Drones over Gaza: How Israel tested its latest technology on protesters
The mismatch between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces has often been likened to David and Goliath. Now, Goliath doesn’t even need to enter the field of combat.
In a new innovation, small drones have been used by Israel’s military to drop tear gas on Palestinian protests along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel and in the occupied West Bank.
First seen in early March, when Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV filmed a group of protesters in Gaza as they were targeted by one, the gas-carrying drones were used heavily in protests in the coastal enclave and the occupied West Bank on Monday and Tuesday.
There appear to be three types of drones being used to disperse the gas.
The first, developed by Israeli company ISPRA and known as the “Cyclone Riot Control Drone System”, is a small drone with rotas that carries a box containing nine light aluminium cartridges which burn up after they are released.
However, two other models appear to have been used, which experts told MEE have never been seen before.
One is a drone that releases gas directly from the craft, like an aerosol, dispersing a cloud on those below.
The other, a potentially far more dangerous device, is a helicopter-style drone which carries rubber bursting grenades with metal tops that disperse gas as they fall.
As the Great March of Return protests came to a crescendo earlier this week, the third type of drone became by far the most regularly used of the three, according to experts spoken to by MEE.
This drone does not appear to be a sophisticated device.
“It’s more sophisticated [than a commercial drone] - it’s not something that you would buy cheaply on Amazon, but I think it’s not far from it,” Itay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer and activist who tracks Israel’s military exports, told MEE.
'It’s not something that you would buy cheaply on Amazon, but I think it’s not far from it'
- Itay Mack, human rights lawyer
The drone appears to be fitted with a spring-loaded rack, which opens to drop a number of tear gas grenades.
“I think the pins are manually pulled from the grenades when they are secured in the rack before takeoff,” James Bevan, executive director of Conflict Armament Research, told MEE.
The rack is then released once the drone is positioned over the area where the controller wishes to disperse the gas.
“It may be something as simple as a retracting pin attached to a servomotor, which is wired into the drone's circuits,” Bevan says. "This is what Islamic State [IS] used in Iraq and Syria.”
According to Bevan, IS is the only group for which there is physical evidence of these small, helicopter-type drones’ use in combat situations, mostly seen in Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Tal Afar.
“We see drone use in other theatres, including by non-state groups, but these have been military fixed-wing drones,” he said.
New range, new danger
Monday’s demonstrations in Gaza coincided with the ceremony marking the official opening of the United States’ new embassy in Jerusalem while Tuesday's protests marked 70 years since the Palestinian Nakba - or Catastrophe - when 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes in historic Palestine in 1948.
Over the two days, 62 Palestinians were killed by live fire or tear gas inhalation, as Israeli forces attempted to quell the protests.
At least 980 Palestinians were wounded by tear gas dropped on the protests on Monday, Gaza’s health ministry said, including many minors.
The drones have given the Israeli forces new range. Previously, gas canisters had only been fired into the Gaza Strip from vehicles on the Israeli side of the divide.
The large fence that separates the besieged enclave from Israel restricts the military’s ability to fire gas across the border, unlike in the West Bank where soldiers often fire the canisters from specially equipped rifles.
Israeli forces rarely make ground incursions into the Gaza Strip, which they pulled out of in 2005, while they maintain a significant presence in the occupied West Bank.
This new range has allowed the Israelis to target areas far from the flashpoint border area, places more likely to be populated by families, minors and the elderly.
Gas a threat to the vulnerable
“The problem with gas grenades is they are especially dangerous to small children and elderly people,” Mack said.
The gas can be fatal in two ways: suffocation and overdosing on the chemicals used.
The deaths of several Palestinians in the West Bank have been linked to tear gas inhalation in recent years. In 2015 an eight-month-old baby in the village of Beit Fajjar died after soldiers fired tear gas into his home.
And in 2014, Palestinian minister Ziad Abu Ein died from complications related to tear gas inhalation after attending a protest near the village of Turmusaya.
A report last year described the Aida refugee camp in the southern West Bank as the "community most exposed to tear gas in the world".
Reports emerged on Tuesday that an eight-month-old baby, Leila al-Ghandour, was also killed by tear gas in the Gaza Strip. She is said to have been exposed to the gas while at a protest site far from the Israeli separation fence, though at the time of publication this could not be independently verified by MEE.
Though made of rubber, the gas grenades dropped from the drones are weighty and have a metal top.
The Israeli military has regulations banning firing such projectiles directly at people. Gas canisters fired from specially fitted rifles are particularly dangerous at short range.
The long-range 40mm grenade launchers used by Israel are also considered dangerous because they can be fired with only limited accuracy.
