India turns to Israel for armed drones as Pakistan, China build fleets


India has accelerated plans to buy drones from Israel that can be armed, defence sources said, allowing the military to carry out strikes overseas with less risk to personnel.

The news comes weeks after long-time rival Pakistan first reported using a home-made drone in combat when it attacked militants on its soil, raising the prospect of a new front in the nuclear-armed neighbours' standoff over Kashmir that has twice spilled into war.

The plan to acquire Israeli Herons was first conceived three years ago, but in January the military wrote to the government asking for speedy delivery, the sources said, as Pakistan and China develop their own drone warfare capabilities.

India has already deployed Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along the rugged mountains of Kashmir for surveillance, as well as on the disputed border with China where the two armies have faced off against each other.

In September, the Indian government approved the air force's request to acquire 10 Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) that can be fitted with weapons to engage targets on the ground, an air force official with knowledge of the matter said.

He added that he expected the agreement to be inked soon. The Indian Defence Ministry declined to comment.

The plan to buy Herons in a deal estimated at $400 million would open the option of covert cross-border strikes.

Currently the two armies exchange fire across the de facto Kashmir border at times of tension, but do not cross the Line of Control (LoC) by land or air.

“It's risky, but armed UAVs can be used for counter insurgency operations internally as well across the borders; sneak attacks on terrorist hideouts in mountainous terrain, perhaps,” said an army officer in the defence planning staff.

“DEEP-STRIKE CAPABILITY”

Gurmeet Kanwal, a former head of the government-funded Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi, said the armed Herons due to enter Indian service by late 2016 will give the air force deep-strike capability.

The United States has carried out hundreds of drone strikes inside Pakistan, targeting al Qaeda and other militants in its northwest. Pakistan has allowed such targeted killings, even though it complains about them in public.

Indian drones, in contrast, face being shot down as soon as they show up on Pakistani radars, the army officer and Kanwal said.

Deniability would be essential in any use of armed drones by India and Pakistan across their bitterly contested border, said Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading weapons proliferation expert in Pakistan.

“It is likely that drones would be used in a surreptitious mode close to the LoC, far away from populated areas,” he said.

In July, the Pakistan army said it had shot down a small Indian spy drone in Kashmir. India did not comment.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia specialist at the Washington D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the arrival of lethal drones in the region could heighten mutual suspicion at a time when ties are strained.

“Pakistan might worry that India could use an armed drone to attack terrorist safe havens in Pakistan or to target a specific terrorist there.”

“India might worry that Pakistan will now be tempted to add drones to its repertoire of asymmetric warfare tactics it has used against India.”

Only the United States, Israel and Britain are known to have used armed drones in combat, although more than 70 countries have UAVs with surveillance capabilities, according to New America, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank.

China has no public strategy for armed drone development, but it has poured resources into UAVs and has shown them off at exhibitions. Chinese combat drones still lag far behind the Israeli-made ones in terms of capability, military experts say.

LOCAL MANUFACTURE?

A delegation from state-owned IAI has been holding talks with the Indian defence ministry to determine the possibility of local manufacture of the Heron TP as part of the “Make-in-India” programme, IHS Jane's said.

Israel does not confirm or deny using or producing armed drones. IAI declined comment on the proposed sale of the Herons, as did Israel's Defence Ministry, which oversees such arms exports.

IAI is one of several Israeli companies manufacturing drones or related technologies.

At least one of them has sold armed drones to a foreign country other than India, a person involved in the deal said, without elaborating on the client, model or manufacturer of the aircraft.

Such deals are handled directly between the governments of Israel and the purchasing country, with mutual secrecy agreements, the person added.

It is not clear what kind of weapons will be fitted to the Heron TPs that India plans to buy.

India has been trying to develop its own combat drone, but the defence research organisation has struggled to integrate a missile onto the proposed Rustom series of UAVs.

David Harari, a retired IAI engineer and Israel Prize winner for his pioneering work in drone development, said India could mount its own weaponry on an Israeli supplied drone, helped by close technological cooperation between the two countries.

Drone spotted over Jewish school in Toulouse


An unauthorized drone was spotted flying over the Jewish school in Toulouse that was attacked in 2012.

Soldiers guarding the Ozar Hatorah school as part of a French government directive in the aftermath of the Jan. 9 attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris observed the drone on Sunday evening, French media reported.

The drone looped around the Roseraie neighborhood where the school is located and flew over Ozar Hatorah’s middle school and high school buildings, the guards said.

The incident occurred just one day after an unidentified man was spotted placing a bag containing Stars of David mixed with rags in front of a synagogue in a Toulouse suburb. Police are searching for the man and the people responsible for the drone.

March 19 will mark the third anniversary of the Ozar Hatorah attack, in which three children and a rabbi were shot dead. A commemoration ceremony is planned.

Drones, Jews and morality


My address to the first interreligious conference on the morality of drone warfare didn’t go over particularly well.

This happened last Saturday afternoon at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I was among 150 clergy, theologians, academics and peace activists gathered to discuss what makes our newest way of killing one another different from all other ways of killing one another.

The organizers invited me because I wrote a cover story for the Journal titled “The Torah of Drones” two years ago. The handful of Jews who have written on Jewish law and drone warfare — actually, it’s just two — likely didn’t attend because their level of Shabbat observance precluded it. So, I warned the audience, they’d have to hear from the bad Jew.

The sad truth is that the Jewish community has not wrestled in any meaningful way with a technology that history will remember was first deployed, advanced and disseminated by Israel, the Jewish state.

In fact, as I told the conferees, the only Jews I know forcing us to confront the morality of drones are the writers and producers of the TV show “Homeland,” whose most provocative plotlines have revolved around errant drone strikes.

The religious leaders gathered at Princeton also saw drones as categorically different from missiles, bombs and other long-distance killing machines. Drones’ relative low-cost and lack of direct human operator have made them a weapon of first, rather than last, resort. These factors also contribute to their fast, nearly unchecked, spread around the globe, without, as yet, any international standards regarding their use.

The result has been hundreds of nameless, dead innocents, and every indication that, as a Pakistani journalist once told me, every drone kills one terrorist and creates two. In fact, the most affecting part of the weekend was not something I heard, but something I saw: a quilt sewn by various church groups for the Drones Quilt Project, with each square inscribed with the name of a Pakistani child killed in an American drone strike. Upward of 984 civilians — including 200 children — have been killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“We need to bring religious voices to this dialogue, because certainly industry voices are there,” said Maryann Cusimano Love of The Catholic University of America.

Most of the religious voices at the conference called for an end to the strikes altogether. Mine wasn’t among them. It was a strange experience for someone often derided as too dovish to be the most hawkish in a room. But as I explained in my talk, Jewish teaching commands us to kill in self-defense. I urged the audience to try to empathize with an Israeli mother who would prefer to send in a drone, rather than her son, to stop a Hamas rocket. There was thunderous silence: This was not what you call a pro-Israel crowd. 

At the end of the conference, the attendees drafted a statement calling for a halt to drone strikes until issues of accountability and transparency have been established. The Mennonites, Quakers and others in attendance went along grudgingly — as one Mennonite leader explained, he’d rather die than kill.

My own feeling about drones was better summed up by Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., the only other Jew qua Jew at the conference. “Jewish tradition — and, indeed, many religious traditions — require proof, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an attack is imminent before pre-emptive action is justified,” he said. “Too often, America’s use of drone’s falls short of this requirement, and that is why the religious community must come together and seek a change.”  

