Hamas, and Israeli aggression against Lebanon coincides with US escalation in Iraq, where an airstrike on January 4 killed commander Abu Taqwa in the heart of Baghdad. Here too, the occasion of Soleimani’s death is a likely catalyst, affirming business as usual for the empire’s assassins.

Hunting grounds

This jurisdictional anxiety not only attends US-backed interest in the region and Israel’s disdain for international law, but follows from new norms of military engagement, where state sovereignty is often transgressed in pursuit of designated targets. To wit: Israel’s signatory gesture in the killing of Arouri, in spite of official reticence, concerns the unattributable means of the attack, which Lebanese security officials confirm was carried out by an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), or drone. Dozens of Israeli drones violate Lebanese airspace daily, and the psychopolitical impact of this incessant trespass has been powerfully documented by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, whose interactive Air Pressure database strives “to make the Israeli illegal aerial invasions of Lebanon visible in their totality.”

As analysts explain, the southern suburbs of Beirut are easily approached by drone over the Mediterranean sea. From there it takes only a few minutes to reach the residential neighbourhood where Arouri and his company were killed (Dahieh is one of the most populous parts of Lebanon). But the ease and frequency of access to Lebanese airspace, used by Israel to unilateral advantage, brooks no law. Even barring the dubious legality of Arouri’s killing, overhead flights flout both acknowledged airspace and the terms of UN Resolution 1701—which calls for a complete cessation of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon—if on a technicality: what is the aerial extension of the accepted land and maritime borders?

This technical oversight (in at least two senses) typifies an increasingly common transgression of state sovereignty, where international law appears to follow capitalist research and development. Theorist Grégoire Chamayou has described the contemporary paradigm of drone warfare as having instigated a “crisis in military ethos,” transforming the terms and terrain of engagement altogether as it proposes an unstable approach to acceptable targets. In an era of the global war against terror, Chamayou writes:

Armed violence has lost its traditional limits: indefinite in time, it is also indefinite in space. The whole world, it is said, is a battlefield. But it would probably be more accurate to call it a hunting ground. For if the scope of armed violence has now become global, it is because the imperatives of hunting demand it.


In this description, the remote killing characteristic of drone warfare is not just a safe or expedient means of carrying out war as before—this technical innovation corresponds to a new and rapidly shifting geographical model, where violence is no longer limited to demarcated combat zones but simply licensed by the presence of an enemy prey, “who carries with it its own little mobile zone of hostility.” State sovereignty and territorial integrity are contingent features of this model of warfare, and can be violated at will by an imperial hunter whose technical power and jurisdiction operates vertically.

The geopolitical layers of this methodology are many and complex: for example, the MQ-9 Reaper drone that killed Soleimani was likely launched from Qatar, but operated from Clark County, Nevada, where self-proclaimed “hunter” pilots proceeded to attack a diplomatically protected target visiting a third country with whom they were not at war—at least nominally. At the very least, this is novel; but the legal ramifications must be known.

As noted, Israel’s assassination of Arouri strikingly coincides with the anniversary of the Trump administration’s killing of Soleimani, which was justified in turn with reference to Bush Jr.’s extralegal innovations. But these Republican presidencies flank the drastic expansion of jurisdictionally ambiguous drone warfare under President Obama, whose office presumed authority to use lethal force outside of legally defined combat zones on an unprecedented scale during a “global” war on terror. These policies drew heavy criticism from international legal observers, as the Obama administration authorized more than 500 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and beyond—locations where the situation, however grave, could hardly be described as one of armed conflict between organized groups. Lacking such criteria, the years of drone attacks around the world appear not only deadly, but illegal.

Even so, lawyers love an ignoble cause; and this remote assassin’s paradigm keeps many of them entertained. Legal scholar Michael W. Lewis argues that the application of international humanitarian law to the transnational deployment of drones constitutes an unacceptable constraint, where “it would effectively grant sanctuary to and confer an important strategic advantage upon unprivileged belligerents,” themselves apparently excepted from the protections of the Geneva Convention.

These are the sticking points of any legal theory of the drone, and the cause for which apologists must seek a portable state of exception, adhering to individual targets as they move about the world. Jonathan Horowitz and Naz Modirzadeh describe the seemingly contradictory situation of a “transnational non-international armed conflict,” where the law of armed conflict is analogized to a cloud, hovering above the head of an itinerant prey. Such a cloud, they enthuse, could drift after someone anywhere, from “an empty café in Paris [to] a dark street corner in Morocco.”

