New Tech, Old War

Sophia Goodfriend

Israel’s latest assault on Jenin killed twelve Palestinians, injured a hundred and temporarily displaced three thousand in just over 48 hours. Some had fled Israeli military violence once or twice before, in 1948 and 1967. Most had their homes razed in 2002 during a ten-day bombardment that left 56 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers dead.

The destruction was at odds with recent IDF press releases, which have claimed Israel is on the brink of revolutionising warfare. Israel’s military has cast itself as an ‘artificial intelligence superpower’, promising that automated weapons would make warfare more precise and, by implication, more humane. But AI has not revolutionised warfare for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who will continue to live under its terrorising effects.

Military think-tanks and arms industry leaders were trumpeting machine learning algorithms and large language models long before the appearance of ChatGPT, which sparked a flurry of AI hype across the world’s media. In 2021, the US National Security Commission announced that dominance over AI innovation was the only way to save American civilians from Chinese military aggression. Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg proclaimed that any attempts to regulate big tech could severely limit the US military’s capabilities.

Following the United States’ lead, the Israeli army claimed in May 2021 that it had waged ‘the world’s first AI war’: algorithms trawled through troves of surveillance data to determine where drones would drop bombs in eleven days of fighting that killed more than 230 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and injured more than two thousand. In the two years since, military spokespeople have taken the two subsequent assaults on Gaza – which have left 82 dead and thousands homeless – as an opportunity to advertise the IDF’s cutting-edge machine learning capabilities. Last month, the information technology and cyber commander, Eran Niv, promised that soon ‘the entire IDF will run on generative AI.’

Such announcements are never divorced from the economic incentives of Israel’s arms industry, which is closely tied to its military apparatus. Still, AI’s impact on warfare over the past few years should not be understated, as technological advances have further increased the asymmetry of already asymmetric conflicts. Last September, Israel installed a remote-controlled riot gun, which uses AI to track its targets, at a checkpoint in Hebron. Biometric recognition cameras track civilians through urban spaces, sustaining a regime of mass surveillance with minimal human intervention. Large language models determine where autonomous drone swarms should drop missiles over crowded refugee camps, minimising the number of UAV operators exposed to the bloodshed of aerial warfare.

Israeli military spokespeople like to cast the IDF as a pioneer, exploring the uncharted territory of automated warfare. However, these technologies are now ubiquitous on battlefields worldwide. The government in Tripoli deployed small Turkish-manufactured drones to hunt down and kill militants in western Libya without human intervention in 2020. In Ukraine, both sides have dispatched autonomous weapons to kill enemy soldiers and defend critical infrastructure, from small kamikaze drones to unmanned ground vehicles fitted with machine-guns and explosives.

Weapons manufacturers advertise their technologies as efficient and humane security solutions. But as machine learning becomes a hallmark of military violence, the new autonomous weapons – like their predecessors throughout the history of arms development – have failed to deliver on that promise. For armies with advanced technical arsenals, military offensives have become easier to wage without the need to muster political support from a public divorced from their effects. For civilians living under the incessant threat of aerial bombardment and sniper fire, war has become a chronic condition.

Last week’s assault in Jenin showed once again the cruel asymmetry of today’s automated wars. The 48-hour offensive was the largest IDF operation on the West Bank in decades, yet barely punctured the routines of Jewish Israelis beyond the Green Line, long sheltered from their government’s policies towards Palestinians. Of the two thousand Israeli soldiers mobilised in the latest assault, many were sitting behind computer screens in fortified bases watching as algorithms planned missile strikes and directed relatively small numbers of ground troops across a crowded refugee camp. The IDF came away with only one casualty, a soldier probably killed by friendly fire.

For Palestinians, innovations in autonomous warfare have only compounded the terrorising impact of Israel’s military operations. According to Jenin’s deputy governor, 80 per cent of Palestinian homes in the city were damaged in the raid last week. United Nations officials described the attacks as a form of ‘collective punishment’ and warned that the scope of destruction may amount to a war crime, citing reports of Israeli troops blocking ambulances from evacuating the wounded and shooting at Palestinian journalists.

As Palestinians returned to their homes this week, older residents described having the same nightmares as after previous raids. Children were afraid of sleeping alone in their bedrooms. ‘The trauma is enduring, it’s chronic, it’s historical and it’s intergenerational,’ Samah Jabr, the head of the Palestinian Authority’s mental health services, told al-Jazeera.

None of the technologies adopted by Israeli forces over the past two decades stopped the children who saw their homes bulldozed in 2002 from growing up to lead the militant groups targeted in the latest operation. Nor did they prevent last week’s assault from subjecting another generation of Palestinians to the same terror. As new technologies allow an old war to drag on, the human cost of automated warfare is increasingly evident.