But Jews face an additional moral question, which is this: Is it right to be spreading this technology, unchecked?

Israel began to develop drones following the Six-Day War as a way to circumvent Egyptian air defenses. It pioneered the use of weaponized Unmanned Aerial Vehicles during the first Lebanon War in 1982, selling the United States its first drone — the Pioneer — shortly afterward. Today, an estimated 41 percent of all weaponized drones sold around the world come from Israel. 

“If you scratch any military drone, you will likely find Israeli technology underneath,” Mary Dobbing and Chris Cole wrote in the Drone Wars U.K. briefing “Israel and the Drone Wars.” 

I often write in this column that the world must be mindful that bigotry and terror often start by being directed at Jews and Israel but spread from there to the rest of the world. 

In the case of drones, I’m afraid, the process is exactly the reverse.

We Jews are spreading a technology to the world that one day might very well be used against us, in Israel or elsewhere.

This is a strange problem to confront as we commemorate 70 years since the liberation Auschwitz. We have gone from wielding no weapons in our defense to selling some of the most deadly weapons the world has ever known. We have turned the tides — now how do we stop them from drowning us? 

We are rightly consumed right now with the debate over how to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of one state, Iran. But we should also take note that, meanwhile, Israel is rushing headlong into propagating technology that can provide deadly force to every state and nonstate actor on the planet.

You don’t have to be Mennonite to want to resist that.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Israel shoots down second Hamas drone


Israel shot down an unmanned drone that entered Israel’s airspace via the Mediterranean Sea.

The aerial vehicle was intercepted Thursday night over Ashkelon by a Patriot missile battery.

It was the second drone sent from Gaza since the start of Operation Defensive Edge; the first, on Monday, also was intercepted by a Patriot missile.

Hamas’ military wing claimed responsibility for both drones. Hamas reportedly said the drone was headed to attack a target deep in Israel.

Also Thursday, Gaza terror groups fired more than 100 rockets at southern and central Israel in the hours following the end of the humanitarian cease-fire. Israeli tanks, artillery, ships and planes began striking Gaza targets with more intensity. Israel later launched a ground invasion.

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces said earlier Thursday that it had dropped leaflets in 14 Gaza communities urging residents to temporarily leave their homes and offering instructions on where to go that would be safe. The leaflets indicated that the IDF was planning to expand its Gaza operation.

Israel shoots down UAV sent from Gaza


Israel shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from Gaza after it crossed into Israel’s airspace.

The drone was shot down Monday morning by a Patriot missile near the port of Ashdod.

The drone set off sirens in Ashdod before it was shot down. It is not known if the UAV was carrying explosives. Hamas told Reuters that it has sent several drones into Israel to carry out what it called “special missions.”

Later on Monday morning, an 8-year-old Israel boy was wounded by shrapnel from a rocket fired from Gaza that landed in Ashdod.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Monday said that Israel continues “to smash Hamas and its infrastructure. They have suffered great damage.”

“When Hamas comes out of their hiding places they will discover the extent of the destruction and the damage that we caused the organization that will cause them to regret that they entered this round of fighting against Israel,” he told an IDF briefing.

Also on Monday, several rockets were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel. The IDF responded with artillery fired toward the source of the rocket launch. Israel has notified the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or  UNIFIL, of the incident, according to the IDF.

The IDF targeted over 12 terrorists involved in launching rockets at Israel on Sunday night and Monday morning, and Israel Air Force planes bombed more than 40 “terror sites” in Gaza overnight, according to a statement from the IDF.  On Sunday, more than 130 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, 22 were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and more than 100 landed on Israeli territory, according to the IDF.

Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge seven days ago, more than 980 rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel. About 760 have hit Israeli territory, and another 200 have been intercepted by Iron Dome. IDF forces have struck some 1,470 terror targets across the Gaza Strip.

At least 172 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and more than 1,200 wounded since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.

On Sunday, the IDF allowed into Gaza over 500 donated portions of blood for civilians in Gaza. In addition, the IDF has facilitated the transfer into Gaza for its civilians 260 trucks containing over 4,400 tons of food, as well as about 900 tons of gas, about 3.2 million liters of diesel fuel and about 500 thousand liters of gasoline, according to the IDF.

Iraq asks United States for air support to counter rebels


Iraq has asked the United States for air support in countering Sunni rebels, the top U.S. general said on Wednesday, after the militants seized major cities in a lightning advance that has routed the Shi'ite-led government's army.

However, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave no direct reply when asked at a Congressional hearing whether Washington would agree to the request.

Baghdad said it wanted U.S. air strikes as the insurgents, led by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), battled their way into the biggest oil refinery in Iraq and the president of neighbouring Iran raised the prospect of intervening in a sectarian war that threatens to sweep across Middle East frontiers.

“We have a request from the Iraqi government for air power,” Dempsey told a Senate hearing in Washington. Asked whether the United States should honour that request, he said: “It is in our national security interest to counter ISIL wherever we find them.”

In the Saudi city of Jeddah, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Baghdad had asked for air strikes “to break the morale” of ISIL.

While Iraq's ally, Shi'ite Muslim power Iran, had so far not intervened to help the Baghdad government, “everything is possible”, he told reporters after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

The White House has said President Barack Obama has not yet decided what action, if any, to take following the rebel onslaught, and was due to discuss the options with leaders of Congress later on Wednesday.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Iraqi request had included drone strikes and increased surveillance by U.S. drones, which have been flying over Iraq for some time.

However, any air targets would be hard to identify because the militants did not have traditional supply lines or major physical infrastructure and mingled with civilians.

REFINERY BATTLE

Sunni fighters were in control of three quarters of the territory of the Baiji refinery north of Baghdad, an official said there, after a morning of heavy fighting at gates defended by elite troops who have been under siege for a week.

ISIL aims to build a Sunni caliphate ruled on mediaeval precepts, but the rebels also include a broad spectrum of more moderate Sunnis furious at what they see as oppression by Baghdad.

Some international oil companies have pulled out foreign workers. The head of Iraq's southern oil company, Dhiya Jaffar, said Exxon Mobil had conducted a major evacuation and BP had pulled out 20 percent of its staff. He criticised the moves, as the areas where oil is produced for export are mainly in the Shi'ite south and far from the fighting.

Washington and other Western capitals are trying to save Iraq as a united country by leaning hard on Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis. Maliki met Sunni and Kurdish political opponents overnight, concluding with a frosty, carefully staged joint appearance at which an appeal for national unity was read out.

In a televised address on Wednesday Maliki appealed to tribes to renounce “those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas”.

But so far Maliki's government has relied almost entirely on his fellow Shi'ites for support, with officials denouncing Sunni political leaders as traitors. Shi'ite militia – many believed to be funded and backed by Iran – have mobilised to halt the Sunni advance, as Baghdad's million-strong army, built by the United States at a cost of $25 billion, crumbles.

Maliki announced on Wednesday that 59 officers would be brought to court for fleeing their posts last week as the insurgents seized Mosul, northern Iraq's biggest city.

HOLY SHRINES

Like the civil war in Syria next door, the new fighting threatens to draw in regional neighbours, mustering along sectarian lines in what fighters on both sides depict as an existential struggle for survival based on a religious rift dating to the 7th century.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made the clearest declaration yet that the Middle East's main Shi'ite power, which fought a war against Iraq that killed a million people in the 1980s, was prepared to intervene to protect Iraq's great shrines of Shi'ite imams, visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

“Regarding the holy Shi'a shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the great Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines,” Rouhani said in an address to a crowd on live TV.