These hypothetical nooks and crannies, cribbed from the vocabulary of film noir, recall the scenery of an open letter from Human Rights Watch to President Obama: “How does the administration define the ‘global battlefield’ and what is the legal basis for that definition? … Does it view the battlefield as global in a literal sense, allowing lethal force to be used, in accordance with the laws of war, against a suspected terrorist in an apartment in Paris, a shopping mall in London, or a bus station in Iowa City?”

The letter has its own problems, where its particular examples of neutral ground—Paris, London, New York—reproduce an unofficial distinction between imperial enclaves and those geographies already deemed internal to interminable war. Recall that the practical examples of extraterritorial killing under discussion here took place in Baghdad and Beirut, metropolitan centres of besieged countries. Nonetheless, as Chamayou warns, this principle of cloud-like jurisdiction distorts and stretches the acceptable terrain of war.

Control in the air

Israel’s killing of Arouri is a straightforward study in the fly-by-night legality that drone warfare seems to recommend, and Israel features prominently in Chamayou’s “drone theory” as both leader and transgressor of rapidly changing legal norms. But the most severe application of this technology is not in transnational pursuit of relatively mobile, tenuously lawful prey. For two decades, and particularly since Israel’s nominal withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, drones have assumed a very nearly governmental role in, and above, the Occupied Territories.

In his wide-ranging book Drone Theory, Chamayou draws from the work of architect Eyal Weizman, who chillingly describes Israel’s program of “control in the air.” Not only are the West Bank and Gaza principally policed from above, but the spatial politics of occupation now implicate the nearer atmosphere. “Airspace is a discrete dimension absent from political maps,” Weizman reminds us; and the IDF exercises complete control over the West Bank and Gaza, if not always on the ground. As regards this strategic resource, Weizman notes that every attempted agreement from the Oslo to Camp David Accords has arrogated Palestinian airspace, as well as electromagnetic space for radio transmission, to Israel. Today, he asserts, “the West Bank must be the most intensively observed and photographed terrain in the world”—a condition of surveillance inverse to the difficulty of direct eye-witness.

Ninety kilometres away, Gaza is often and aptly characterized as an open-air prison; but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the prison has no ceiling. This isn’t a clever analogy but a matter of arcane legal debate, where it was seriously proposed in peace talks that “the sovereign ceiling of the emerging Palestinian state be significantly lowered, to include only architectural construction and low-flying helicopters.” As Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports, “Israel continues to maintain exclusive control of Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, just as it has since it occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967. Control of the airspace enables Israel, among other things, to monitor the actions on the ground, and to interfere with radio and TV broadcasts,” not to mention any prospect of direct trade. What’s more, there is not a single airport in Gaza, and hasn’t been since October 2000.

As Dr. Atef Abu Saif describes in a monograph on Israeli drone war in the Gaza Strip, UAVs are “the new face of the Israeli occupation.” This is not to suggest that drones are new to Israel, which was one of the first countries to develop and export drone technology, for both strikes and surveillance, beginning in the early 1970s (the aerospace industry has boomed since, with Israel outranking the US in drone exports). Rather, with the debut of drone warfare over the Occupied Territories in 2000 and the subsequent “disengagement plan” of 2005, on-the-ground occupiers have been replaced by an aerial presence. Saif quotes the head of the Israeli Air Force in 2004, who explains that Israel is just discovering how better to “control a city or a territory from the air when it’s no longer legitimate to hold or occupy that territory on the ground.”

While deadly drone attacks in Gaza intensified during the Second Intifada, they have remained a feature of life since, and are a primary means of destruction in the present war, which has become a testing ground for homegrown drone startups like Xtend. These smaller drones, or “human-guided autonomous systems,” are ideal for the navigation of cramped—which is to say, inhabited—battle space, a market “driven by Hamas’ own tactics.” Here too, Israel and its apologists announce the intent of drone technology to redraft everyday life as a combat zone, and then attribute this transgression to the guerrilla methodologies that this approach obliges (similarly, one could consider the fixated, exaggerated stories of Hamas’ mole-like, subterranean tactics in light of Israel’s sovereignty over the sky).

