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Blunt Force

“Precision” warfare does not exist

Late last month, Israeli military representatives took Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s military committee, on a tour of the Gaza border to show off their automated weaponry and surveillance systems. Supercomputing algorithms and robotics were, officials boasted, helping to fortify a $1.1 billion “smart” border fence erected in 2021, creating an impenetrable barrier between the 2.2 million Palestinians blockaded within the coastal enclave and the Israeli communities beyond. While military spokespeople have brandished the Gaza border as evidence of the Israel Defense Forces’ technological prowess since Israel’s blockade of the Strip began in 2007, global AI hype has led them to double down efforts to increase the power of their military arsenal. Israel’s collection of automated drones, biometric surveillance systems, robotic machine gun turrets, and autonomous tanks allow the nuclear power and its allies to, as a NATO press release put it, “maintain the military edge against adversaries.”

Ten days after Bauer’s tour, Hamas militants breached the Gaza fence in eighty places. They poured through the gaps to attack military outposts, killing and kidnapping soldiers. They stormed Israeli cities, agricultural communities, and a desert rave, massacring over fourteen hundred Israelis, foreign nationals, and migrant workers and taking some two hundred hostages. The Israeli military responded swiftly and brutally, launching aerial bombardments that killed more than three thousand Palestinians, nearly two-thirds of them children. Israeli missiles have erased entire neighborhoods, hospitals, and schools from the map. As of this writing, no food, fuel, and vanishingly little water has been allowed into the Strip since the war began, and Gaza is barreling toward catastrophe. 

Israel has long branded itself as a purveyor of the latest and greatest in homeland security. Military spokespeople have held up the blockaded Gaza Strip as proof that innovations in surveilling, shooting, and killing from a distance can make warfare more precise. However, just as the billions of dollars sunk into cutting-edge security solutions did not prevent the ruthless massacre of Israeli civilians, these technologies are not preventing but inflicting wholesale destruction across Gaza. The brute bloodshed has exploded one of militarism’s popular mythologies: technological innovation will deliver more humane warfare. 

Early in Israel’s blockade, the military labeled Gaza an experimental ground for cutting-edge “security solutions.”

Another word for this mythology is techno-solutionism, a worldview that took Israel’s military and political elite by storm at the turn of the twenty-first century, when “technology rather than occupation” became official IDF policy. Amid the bloodshed of the Second Intifada and the disintegration of the Oslo Accords’ always tenuous promises of peace, military leadership purported that aerial warfare coupled with monitoring telecommunications, internet activity, and 24/7 drone reconnaissance would make Israeli military rule easier to sustain in the long-run—while limiting bloodshed. Military innovations promised to replace combat soldiers and institute surgical precision in combat operations. This unwavering faith in the potential of new technologies drew on a global zeitgeist of the 1990s and early 2000s. It was a time when venture capital-oriented technology sectors closely tied to the military and political establishment happily proffered technological solutions to the world’s innumerable ills. 

The Israeli military’s posture toward Gaza for the last seventeen years cannot be understood outside these global trends. After all, the U.S. military made techno-solutionism the center of military policy at the dawn of the global war on terror, which called for dragnet surveillance and drone warfare. The United States’ booming information economy allowed broad swaths of the American labor force to be corralled into the war effort without actually being deployed to distant battlefields—from civilian technology workers scaffolding new regimes of surveillance capitalism to drone operators sitting in Nevada army bases, dropping bombs on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Israel quickly followed suit, aided by the tens of millions of U.S. dollars pouring into the country through military aid, technology transfers, and capital investment. A hub for weapons manufacturing in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Israeli military poured billions into renovating its defense sector to meet the demands of a twenty-first-century military-industrial complex. Israel’s positioned itself as a homeland security capital and a “start-up nation,” rendering the close ties between civilian and military technology industries its national trademark. Instead of just tanks and Uzis, Israel became known for slick cyberweapons, surveillance systems, and automated weaponry. 