He said many people had signed up to go to Iraq to fight, although he also said Iraqis of all sects were prepared to defend themselves: “Thanks be to God, I will tell the dear people of Iran that veterans and various forces – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds all over Iraq – are ready for sacrifice.”

Iraqi troops are holding off Sunni fighters outside Samarra north of Baghdad, site of one of the main Shi'ite shrines. The fighters have vowed to carry their offensive south to Najaf and Kerbala, seats of Shi'ite Islam since the Middle Ages.

Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni power, said Iraq was hurtling towards civil war. Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, in words clearly aimed at Iran and at Baghdad's Shi'ite rulers, deplored the prospect of “foreign intervention” and said governments need to meet “legitimate demands of the people”.

Maliki's government has accused Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide” by backing Sunni militants. Riyadh supports Sunni fighters in Syria but denies aiding ISIL.

The Baiji refinery is the fighters' immediate goal, the biggest source of fuel for domestic consumption in Iraq, which would give them a grip on energy supply in the north where the population has complained of fuel shortages.

The refinery was shut on Tuesday and foreign workers flown out by helicopter.

“The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 percent of the refinery,” an official speaking from inside the facility said.

The government denied the refinery had fallen. Counter-terrorism spokesman Sabah Nouri insisted forces were still in control and had killed 50 to 60 fighters and burned six or seven insurgent vehicles after being attacked from three directions.

Oil prices rose on news the refinery was partly in rebel hands.

FROSTY MEETING

Last week's sudden advance by ISIL – a group that declares all Shi'ites to be heretics deserving death and has proudly distributed footage of its fighters gunning down prisoners lying prone in mass graves – is a test for Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011.

Obama has ruled out sending back ground troops and U.S. officials have even spoken of cooperating with Tehran against the mutual enemy. However, the White House said more talks with Iran about dealing with the crisis in Iraq, which have taken place on the sidelines of meetings on Tehran's nuclear programme, are unlikely for the time being.

U.S. and other international officials insist Maliki must do more to address the widespread sense of political exclusion among Sunnis, the minority that ran Iraq until U.S. troops deposed dictator Saddam Hussein after the 2003 invasion.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not back sending U.S. troops into the conflict in Iraq, which he described as a “civil war”.

Reid and three other congressional leaders – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi – are meeting Obama later on Wednesday.

Western countries fear an ISIL-controlled mini-state in Syria and Iraq could become a haven for militants who could then stage attacks around the globe.

In a rerun of previous failed efforts at bridging sectarian and ethnic divisions, Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders met late on Tuesday behind closed doors. They later stood before cameras as Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shi'ite politician who held the post of prime minister before Maliki, read a statement.

“No terrorist powers represent any sect or religion,” Jaafari said in the address, which included a broad promise of “reviewing the previous course” of Iraqi politics. Afterwards, most of the leaders, including Maliki and Usama al-Nujaifi, the leading Sunni present, walked away from each other in silence.

Though the joint statement said only those directly employed by the Iraqi state should bear arms, thousands of Shi'ite militiamen have been mobilised to defend Baghdad.

With battles now raging just an hour's drive north of the capital, Baghdad is on edge. The city of 7 million people saw fierce sectarian street fighting from 2006-2007 and is still divided into Sunni and Shi'ite districts, some protected by razor wire and concrete blast walls.

Addtional reporting by Ghazwan Hassan, Ahmed Rasheed, Ned Parker, Oliver Holmes, Mark Hosenball, Amena Bakr and Yara Bayoumi; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; Editing by Will Waterman and Robin Pomeroy

EU takes step towards launching drone program


European states took a first step on Tuesday towards developing a drone that could challenge U.S. dominance of the unmanned aircraft sector.

Defence ministers meeting in Brussels instructed the European Defence Agency (EDA), the European Union's defence arm, to start studying the military requirements and costs of a future EU surveillance drone that could be produced after 2020.

The United States has used drones to kill suspected militants in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, causing intense controversy about sovereignty and civilian casualties. But drones also have a wide range of civilian uses, including border control, fire fighting and disaster monitoring.

A factsheet from EDA, which groups all 28 EU states apart from Denmark, said “beyond 2020” seemed a reasonable timeframe to produce a European medium altitude, long endurance drone.

[Related: The Torah of drones]

“This is the starting pistol for us to be able to start work on a European RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft system) project,” EDA Capabilities Director Peter Round told a news conference.

Eight European countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, signed an agreement to invest jointly in research into various drone components, including collision avoidance technology and automatic take-off and landing.

The United States and Israel are leaders in the drone market and some European government fear being left behind. Military operations in Libya and Mali have highlighted a shortage of European reconnaissance capacity.

Britain operates Reaper drones, built by privately owned U.S. firm General Atomics, and France has also ordered Reapers.

Three European aerospace companies – France's Dassault Aviation, EADS Cassidian and Italy's Finmeccanica Alenia Aermacchi – called on Europe in June to launch a drone program.

The EU's executive Commission said in July it would help fund prototypes of some technologies, such as drones.

EU leaders are trying to promote European cooperation in four key defence-related areas in the run-up to the bloc's December summit which will have a defence focus.

Apart from drones, the other areas are increasing air-to-air refuelling capacity, government satellite communications and working together more closely on cyber defence.

Summit preparations hit a setback when defence ministers failed to agree on a set of conclusions from their meeting.

A proposal to offer tax incentives to promote cooperative defence projects was opposed by finance ministers keen to protect tax revenues, an EU source said.

A reference to a more balanced development of the defence industry across EU member states was resisted by some governments with large defence industries who feared they might have to give more work to smaller countries, the source said.

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

The Torah of drones: Examining the complex morality of drone warfare


In 2009, an Israeli drone flying over the Gaza Strip transmitted back to its command station an image of a telltale rocket trail streaking toward Israeli territory. Many kilometers away, a young Israeli operator, Capt. Y, quickly maneuvered the unmanned aircraft to get a look at the young Palestinian who had just launched the deadly missile. Y’s drone squadron already had authorization to take him out. In an instant, a rocket struck the hidden launch site, followed by a flash of fire.

When the smoke cleared, Y saw images of the shooter lying flat on the ground. Twenty seconds passed. And then Y saw something even more remarkable — the dead man began to move.

Severely wounded, the Palestinian began to claw his way toward the road. Y could clearly see the man’s face, and in his youth and determination Y must have recognized something of himself. So, now Y and his team had a decision to make: Would they let the wounded terrorist escape, or circle the drone back and finish him off?

Y told me this story in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. He is 23, wiry and intense. When I arrived for our interview, arranged through the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, Y was sitting in a small atrium, getting in a last smoke.

For security reasons, I cannot use his real name, so I agreed to refer to the captain as Y, and to his fellow drone operator, a lieutenant, as M.

M is calmer. She is 25, has large blue eyes and wears her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail — Scarlett Johansson’s tougher twin sister.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as drones are otherwise known, have been in use militarily since World War I. In 1917, the Americans designed the Kettering “Bug” with a preset gyroscope to guide it into enemy trenches. In World War II, the Nazis deployed “the Fritz,” a 2,300-pound bomb with four small wings and a tail motor. But it is only in the past few years that UAVs have made almost-daily headlines. These days, the United States, in particular, has widely employed UAVs in the far reaches of Pakistan and Afghanistan in its fight against terrorists. As recently as Nov. 1, a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, demonstrating once again the deadly effectiveness of, and the growing reliance upon, these weapons of war.