The imperatives of hunting expose Gazans to the constant threat of the drone—not only since October 7, but for more than 20 years—where in the course of its aerial occupation, Israeli forces deploy both random, prejudicial drone attacks as well as targeted assassinations, with outsized collateral damage. Saif describes the 2012 assassination of Ahmad Al-Jabri, a leader of the Al-Qassam Brigades, in terms closely corresponding to the extrajudicial and non-jurisdictional paradigm outlined above: Jabri and his bodyguard were driving in a car down a crowded street, and the drone missile with his name on it killed nine other people, including a seven-year-old girl.

The failure to differentiate between combatants and civilians, and the transformation of all civic space into a potential and contractible warzone, are defining features of Israel’s experiment in government by terror, and terror by drone. In Gaza, where every one of the IDF’s doubtful attempts upon Hamas leaders has produced a stunning loss of civilian life, Israeli strategy supposes a territorially suffused guilt. Even the name Hamas functions substitutively in popular media, which prefers to speak of an “Israel-Hamas” war—at once repressing the actuality of Palestine and recasting civilians as foreign fighters (recall how, at the outset of atrocities, Israeli president Isaac Herzog stood before the world and claimed that “there are no innocent civilians in Gaza”).

This isn’t only a rhetorical or political move. Rather, this conscription happens in the moment of deployment, as one becomes a target of a law-making-and-breaking artillery. With this in mind, it isn’t quite right to suggest that the drone is a weapon deployed onto a preexisting space of conflict; rather, as Nour Balosha notes to Saif, “the drone transforms Gaza into a field of war.” In the disclosure of target to drone, a zone of conflict is raised to standing. If, instrumentally conceived, the will to kill ought to precede one’s choice of weapon, then the drone era flips the script. Today, a wilful inertia has infiltrated the technological means of combat, where rogue and warring states retain whole air-conditioned warehouses of “hunters,” scanning for plausibly pre-approved targets.

Just as Israel has innovated drone warfare from the technical side, it continues to advance its cause in the realm of legal apologia. On this, Saif quotes Colonel Daniel Reisner, former head of the International Law Department of the Israeli army: “International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it.” This doctrine spans over 2,000 assassinations and seven decades of Israeli policy, though its shaky legality is consummated in the figure and era of the drone. And as the first state in the world to adopt an official policy of preemptive targeted killing, as well as an early workshop of drone technology, Israel appears the motivator of this moment, urging US policy in similar directions. In this respect, the murder of Arouri in Beirut only continues a longstanding project of imperial adventurism, as Israel defies its patrons to condemn their common framework.

Ending an era

What is likely to come of this assassination? While clearly rogue, the US and other powerful allies will choose not to characterize it this way; not only because it would defy their proxy interest in the region, but because it would belie a paradigm of global exception upon which the imperialist bloc utterly depends. As for the endgame, what if any effect is this likely to have on Hamas? Hasbara scholar Harel Chorev offers that targeted assassinations work against centralized organizations, but laments that Hamas is “decentralized”—a key term in the propagandization of the hunt, and the summary conscription of civilians by way of the civic space they and the target share.

As to the ongoing exceptionality of this moment, the situation seems irreversible. It’s as difficult today to imagine a geographical recontainment or ‘deverticalization’ of contemporary warfare as it is to describe the end of capitalism, where the “dronization” of the military apparatus follows the tendency of monopoly capital to produce “arms, more arms and even more arms,” at the same time as it expresses the most flagrant aims of a concomitant legal form. And yet, as Chamayou insists, no technological development is irreversible—mass movements for disarmament affirm as much. Today, the best outcome against the global state of exception, with the drone as its emblem, would surely entail the prosecution of Israel before the International Court of Justice, in hopes that one successful legal challenge could impel another.

Until then, however, as the assault on Gaza escalates and Lebanon is drawn nearer the fray, the movement for Palestine in Canada and the United States must cooperate more closely than ever with the broad movement for peace, where to exceptionalize a cause is to isolate it as well. As Israel has been the author of the Drone Age, let Palestine be its undoing—but never alone.

Cam Scott is a poet, writer, and organizer from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. His books include ROMANS/SNOWMARE and The Vanishing Signs, both published by ARP Books. Follow Cam on Twitter @vanishingsigns.

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