A spokesman from Omega Research Foundation, which researches the manufacture, trade in and use of military, security and police technologies, told MEE that drones can be used to increase accuracy when dispersing tear gas.
“On a purely technical level, the drones can hover at a safe height to drop the grenades and target individuals that pose a threat,” the spokesman, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
However, video footage of this week's protests appears to show the canisters dropping from a considerable height, reducing accuracy and increasing the risk of head injuries.
Not a threat
Israel has repeatedly accused the protesters in Gaza of attempting to cross the border fence and lay explosives in Israeli territory. It says the use of live fire and tear gas is justified by the threat protesters pose by breaching the barrier.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the AFP news agency previously that the drones have “the capability of flying over certain zones and certain areas and then letting go of tear gas in areas that we want to prevent protesters from reaching".
However, MEE reporters in Gaza and the West Bank and videos emerging online suggest Israeli forces targeted areas far from the border area and people who did not appear to pose a threat.
On Monday, an MEE reporter was gassed by a drone along with several other members of the media. The area targeted was clearly populated by many journalists, with vehicles prominently displaying "Press".
Video footage also showed a drone dropping gas on a communal tent full of women and children, apparently more than 500 metres from the border.
The deployment of gas grenades from above appears in some situations to have sown confusion and fear among crowds, rather than dispersing them to other locations.
In a demonstration on Tuesday near the illegal Israeli settlement Beit El in the West Bank at least four drones deployed gas directly onto protesters.
A 20-year-old protester there, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE that "panic ensued" when the drones appeared in the sky.
"People were running in all directions unsure of where to go as the drones hovered above our heads waiting to drop tear gas," the protester told MEE.
"The Israelis have only begun using these drones in the last few weeks. They are indiscriminate, and show no mercy."
'They are indiscriminate, and show no mercy'
- Palestinian protester
According to Gabriel Avner, an Israeli security consultant, Israel’s policy in Gaza is a departure from its usual crowd-control methods.
“The situation in Gaza right now is completely different to what is happening anywhere else... they’re thinking of this as a full-on conflict zone,” he told MEE.
“There is some cause for concern because the rules of engagement are hard-coded,” he said, adding that the Israeli military needed to make sure soldiers were properly trained to understand the potential consequences when new technology such as this is introduced.
The use of drones is not limited to dispersing tear gas, however.
Some Palestinians have been flying kites across the border, often incendiary ones carrying burning coals with the objective of starting bush fires in Israeli territory.
According to Israeli daily Haaretz, the Israeli military has enlisted amateur racer drones to intercept the kites, using the rotas and fish hooks attached to the crafts to cut their cords and send them off course.
The drones intercepting the kites are operated by hobbyists, and can reach speeds of 110 metres per second, Haaretz reported.
One of the kites that reached the Israeli side of the divide carried a suspected remote-controlled bomb, the paper reported.
While the device did not explode, and police sappers said it may have been a dud or a fake, the paper speculated it could herald a new phase along the border of what it called "kite terrorism".
Many of the kites are harmless, however, with protesters often using them to fly the Palestinian flag.
If not intercepted by drones, these kites are often shot down using live fire.
Technology to sell
Israel is one of the world’s leading countries in drone technology.
It has been using unmanned aerial vehicles since the late 1970s, when they were used by the military for surveillance in south Lebanon, and were widely deployed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of its neighbour to the north.
Mack, the human rights lawyer, noted that Israel has previously used conflicts to showcase its weaponry with the intention of selling it on.
Israel sells its arms and technology to many countries. Last month the German Defence Ministry announced its intention to sign a $1bn contract with Israel Aerospace Industries to lease unmanned aerial vehicles.
Tel Aviv has been criticised for selling weaponry to governments with poor human rights records, most recently Myanmar, which has reportedly bought Israeli military equipment as it conducts an operation against the Rohingya minority. The Myanmar government’s assault against Rohingya communities has been widely described as ethnic cleansing.
Israeli company Global Group also sold surveillance drones to the beleaguered and cash-strapped government of South Sudan for millions of dollars in December.
The South Sudanese government’s forces have been accused by the UN of serious human rights abuses since its civil war broke out in 2013.
The Israeli military’s use of drones to drop gas in Gaza and the West Bank suggests that the models sold to South Sudan could equally be adapted to release tear gas or other payloads.
“Larger commercial drones … are designed to carry a range of payloads (large cameras for sports events, crop-spraying attachments), so are designed to operate payload functions remotely. This would be very easy to configure,” Bevan said.
Kaamil Ahmed, Tessa Fox and Hind Khoudary contributed to this report.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.