But like all revolutionary new weapons, this success comes at a price, and it’s a price we in America prefer not to check. Just a day before I met with the two Israelis in late October, two influential human rights groups released reports asserting that the number of civilian deaths resulting from America’s largely secret “drone wars” was far greater than the government had claimed. Human Rights Watch reported that since 2009, America’s anti-terrorist drone strikes in Yemen had killed at least 57 civilians — more than two-thirds of all casualties resulting from the strikes — including a pregnant woman and three children. In Pakistan, Amnesty International found that more than 30 civilians had died from U.S. drone strikes between May 2012 and July 2013 in the territory of North Waziristan.

To Americans, news of anonymous civilians dying in faraway places may not resonate deeply, even if we are the ones who killed them. But these two humanitarian groups’ reports point to the rapid increase in the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles as weapons of war, and they underline the lack of clear international ethical codes to guide that use.

Who gets to use drones? How do commanders decide whom to target, whom to spy on? If a drone operator sitting in a command room in Tampa, Fla., can kill a combatant in Swat, in northern Pakistan, does that make downtown Tampa a legitimate military target, as well?

I wanted to learn more about the morality of this advancing technology, so I talked to people who have studied drones, who have thought about their ethical implications, and who, like Y and M, actually use them. I hoped that through them I might come to understand how we, as a society, should think about the right way to use these remarkable, fearsome tools. 

I wanted to know if there exists, in essence, a Torah of drones.

From 12,000 feet up, the Heron drone Capt. Y was piloting that day during Operation Pillar of Defense offered a perfect view of the wounded Palestinian.

“You see everything,” Y told me. “You could see him lying on the ground, moving and crawling. Even if you know he’s the enemy, it’s very hard to see that. You see a human being who is helpless. You have to bear in mind, ‘He’s trying to kill me.’ But, in my mind, I hoped somebody would go help him.”

Y’s father is French, and his mother is Israeli. He lives in Beersheba, where his wife is a medical student. Y’s brother was killed in the Second Lebanon War by a Hezbollah rocket while he was piloting a Yasur combat helicopter. Y was 18 at the time.

“I believe some of the way to mourn is to go through the same experience of the man you loved,” Y said.

Lt. M’s parents both are French immigrants to Israel, staunch Zionists, and, she said, she always knew one day she’d be an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer.

In Israel, those who cannot complete pilot-training very often enter the drone corps. It may not hold the cachet of becoming an Air Force pilot, but both of these soldiers believe drones are the future.

“I like the idea that every flight you do, you’re helping your fellow citizens,” M said.

“We feel we contribute more than other people,” Y said. “But today, in the modern day, you don’t have to take risks. If you risk your life, it doesn’t mean you contribute more.”

In the United States and Israel, where the reluctance to put boots on the ground is at a high point, the fact that drones offer significant military capabilities with far less risk accounts precisely for the tremendous increase in their use.

Israel, in fact, has led the way. Its effective use of drones during the 1982 Lebanon War rekindled American interest in UAVs. During America’s first Gulf War, in 1991, the U.S. Navy bought a secondhand Pioneer drone from Israel and used it to better aim heavy artillery. At one point during that war, a squad of Iraqi soldiers saw a drone overhead and, expecting to be bombarded, waved a white sheet. It was the first time in history soldiers had surrendered to a drone.

Today, the United States increasingly uses drones for both civilian intelligence — as in Yemen and Pakistan — and militarily. Currently, some 8,000 UAVs are in use by the U.S. military. In the next decade, U.S. defense spending on drones is expected to reach $40 billion, increasing inventory by 35 percent. Since 2002, 400 drone strikes have been conducted by U.S. civilian intelligence agencies. 

At least 87 other countries also have drones. Earlier this year, Israel announced it was decommissioning two of its combat helicopter squadrons — to replace them with drones.

“We’re at the very start of this technological revolution,” Peter Singer, author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” told me by phone. “We’re in the World War I period of robotics. The cat’s out of the bag. You’re not going to roll it back. But you do want to set norms.”

Singer’s book, first published in 2009 when the public debate over drone ethics was nonexistent, is still the best road map to a future we all have reason to fear, but must face, in any case.

I called Singer to see where he stands on the ethical issues raised by civilian drone deaths.

Actually, he pointed out, his book dealt largely with military use of these technologies. Even he wouldn’t have predicted such widespread use of drones by surveillance agencies that are unversed in the rules of war and that operate without the safeguards built into military actions.

That, for Singer and others who parse the ethics of drones, is the rub. In the military, there are rules of engagement. There is the risk of court-martial. Strategic training is better in the military than in intelligence agencies.

“One group goes to war college,” Singer said, “the other doesn’t. And it’s very different when you’re a political appointee, rather than a military officer. Some tactics would not be allowed in a military operation.”

I asked Singer for an example. He chose one from the CIA operations just now under scrutiny by human rights groups.

“Double-tapping,” he said. “That would never make its way past a military officer.”

Double-tapping is when an aircraft, manned or not, circles back over a targeted site and strikes a second time — either to finish off the wounded or to take out forces that have rushed in to help. Exactly the ethical question Capt. Y. faced.

When Y saw that he hadn’t killed the Palestinian the first time, he and his team faced one of the most difficult, urgent questions of drone combat: Should they double-tap?

Ethical issues in drone combat come up all the time, M said — in training, in operations and, afterward, in frequent debriefing and analysis.

“I have so many examples of that, I can’t count,” Y told me.

A landmark Israeli Supreme Court decision on targeted killing provides the ethical framework for IDF drone operators.

In 2009, the court found there is nothing inherently wrong with a targeted killing — whether by an F-16, Apache helicopter or unmanned drone.

But, the court added, in order for the action to be acceptable, the soldiers must satisfy three questions:

The first is, what is a legitimate target? The target, the court said, must be an operational combatant seeking to do you harm — not a retired terrorist or someone you want to punish for past sins.

Second, has the target met the threshold level of intelligence? The drone team must have a deep knowledge that its target meets the first condition, verified by more than one source.

Finally, who is the supervising body? There must be independent oversight outside the hands of the drone operators and the IDF.

To professor Moshe Halbertal, these three conditions form the basis for the moral exercise of deadly drone force.

Halbertal is a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, the Gruss Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and one of the drafters of the IDF’s code of ethics.

Shortly before Halbertal came to Los Angeles to serve as scholar-in-residence Nov. 1-3 at Sinai Temple, I spoke with him about Israel’s experience with drones. From what he could tell, he said, Israel has a more developed ethical framework.

In the American attacks, Halbertal said, “The level of collateral damage is alarming.”

In Israel, he said, “There is a genuine attempt to reduce collateral killing. If this were the level of collateral damage the IDF produces, it would be very bad.”

The fact that drones are less risky is not what makes their use more prone to excesses, Halbertal said.

“Because military operations involve more risk, there is more care in applying them,” Halbertal said. “But, on the other hand, soldiers make mistakes out of fear in the heat of combat that drone operators don’t.”

The danger with drones, he said, is that because the political risks of deploying them, versus deploying live troops, are much less, they can be used more wantonly.

I asked Capt. Y if he’d had experience with collateral damage.