  • 12 July 2023 at 5:47pm
    Alan Meyrowitz says:
    Sophia Goodfriend's distorted characterization of Israel's attack on Jenin fails to take into account that it was a response to the population there choosing the terrorists of Hamas to act on their behalf with rocket attacks into Israel and incursions into Israel to murder Israeli citizens. As the latter events have been ongoing, Israel's actions cannot be regarded as asymmetric. They must be regarded as necessary.

    • 12 July 2023 at 6:55pm
      Donald Raeson says: @ Alan Meyrowitz
      How was this 'choice' you refer to exercised?

    • 12 July 2023 at 8:32pm
      Alan Meyrowitz says: @ Donald Raeson
      In 2006, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and assumed administrative control of Gaza Strip and West Bank.

    • 22 July 2023 at 11:38am
      bentoth says: @ Alan Meyrowitz
      Nobody chooses terrorists. Terrorism is a convenient, mentally sterilizing, epithet for events in extreme situations, as when the stern gang murdered Folke Bernadotte. Something I imagine Mr Meyrowitz is content with.

  • 12 July 2023 at 6:37pm
    Einschlaf says:
    Mr. Meyrowitz regards the killing of human beings as necessary and an inevitable response to aggression.

    If he his ilk continue to peddle this murderous worldview, we will never reach peace. Cursed be all who glorify war as necessary!

    • 12 July 2023 at 7:00pm
      Alan Meyrowitz says: @ Einschlaf
      Israel has tried other means before having to resort to violence. Turning the other cheek, as Einschlaf seems to suggest, is certainly an acceptable high moral ground to take in dealing with many of life's situations, and I applaud it. Try it in dealing with terrorists, however, and you are likely to get a bullet in the side of your head.

    • 12 July 2023 at 8:38pm
      Alan Meyrowitz says: @ Alan Meyrowitz
      It may be worth adding that Israel tries when possible to alert West Bank and Gaza populations to vacate buildings about to be attacked. I don't recall hearing of the same courtesy provided before rockets are aimed into Israel.

  • 12 July 2023 at 8:41pm
    Margaret Smith says:
    The above comments miss the point of the piece - despite what anyone says about precision-guided weapons and AI-enhanced or augmented targeting, the technologies employed have the exact same destructive effect as “dumb” weapons. AI does not change the character of war because nothing about war can (or should) ever be considered humane. The piece is less about who’s right or wrong or even Israel and Palestine (the conflict is instead the vehicle throughh which the author makes their point) and more about the defense industry’s framing of new weapons and their reliance on AI as somehow ushering in a new era of warfare when in reality, bombs still kill and war is still war.

    • 13 July 2023 at 4:38am
      Alan Meyrowitz says: @ Margaret Smith
      I appreciate Margaret Smith refocusing the discussion on what was the original intent. Sophia Goodfriend's posting, reconsidered in light of Smith's excellent comment, does indeed have considerable merit.

  • 12 July 2023 at 8:50pm
    Ted Eames says:
    So "Alan Meyrowitz" is the latest Israeli government sponsored 'bot' in the LRB camp!
    Sophia Goodfriend's piece is admirably restrained, unlike Israel's hi-tech oppression of the Palestinian people.
    As Meyrowitz himself admits, Hamas are in power because they were elected. It is inevitable that people under extreme oppression will support those who will fight to remove the military boot from their throats.

  • 13 July 2023 at 10:50am
    Camus says:
    One thing these weapons cannot do is agree ceasefires or make peace agreements. The Israeli government is following a policy of destroying Palestinian villages and settlements in order to force mass migration which will leave Israel in complete control of the territory claimed to be their own. What about some discussion of a two-state peace solution?

    • 13 July 2023 at 3:14pm
      Ted Eames says: @ Camus
      Good question, Camus. Unfortunately the two-state solution has become such a distant prospect that it is now pretty much out of sight as an option.
      Israel has campaigned on several fronts to block the idea, most blatantly by building and defending illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Internationally, there has been a long, slow process of abandonment of the Palestinian people in the face of Israeli intransigence and American collusion.
      The final nail in the coffin of any solution (other than all Palestinians becoming second-class citizens within an apartheid state) has been the drive to equate support for Palestinians with anti-Semitism. This risibly flawed notion has been enacted in the UK by Keir Starmer's Labour Party, where principled positions on Palestine have been completely abandoned.

  • 13 July 2023 at 2:40pm
    Graucho says:
    First sports washing, then green washing now AI washing. All these attempts to sanitise and deoderise bad behaviour simply serve to draw everyone's attention to it.

  • 14 July 2023 at 7:22am
    steve kay says:
    I am not sure what Mr Meyrowitz was doing earlier this week, on the Twelfth of July, but perhaps he might share with us his views on the use by the RUC and British troops of bullets, to deal with Sinn Fein and other Catholic terrorists.

  • 17 July 2023 at 8:04pm
    Mick Mooney says:
    Our violence is good violence... your violence is bad violence. Our bombs are good bombs... your bombs are bad bombs. Our bulldozers are good bulldozers.... you get the picture.

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