Israel Is Sending Robots With Machine Guns to the Gaza Border

·7 min read
via IDF
via IDF

Gaza is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison. Over two million people inhabit the tiny coastal strip, and they must endure a 70 percent unemployment rate; frequent shortages of medical supplies, fuel and clean water; constant power outages; and the fundamentalist governance of the extremist group Hamas. Add to that the Israeli air strikes that knocked down multiple high-rise residential buildings in a war last May—the third war since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Gazans who’ve had enough will find it difficult to leave. There’s both a naval blockade and a 40-mile-long border fence barring entry into Israel, complemented by an additional nine miles of steel and concrete walls on the Gaza-Egyptian border. Only a lucky minority are granted permits to pass through checkpoints into Israel or Egypt for work or medical care. But the checkpoints are frequently closed at times of high tension.

And now, in a new dystopian twist out of RoboCop, people defying the border barrier may be confronted by a robotic six-wheeled car blaring warnings from a built-in public address system. And if non-compliant, the robot can address the infraction with a turret-mounted machine gun.

Jaguars stalking

The Gaza border barrier is supported by many Israelis because it has reduced to almost nil the ability of Hamas and other militant groups to carry out ambushes, kidnappings and suicide bombings in Israel. The Israeli border barrier features miles of sensor-infused “smart” fencing guarded by ground troops and armored vehicles, surveilled by orbiting drones, and monitored by SentryTech towers armed with remote-control .50 caliber machine guns capable of shredding light vehicles. The barriers extend underground too, blocking some but not all cross-border tunnels used by Palestinian smugglers.

Nonetheless, Gazans periodically mass in protest outside the one-mile-long buffer zone in front of the fence and sometimes even blast holes through it. While IDF guards can and do shoot to kill those deemed armed infiltrators, others appraised to be non-combatants may instead be repelled with tear gas dropped by drones, or accorded warning shots, sometimes followed by a sniper shot to the leg. During a violent surge of protests at the border in April and May of 2018, over 11,000 Palestinians were injured and 100 killed by IDF border forces, which suffered one fatality and several wounded.

Improvements to the barrier have caused Hamas to redirect efforts towards cultivating an arsenal of inaccurate long-range rockets it can launch towards Israeli cities from within Gaza, though the crude nature of the weapons mean a substantial fraction fall within Gaza, sometimes causing casualties.

Still, militants in Gaza do also harry IDF units surrounding the area, as well as nearby civilian communities, with sniper rifles, anti-tank missiles, shorter-range Qassam rockets and mortar bombardments. The only Israeli soldier to die in the May 2021 war was in a Jeep hit by a Russian-made anti-tank missile.

The IDF therefore wants these Jaguar armed robots to partially substitute for mobile patrols by flesh-and-blood soldiers, thereby improving “force protection,” in military jargon. The reasoning is that it’s preferable for a Jaguar to risk taking a hit from a rocket-propelled grenade or anti-material rifle than a human soldier. And should the robot somehow get captured, it can even reportedly self-disable its more sensitive components.

The IDF first announced it was deploying the 1.5-ton unmanned ground vehicles in April, prior to the May war with Hamas. Then on June 19, the National Resistance Brigades, the armed wing of a Palestinian Marxist group, posted photos of Israeli forces on the border, including an image of a Jaguar close to the fencing, though when the photo was taken is unclear.

Built by Israeli Aerospace Industries in cooperation with the IDF, the Jaguar is a semi-autonomous system, meaning it receives some directions from human operator but can perform tasks with more independence than a fully remote-controlled system. For example, the Jaguar’s AI can effectively drive around off-road obstructions or recharge itself at a charging station without supervision.

Likewise, a human operator ordinarily makes the decision to employ the armament on the Jaguar’s Pitbull remote weapon system by using a so-called “point-and-shoot” interface. The AI then automatically aims its stabilized FN MAG 7.62-millimeter machine gun and adjusts fire as necessary. The turret’s combination of electro-optical and thermal sensors can detect humans up to 1.2 kilometers away, or 800 meters away at night.

Killer choices

As creepy as being gunned down by border patrol robots may be, military ethicists might argue that the Jaguar’s AI isn’t intrinsically problematic: the robot may be killing people, but it’s not deciding to kill them. That call is made by a human operator located miles away, someone who may be less likely to jump the gun than a soldier on the ground fearing for their own safety, and who potentially may have to clear lethal actions with a supervising officer.

That said, Israeli defense expert Arie Egozi noted in a profile piece of the Jaguar that “pre-programmed scenarios enable the UGV to fire autonomously.” That sounds like it could enter the realm of robots making lethal kill decisions.

However, a former IDF soldier told me he thought it unlikely an autonomous hunter-kill mode would be enabled in Gaza given the risks of mishap and lack of compelling need. He speculated the autonomous combat capability might allow rapid return fire when fired upon, or be reserved for conventional warfighting missions where there would be a greater likelihood of disruption to a command link. “I would be very dubious of the claim that it’s fully auto for border patrol,” he wrote to me.

Indeed, once the IDF finishes deploying Jaguars to the Gaza division, it plans to integrate the robotic vehicles more broadly as relatively expendable scouts supporting manned ground forces. Russia and the United States are busy developing a range of more heavily armed robotic armored vehicles with similar missions in mind.

An Israeli soldier also comments in a video that the Jaguar could alternatively employ less-than-lethal weapons and crowd control capabilities. That seemingly refers to rubber bullets, tear gas and similar weapons, implying the Jaguar might be used beyond Gaza to police unrest and rioting, which spiked leading up to and at the onset of the May 2021 war.

In the end, unmanned systems amount to a new way to harm an adversary while denying them a chance to inflict meaningful harm in retribution—a basic principle in military tactics. But reducing the risks and costs of using lethal force make resorting to force more appealing, and easier to scale up and maintain over long periods of time, just like the U.S. has maintained a drone assassination campaign for nearly two decades.

In that lens, the Jaguar is of a piece with the entire “smart border wall” around Gaza. As Basem Aly wrote in a 2019 piece for the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace that the wall is so effective at reducing Hamas’s ability to directly attack Israel that it’s “part of a larger strategy to remove any security-based pressure on Israel to reach a two-state solution.”

Ultimately, it remains debatable whether Jaguars will prove more problematic as border enforcers than regular patrols from a human rights standpoint. However, the increasing sophistication of the smart border is emblematic of a preference to use technology to “manage away” the security issues presented by Hamas and Gaza, rather than attempting to address the material and political conditions feeding a seemingly interminable conflict.

It’s hard to imagine that young Gazans growing up in a geographically constrained world without economic prospects will not rage against the hi-tech machines deployed to keep them penned there, potentially radicalizing future generations in the coming decades.

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