“It’s happened to me,” he said. “We had a target and asked [intelligence officers] if there were civilians in the area. We received a negative. Later, we heard in the Palestinian press that there were casualties. We checked, and it was true — a father and his 17-year-old son. What can we do? I didn’t have a particular emotion about it.”

The people who know the people getting killed do have emotions about it. And that grief and anger can work to undo whatever benefits drone kills confer.

“I say every drone attack kills one terrorist and creates two,” Adnan Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, told me. In the Swat Valley, where he lives, the fear of American drones and the innocent lives they’ve taken has been one of the extremists’ best recruiting tools, Rashid said.

If that’s the case, better oversight and clearer rules for drones may be not just the right thing to do but in our self-interest as well.

No war is ever clean. But that doesn’t mean drone use should increase without the implementation of the kind of national, and international, norms Singer now finds lacking.

If the United States doesn’t adopt the kinds of oversight Israel already has in place, at the very least, Singer believes, we should move the drone program from the intelligence agencies to the military. 

It’s a call that has increasingly vocal support from America to Pakistan. Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, argued Congress could exercise better oversight of a drone program operated by the military.

 “Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an Air Force of drones that goes around killing people?” McCain said recently on Fox News. “I believe that it’s a job for the Department of Defense.”

Pakistani protesters from United Citizen Action shout anti-U.S. slogans during a protest against the Nov. 1 killing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike. Photo by S.S. Mirza/AFP Photo/Newscom

 “The killing is creating more anger and resulting in the recruitment of more people to pursue revenge,” former Pakistani Minister of State Shahzad Waseem told me. “The minimum you can do is to come up openly with some kind of treaty or set of rules to give it a legal shape, mutually accepted by all sides.” 

Will Americans rise up to make a stink over this? That may be a tall order for a populace that seems to take each revelation of intelligence community overreach — from drone deaths to National Security Agency spying — with a collective yawn. Will the international community begin to create a framework that at least sets standards for drone use and misuse? 

Unfortunately, humans, particularly in developing technology, have a way of advancing faster on the battlefront than on the legal or moral fronts. It took the Holocaust, Singer pointed out, for humanity to come up with the Geneva Conventions of 1949. What fresh hell must befall us before we at least attempt to codify behavior for the Age of Drones?

And even if we set standards and nations abide by them, it seems inevitable that the very nature of drones one day will allow non-state actors — the likes of al-Qaeda — to follow the lead of Hezbollah in using them, as well.

If, in the 1940s and ’50s, the best and the brightest scientific minds went into nuclear physics — and gave us the atomic bomb — these days, those talents are all going toward artificial intelligence. At the high end, a future filled with autonomous, intelligent killing drones awaits us.

At the low end, consider this: Singer also serves as a consultant for the video game “Call of Duty,” for which he was asked to envision a homemade drone of the not-too-distant future. He and others came up with a Sharper Image toy helicopter, controlled by an iPad and mounted with an Uzi. A promotional team actually made a fully functional version of this weapon for a YouTube video, and 17 million hits later, the Defense Department telephoned, perturbed.

“Unlike battleships or atomic bombs,” Singer told me, “the barriers to entry for drones are really low.”

That doesn’t mean we should give up on establishing ethical norms for nations — or people — but we do need to keep our expectations in check.

We may be heading toward a world of what Halbertal describes, in the Israeli context, as “micro wars,” where each human is empowered with military-like capacity and must make his or her own ethical choices on the spot.

Cap. Y made his own moral choice that day during Operation Pillar of Defense. He watched as the wounded Palestinian man managed to get to the road, where a group of civilians came to his aid.

Why didn’t Y “double-tap”?

 “He was no longer a threat,” Y told me, matter-of-factly. “And several people gathered around him who weren’t part of the attack.” That was that: The rules of engagement were clear.

In a micro-war, a soldier in combat — not just generals at a central command — must determine in the heat of battle who is a terrorist and who is a civilian, who shall live and who shall die.

In his book, Singer envisions a future in which artificial intelligence will also enable us to provide ethical decision-making to the machines we create. It would be our job to program Torah into these machines — and then let them do with it as they will.

Much like Someone has done with us.

Israel, Egypt cooperate


The story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Did an Israeli drone cross into Egyptian airspace over the weekend and fire a rocket at gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula who were about to launch a strike on Israel? Probably. Will any Israeli or Egyptian official admit it, even off the record? Probably not.

The official story coming out of Egypt is that it was the Egyptian military that attacked Jihadists in Sinai, killing five. The Egyptian army, which is presently controlling Egypt after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was forced from office, is wary of being seen as too close to Israel and the United States.

Asked whether Israel was behind the attack, Egyptian military spokesman Col. Ahmed Ali declined to comment directly.

“There is an obligation between the two countries to coordinate attacks and inform each other of activities they conduct in Sinai due to the peace accords,” Ali said, referring to the historic treaty of 1979. 

An Israeli military spokesman sounded similarly opaque.

“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and the Egyptian military maintain ongoing security coordination in order to contend with mutual threats,” Capt. Eytan Buchmann said.

Egyptian military analysts said it was likely that Israel was behind the strike.

“There is a lot of confusion about who attacked the terrorists. The Israelis say they did it and the Egyptians say they did it,” retired Egyptian Gen. Fathi Ali said. “I believe the Israelis did it but with Egyptian coordination. You need people on the ground to call in the coordinates of locations where terrorists are.”

There is widespread security coordination between Israel and Egypt that is increasingly important to their mutual interests.

“This cooperation is vital to both sides,” Eitan Shamir, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University said. “Both Israel and Egypt are concerned about the situation in the Sinai [peninsula] and neither country wants instability. They both have an interest in having quiet along their border.”

In the past few days, Egypt has embarked on a campaign against terrorist groups in the Sinai. Egyptian soldiers have destroyed hundreds of tunnels used for smuggling goods and weapons between Egypt and Gaza, and is launching attacks similar to the drone strike over the weekend that was originally attributed to Israel and is now being credited to an Egyptian military helicopter.

In the past year, Israeli officials have grown increasingly worried about the growth of jihadist elements in Sinai, once a popular tourist destination for Israelis. Last week, Israel even closed down its airport in the Red Sea resort of Eilat for two hours, after a warning from Egypt that a rocket attack from Sinai was imminent. 

Under former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the security ties between the two countries were public and close. The Egyptian intelligence chief visited Israel often and helped mediate cease-fires between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which took over Gaza in 2007.

After the fall of Mubarak and the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Israeli officials were concerned that the Egyptian military might back away from its relationship with Israeli security forces. Morsi had close ties with Hamas, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, after Morsi’s forced removal, the Egyptian army is playing an even more important role in the Arab world’s largest country with 85 million people. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations that maintain peace treaties with Israel.

“There is a lot of security cooperation, and it’s very important,” an Israeli diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “Egypt is the biggest and most important Arab country. When Egypt sneezes, the Arab world gets a cold. What happens there impacts everywhere.”

Israeli officials are also concerned that if radical groups in Sinai come under enough pressure from Egypt, they could try to attack Israel to divert attention and garner support from other terrorist groups. As the Egyptian crackdown in the Sinai continues, Israeli officials say they expect more attempted attacks, and say that Israeli-Egyptian security coordination is even more important than it has been in the past.