Gaza figured heavily in this national rebrand. The IDF pulled out settlers, soldiers, spy networks, and embedded informants from the Gaza Strip in its so-called “disengagement” from the occupied Palestinian territory in 2005. In January 2006, Hamas, a militant political party labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, won just under 45 percent of the votes in Palestinian elections. In response, the Israeli government implemented an official “separation” policy between Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories, enforcing a land, sea, and air blockade—one abetted by surveillance and aerial warfare. Palestinians in Gaza, who have not voted in democratic elections since, were forced to live with the bare minimum of essential services allotted by the Israeli state. Cut off from the rest of Palestine, and the rest of the world, Gaza’s economy tanked. Children grew up under the constant hum of aerial reconnaissance, witnessing homes and infrastructure blasted by routine aerial bombardments. Most under eighteen have never left the roughly 140 square-mile strip of land. 

Early in Israel’s blockade, the military labeled Gaza an experimental ground for cutting-edge “security solutions.” At weapons expositions and in press releases, generals advertised digital and automated weapons field-tested on the Strip’s inhabitants. Advertisements of drones equipped with facial recognition technology and signal-jamming black boxes morphed into promotions of automated drone swarms and multibillion-dollar smart border fences enforced by autonomous tanks and surveillance balloons. Journalists and academics condemned the weapons industry for profiting off the enclosure of over 2 million people within what prominent human rights advocates have called “the world’s largest open-air prison.” The United States, meanwhile, was happy to help pick up the tab for these tantalizing innovations.

Some in Israel’s security establishment periodically warned that Israeli policy towards Gaza was untenable in the long run. High-ranking generals argued unfettered investments in technology were diverting resources away from Israeli combat troops who appeared increasingly ill-prepared for major maneuvers, like an old-fashioned ground invasion. Others emphasized that a policy of isolation allowed Hamas to swell into a veritable adversary, boasting millions of dollars in rockets and artillery. Nevertheless, by and large, such warnings were ignored by Israel’s increasingly right-wing government. Eying annexation of the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed bolstering Hamas would sabotage any possibility for a two-state solution. In the meantime, advancements in aerial warfare, surveillance, and homeland security promised to manage any existential threat posed by the terrorist group.

A country that only months ago said it was on the brink of being an “AI superpower” is waging war with the same old blunt force.

Those “solutions” failed on Saturday, October 7th, when none of the multibillion-dollar surveillance systems rolled out in recent years alerted the military of Hamas’ plans to massacre Israelis and take hostages. Israelis are still reeling from watching revelers mowed down at an outdoor concert and entire families shot inside their homes, asking why it took one of the most vaunted militaries in the world hours to rescue its citizens. Now, many more are dying across Gaza, where the IDF has replaced so-called targeted assassinations with indiscriminate air strikes. While the Israeli military has long allowed what they determined to be the bare minimum amount of water, fuel, and food supplies to enter Gaza to forestall mass death, none of these supplies have been allowed into Gaza since October 7. Those who are not killed in aerial bombardments are at risk of dying from starvation, dehydration, or waterborne disease in an environment that has been made uninhabitable. 

In the event, Israel seems to have abandoned all pretense to precision warfare; officials have said the emphasis now is on “damage . . . not accuracy” as IDF air strikes pulverize entire neighborhoods. On Tuesday night, the Gaza health ministry said an Israeli rocket massacred at least five hundred civilians at the al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital in Gaza. The IDF has refuted this claim, attributing the explosion to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Western governments and media outlets have thrown their weight behind Israel’s version of events.

Voices from Gaza drive home the nightmare unfolding on the ground. “There’s no electricity, no internet, no medicine, no water, no food supplies, indiscriminate bombing—houses, hospitals, schools, mosques, churches, United Nations buildings, civilians, ambulances, paramedics and reporters have been targeted, entire neighborhoods have been flattened, thousands have been martyred, including ten people in my immediate family,” Mohammed Zraiy told Jewish Currents. “It’s a massacre—and it is but one of many stations in Israel’s ongoing Nakba against us.”

Israel’s military is now poised to commence a ground invasion of Gaza, which will take the lives of thousands more Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Major humanitarian organizations have called for a cease-fire and demanded Israel allow vital aid to enter the besieged territory, which U.S. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday would begin happening on a limited basis within southern Gaza. Yet Israel’s government seems set on seeing through what Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has called a “cruel campaign of revenge” based on “more death, destruction and loss.” As the death tolls climb, a country that only months ago said it was on the brink of being an “AI superpower” is waging war with the same old blunt force. Civilians across the region will continue to pay the price.