Israel shoots down drone from Lebanon, Israeli Military says


An Israeli fighter plane shot down a drone from Lebanon over the Mediterranean sea on Thursday as it was approaching the Israeli coast, the military said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was flying in a military helicopter to an event in northern Israel when the unmanned aircraft was spotted along the Lebanese coast by Israeli air defences. His helicopter landed briefly until the interception was completed.

There was no indication from Israeli officials who provided information about the incident that Israel suspected any connection between the dispatch of the drone and Netanyahu's flight, whose details had not been made public.

“I view with great gravity this attempt to violate our border. We will continue to do what is necessary to defend the security of Israel's citizens,” Netanyahu said in a speech at his destination, a Druze village where he met community leaders.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the alleged aerial infiltration.

Asked whether Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group that sent a drone into southern Israel in October, was behind the incident, a military spokesman said an investigation was under way and the navy was trying to salvage wreckage from the aircraft.

“On my way here, in a helicopter, I found out there was an infiltration attempt by a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) into Israeli air space,” Netanyahu said in the Druze village of Julis, some 15 km (9 miles) from the Lebanese border.

“Within a short time, Israeli pilots intercepted this aircraft and shot it down over the sea.”

The military said the unmanned aerial vehicle was detected in Lebanese skies and intercepted by a F-16 fighter jet some 5 nautical miles west of the Israeli port city of Haifa.

A military spokesman said the drone had been flying at an altitude of about 6,000 feet and had been monitored by Israel for about an hour before it was destroyed by an air-to-air missile.

“We don't know where the aircraft was coming from and we don't know where it was actually going,” the spokesman said.

In the incident in October, a Hezbollah drone flew some 35 miles into southern Israel before being shot down by an F-16.

Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006, and Lebanon has complained to the United Nations about frequent Israeli overflights, apparently to monitor the group's activities.

On Monday, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israel would not permit “sophisticated weapons” to fall into the hands of Hezbollah “or other rogue elements” in Syria's civil war.

“When they crossed this red line, we acted,” Yaalon said at a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in comments widely interpreted as confirming reports that an Israeli air strike in Syria in January had targeted a Hezbollah-bound arms convoy. (Editing by Alison Williams)

As world’s largest exporter of drones, Israel looks to transform battlefield


An Israeli soldier sits in an office chair in an air-conditioned metal chamber staring at two screens side by side. One shows a map with a moving dot. The other displays a video feed. Next to the soldier are three more identical stations.

The soldier isn't an air traffic controller but a pilot, and his aircraft is called an unmanned aerial system, more commonly known as a drone.

Welcome to the next generation of the Israeli Air Force.

Israel long has relied on superior air capability to maintain a military edge in the Middle East, and its pilots are among the most respected soldiers in the county.

Now Israel’s drone industry is booming, and experts predict that within decades, manned flight largely will be a thing of the past – especially in risky combat missions. During Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza last year, Israeli drones reportedly played a key role on the battlefield.

“Already today we see that the technology can work faster and better than our five senses, which are limited,” Tzvi Kalron, a marketing manager for Israel Aerospace Industries told JTA in an interview during a recent tour of an Israeli drone facility. “When you take away the human factor in battle and send tools that know how to do it better, it’s easier.”

With two large drone manufacturers — Israel Aerospace Industries, a government company, and Elbit Systems — Israel is the world's second-largest producer of drones, behind the United States, and the world's largest exporter of drones.

IAI began manufacturing drones in 1974, employs 1,000 people in its drone division and sells about $400 million worth of drones per year. The company exports to 49 countries, including NATO allies fighting in Afghanistan, such as Canada and Australia. The client list also reportedly includes some U.S. rivals, such as Russia, and developing countries like Nigeria.

About one-fifth of IAI’s drones stay in Israel. They range from the 5-ton Heron TP, which can fly as high as 45,000 feet and stay in the air for 36 hours, to the handheld Mosquito micro-drone, which weighs less than a pound and travels nearly a mile. The Heron looks like an oversized, gray remote-control airplane, with a radar sticking out of its top and, of course, no space for a pilot.

Along with Air Force drones, the Israel Defense Forces plans to incorporate drones in infantry units. Soldiers may carry a disassembled mini-drone in two backpacks and, when patrolling cities, assemble the drone, launch it by slingshot and monitor it by remote control. The Ghost, as this drone is known, weighs nine pounds and can help the unit eliminate blind spots and, according to IDF spokesman Eytan Buchman, overcome the “fog of war.”

“You can’t see around the corner, you don’t know what’s on the other side of the hill,” Buchman said. “It's definitely helpful when you're facing guerrilla opponents and rely heavily on the element of surprise.”

He added that drones help save civilian lives by identifying civilians near a bomb’s target and helping reroute the bomb to avoid them.

The Ghost's only protruding feature is its most expensive part: a small, round camera that sticks out of the drone's underbelly. To protect the camera, the Ghost flips upside-down before it lands.

Kalron said IAI hopes to expand its drone options in the coming years, developing stealth drones that are harder to see and hear, and working on a micro-drone with wings that flap like a butterfly — a concept known as biomimicry. IAI also is expanding drones’ civilian uses, like surveillance of large crowds and stadiums.

IAI’s drones conduct surveillance, take photographs, and record audio and video, according to Kalron. He would not discuss the drones’ combat capabilities; IAI’s website includes the payload limits for drones.

Drone expert Arie Egozi of the online publication Israel Homeland Security told JTA that “from a technological standpoint, every drone” can shoot missiles. “You put bombs under the wings and it shoots them,” Egozi said.

Some critics argue that the use of drones raises serious moral and legal problems. The debate has been particularly heated on the American use of unmanned vehicles for targeted killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While drones are not without their Israeli critics, they have provoked far less controversy here than in the United States. For many Israelis, a future where planes fly unmanned and pilots are at less risk of death or capture is a welcome development.

“If you can take the pilots out of danger, of course it’s better,” said Uri Aviv, a civilian flight instructor who spent 15 years in the Israeli Air Force. “The moral question is about hitting the target, not the type of weapon. It doesn’t matter if you use a cannon, a tank, a plane or a drone. A pilot can’t see who he’s hitting — it’s the same thing with a drone.”

The biggest concern raised by drones, says Hebrew University philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal, is that their pinpoint accuracy raises the bar for the soldiers operating them. Freed from the stress and uncertainty of flying a plane, Halbertal said, soldiers must take more time to “identify who is a legitimate target” and review the decision before launching a strike.

Halbertal said he doubts that “those who operate drones will be much quicker in using weapons” than traditional pilots.

Egozi said the bigger question for Israel is about the efficacy of exporting to countries such as Russia, which has provided technology to Israeli adversaries like Iran and Syria. Israel’s agreements with Russia have required pledges that Russia not sell certain missile technology to Iran.

Every IAI export deal must receive Israeli Defense Ministry approval before being finalized, according to Kalron.

He said he looks forward to a day when 95 percent of army aviation is unmanned and the Israeli Air Force is not needed.

“In 20 or 30 years they’ll fly drones on commercial flights,” Kalron said. “It’s a trend that’s developing quickly. Technology is superior than all human abilities.”

Iranian warplanes fired on U.S. drone over Gulf, Pentagon says


Iranian warplanes fired at an unarmed U.S. drone in international airspace last week but did not hit the aircraft, the Pentagon said on Thursday, disclosing details of an unprecedented incident that triggered a formal warning to Tehran through diplomatic channels.

The November 1 intercept was the first time Tehran had fired at an unmanned American aircraft, in a stark reminder of how tensions between the United States and Iran could escalate quickly into violence.

If Iran had hit the drone, as the Pentagon believes it was trying to do, it could have forced American retaliation – with the potential consequences that entails.

According to the timeline provided by the Pentagon, two Iranian SU-25 “Frogfoot” aircraft intercepted the American drone at about 4:50 a.m. EST as it conducted a routine, but classified, surveillance mission over Gulf waters about 16 nautical miles off the Iranian coast.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the aircraft fired multiple rounds at the Predator drone and followed it for at least several miles as it moved farther away from Iranian airspace.

“We believe that they fired at least twice and made at least two passes,” he said.

International airspace begins after 12 nautical miles and Little said the drone at no point entered Iranian airspace. Last year, a crashed CIA drone was recovered inside Iran.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quickly notified of the incident, as were members of Congress and the White House, Little added. The United States also sent Iran a warning through diplomatic channels, saying it would defend its military assets and would keep sending aircraft on such surveillance operations.

“There is absolutely no precedence for this,” Little said. “This is the first time that a (drone) has been fired upon to our knowledge by Iranian aircraft.”

Many questions about the incident remain, including why Iranian warplanes could not manage – if they wanted – to shoot down an unarmed drone, which lacks advanced capabilities to outmaneuver them.

Asked whether the Iranian aircraft were simply firing warning shots, Little said: “Our working assumption is that they fired to take it down. You'll have to ask the Iranians why they engaged in this action.”

There was no immediate comment by Iranian officials.

SANCTIONS TIGHTENED

President Barack Obama has resisted calls from inside the United States and Israel for military action against Iran, focusing instead on crushing rounds of sanctions, which were tightened again on Thursday.

The United States imposed sanctions on Iran's communications minister and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for jamming international satellite broadcasts to Iran and censoring and closing newspapers and detaining journalists.

The sanctions are part of broader efforts to isolate Tehran, which denies U.S. accusations that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic program.

In an effort to drive Iran to compromise, the United States and the European Union have gone for the jugular – Iran's oil exports – over the past year.

The United States and Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence, have also hinted at the possibility of military strikes on Iran as a last resort.

Obama has said the United States will “do what we must” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and has repeatedly said that all options are on the table – code for the possibility of using force.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Peter Cooney

Nuclear plant in Iran nearing full operation, country’s energy minister says


Iran's energy minister said his country's first nuclear power plant will be fully operational in the next two months.

Najid Namjou was quoted Thursday by the Islamic Republic's semi-official Fars news agency about the Bushehr plant, according to Reuters.

The same day, the Pentagon confirmed that Iran fired on a U.S. drone flying in international airspace 15 miles off the coast of Iran and east of Kuwait on Nov. 1. The drone was not hit.

Russia said two months ago that the Bushehr plant was completely online. Work on the plant reportedly was completed by Russia more than 30 years after construction was started by German companies in 1975. The plant started adding electricity to Iran's national grid in September 2011. It is believed that the refined uranium produced by the plant also could be used to power a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon told CNN that the drone was on a routine maritime surveillance and that the incident involves sensitive intelligence matters.

It is unclear whether Iran intended to hit the drone. It is believed to be the first time that Iran has fired on a U.S. drone.

Netanyahu says Hezbollah sent drone downed over Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday a drone aircraft, which flew some 35 miles into Israel before being shot down last weekend, was sent by Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah.

In a statement from his office, Netanyahu said during a tour of the southern frontier with Egypt that Israel would “act with determination to defend its borders”, just as “we thwarted over the weekend Hezbollah's attempt” to penetrate Israeli airspace.

Under surveillance by Israeli fighter jets, it was shot down on Saturday over a forest near the occupied West Bank. Defence officials did not, at the time, directly accuse Hezbollah – who fought an inconclusive war with Israel in 2006 – of sending it.

On at least one previous occasion, Hezbollah has launched a drone into Israel across its northern border with Lebanon. And in 2010, an Israeli warplane shot down an apparently unmanned balloon near the Dimona nuclear reactor in southern Israel.

The Israeli military released a 10-second video clip of what it said was Saturday's mid-air interception. In the video, a small, unidentified aircraft is seen moments before being destroyed by a missile fired from a fighter jet.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Louise Ireland

Hezbollah claims responsibility for drone that entered Israeli airspace


Lebanese Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged on Thursday sending a drone aircraft that was shot down last weekend after flying some 25 miles into Israel.

Nasrallah said in a televised speech that the drone's parts were manufactured in Iran and it was assembled by members of the Shi'ite Muslim militant movement in Lebanon. He confirmed a statement by Israel's prime minister earlier in the day saying that Hezbollah was behind the drone flight.

“The resistance in Lebanon sent a sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft from Lebanon…It penetrated the enemy's iron procedures and entered occupied southern Palestine,” Nasrallah said. Hezbollah does not recognize the state of Israel.

Tensions have increased in the region with Israel threatening to bomb the nuclear sites of Hezbollah's patron Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail to stop Iranian nuclear activity the West suspects is meant to develop a weapons capability. Tehran says it is seeking only civilian nuclear energy.

Iran has threatened in turn to attack U.S. military bases in the Middle East and retaliate against Israel if attacked.

Seeking to underline that Hezbollah was capable of reaching targets well inside Israel, Nasrallah said the drone “flew over sensitive installations inside southern Palestine and was shot down in an area near the Dimona nuclear reactor”.

Iran said the incursion exposed the weakness of Israeli air defense, indicating that Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system “does not work and lacks the necessary capacity”. The Iron Dome system, jointly funded with Washington, is designed to down short-range guerrilla rockets, not slow-flying aircraft.

Hezbollah last fought Israel in 2006 during a 34-day war in which 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Since that war, Hezbollah has a number of times suggested it had expanded its arsenal in an apparent strategy of deterrence.

Hezbollah is also an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting to put down a 19-month-old uprising that has turned into a civil war with sectarian dimensions, largely pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against Assad's minority Alawite community, who are an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Nasrallah has explicitly expressed political support for Assad, whose opponents have accused Hezbollah of sending fighters to help the Syrian leader quell the insurgency.

Nasrallah denied such accusations. “We have not fought alongside the regime until now. The regime did not ask us to do so and also who says that doing so is in Lebanon's interest?”

Earlier this month Hezbollah buried two of its fighters who local sources said were killed near a Syrian border town. Hezbollah acknowledged the death of only one fighter and said he was a commander who “died while performing his jihad duties”. It did not elaborate. Nasrallah said on Thursday that he was killed in a roadside bomb in a town near the Syrian border.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Nasrallah for what it said was support given to Assad against anti-government protests, as well as two other members for the group's “terrorist activities” in general.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

Daniel Pearl Fellows: The anti-drones


One of the highlights of my year is moderating an annual discussion with visiting Muslim journalists.

For them, it’s a chance to talk about what they’ve learned about America and American journalism. For me, it’s a chance to fill in the yawning gaps in my understanding of places far away that I know not as towns, but as targets.

The journalists, sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation and the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowships, spend six months at a mainstream American newspaper such as the Los Angeles Times or Wall Street Journal. At the end of their time here, the Los Angeles Press Club hosts a public discussion with them.

This year, my ninth, I sat beside Aida Ahmad, a reporter for The Star in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Adnan Rashid, a senior producer for an FM radio station in the Northwest tribal area of Pakistan and a contributor to the BBC Outlook.

Ahmad, 34, is the Malaysian Holly Hunter — compact, energetic and direct. Rashid, 30, has news-anchor looks — the dark mustache, the deep eyes — and speaks in eager bursts.

As usual, I began by asking them both how their fellow countrymen form their image of America. From the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid we’ve doled out? From the thousands of American lives we’ve sacrificed to defeat the Taliban or other terrorists?

No, Rashid said, from Hollywood and the Pentagon. They watch “The Big Bang Theory” to see how Americans live, then read their local news about or, worse, hear real-life big bangs to see how we kill.

The positive, if inaccurate, image Hollywood creates is undone in a flash by our increasingly unpopular military presence.

Those drone attacks, which President Obama has stepped up, have been effective both in killing Taliban around Rashid’s region and in killing innocents and alienating the population.

“I say every drone attack kills one terrorist and creates two,” Rashid said.

Meanwhile, it is Pakistanis like Rashid who pay the highest price for our drone aid to Pakistan. A native of the Swat Valley, he remembers when it was the “Switzerland of Asia.”

The United States’ invasion of Afghanistan forced the Taliban across the border into the Swat Valley. In 2006, the Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah started an FM radio station to broadcast fundamentalist messages. In response, Rashid founded another station, to counter the sermons on “Mullah Radio” with news and the messages of more open-minded Muslim clerics.

That prompted Taliban threats against him, and Rashid fled his home for a few weeks. He returned just as the Pakistani army launched an offensive to extirpate the Taliban — and when most residents fled, Rashid stayed alone in his family compound, intent on reporting the news. The fact that he spent months under siege with no water, electricity or phone lines made his job difficult.

In the end, the Taliban have returned. And as they gain strength, and the drone attacks send them new recruits, they have taken to blowing up schools, especially girls’ schools — some 500 since 2008.

Like many educated Pakistanis, Rashid is pinning his hopes on the former cricket champion and current presidential candidate Imran Khan to save his country from corruption and fundamentalism — if anyone can.

“This election will determine Pakistan’s future,” Rashid said.

So will media.

In both Pakistan and in Ahmad’s Malaysia, a new generation is increasingly getting its news from social media. Party- or state-controlled newspapers like The Star in Malaysia still have to walk the party line and pay mind to religious sensitivities in a land of Shariah law — Ahmad told the story of how an inadvertent publication of a photo of singer Erykah Badu with a tattoo of the name of Allah on her shoulders caused a riot of criticism against her paper.

Yet the same media that in the hands of the mullahs foment hate can, when used by skilled journalists, help citizens think more critically, get more information about their governments, learn more about their communities.

That’s one lesson both Pearl Fellows learned while practicing their craft at U.S. newspapers — the Los Angeles Times, where Ahmad worked, and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass., where Rashid worked (and where Daniel Pearl got his first newspaper job).

“People are the same everywhere,” Rashid wrote in his parting essay in The Eagle. “They love their families; they want to enjoy their life. … Due to cultural diversity we approach these concerns in different ways, which is great. It’s called identity. However, we need to communicate on a community-to-community level to understand each other. I tried to understand the local community, and that changed my mind about the people of America.”

If the Pentagon had given Rashid one image of America, Hollywood movies, he said, led him to believe that all Americans do is fight, live lavishly and hook up.

The thing that surprised him most about America, he said, was that people actually care about their families, and that the country felt safe.

A devout Muslim, he found his colleagues at the Eagle always made time and space for him to pray at work.

“When I think about American society,” he said, “I won’t just think about the White House and Pentagon.”

Meanwhile, Ahmad, who dreamed of actually seeing Hollywood up close, finally got her chance. Visiting Malibu, she inadvertently parked her car in a space blocking a nearby driveway. When she returned, she found a note on her windshield: “Please Don’t Park Here.”

“It was signed, ‘Ed Norton,’ ” Ahmad told me, beaming, “so my dreams did come true.”

U.S. official says no sign Iran shot down drone


Iranian media reported on Sunday that their country’s military had shot down a U.S. reconnaissance drone in eastern Iran, but a U.S. official said there was no indication the aircraft had been shot down.

NATO’s U.S.-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan said the Iranian report could refer to an unarmed U.S. spy drone that went missing there last week.

The incident comes at a time when Tehran is trying to contain foreign outrage at the storming of the British embassy on Tuesday, after London announced sanctions on Iran’s central bank in connection with Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Iran has announced several times in the past that it shot down U.S., Israeli or British drones, in incidents that did not provoke high-profile responses.

“Iran’s military has downed an intruding RQ-170 American drone in eastern Iran,” Iran’s Arabic-language Al Alam state television network quoted a military source as saying.

“The spy drone, which has been downed with little damage, was seized by the Iranian armed forces,” the source said. “The Iranian military’s response to the American spy drone’s violation of our airspace will not be limited to Iran’s borders.”

Iranian officials were not available to comment further.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said in a statement: “The UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to which the Iranians are referring may be a U.S. unarmed reconnaissance aircraft that had been flying a mission over western Afghanistan late last week.

“The operators of the UAV lost control of the aircraft and had been working to determine its status.”

A U.S. official, who asked not to be named, said: “There is absolutely no indication up to this point that Iranians shot down this drone.”

Tuesday’s storming of the British embassy attracted swift condemnation from around the world, further isolating Iran.

Britain evacuated its diplomatic staff from Tehran and expelled Iranian diplomats from London in retaliation. Several other EU members like Germany, France and Spain also recalled their ambassadors from Tehran.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails to resolve a dispute over a program they suspect is aimed at developing atomic weapons. Iran says it would respond to any strike by attacking Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf.

In January Iran said it shot down two unmanned Western reconnaissance drones in the Gulf. In July Iran said it had shot down an unmanned U.S. spy plane over the holy city of Qom, near its Fordu nuclear site.

Western nations on Thursday significantly tightened sanctions against Iran, with the European Union expanding an Iranian blacklist and the U.S. Senate passing a measure that could severely disrupt Iran’s oil income.

Iran warned the West on Sunday any move to block its oil exports would more than double crude prices with devastating consequences on a fragile global economy.

“As soon as such an issue is raised seriously the oil price would soar to above $250 a barrel,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told the Sharq newspaper.

So far neither Washington nor Brussels has finalized a move against Iran’s oil trade or its central bank. Crude prices were pushed up over the British embassy storming with ICE Brent January crude up 95 cents on Friday to settle at $109.94 a barrel.

Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Caren Bohan and David Alexander in Washington and Missy Ryan in Bonn; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Peter Graff

Israeli drones protect gas fields


The Israeli military is using drones to protect gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea.

The unmanned aerial vehicles are conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions after pledges from Hezbollah that it would protect Lebanon’s claims to the areas, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Israel’s Cabinet in July approved Israel’s northern maritime border with Lebanon, thus laying claim to a large natural gas field.

The drones allow the Israeli Air Force to maintain a 24-hour-a-day presence on the site.

Iran unveils long-range drone bomber


Iran’s president unveiled the country’s first domestically built unmanned long-range bomber.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday revealed the drone prototype, called Karar, on a state television broadcast, according to reports.

“The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship,” Ahmadinejad reportedly said during the unveiling.

“The main message of Karar bomber is to prevent any kind of aggression and conflict” against the Islamic Republic, he said. 

The high-speed drone can carry two 250-pound bombs or a 500-pound precision missile, according to Iranian state television.

The unveiling comes a day after Iran began loading uranium into its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor, ahead of the activation of the power plant.