Maybe the most significant aspect of last week’s two-day IDF massive Jenin operation in the West Bank to reduce the waves of terror was the wide use of drone strikes from the air in over 20 instances.
IDF Capt. and drone unit commander “A” recently discussed with The Jerusalem Post what it was like for his drone unit to carry out significant airstrikes in the West Bank for the first time since the Second Intifada in 2006 and to be striking Palestinians in close proximity to IDF troops for the first time since the 2014 Protective Edge Gaza War.
"Our drone apparatus took action in Jenin," he said. "The mission was not routine for us in terms of our day-to-day missions. We had not accompanied infantry and land forces in this manner since Operation Protective Edge 2014 including strikes to thwart midstream attacks by terrorists as well as targeting terror cells.”
He said that his drone units were accustomed to activity in “Gaza and other places.”
In contrast, he said the West Bank “is very dense in terms of the character of the area, the presence of our forces [near enemy lines] which required us to build a more detailed picture about where everyone was to make sure we would not strike friendly forces.”
Next, A stated, “We had a joint operating headquarters to know where the soldiers were at all times” to avoid hitting friendly forces.
How did the IDF avoid hitting civilians?
In terms of the increased danger of hitting civilians in an urban area where terrorists intentionally mix in with civilians, he said, “It’s a very small, very hostile area with lots of innocent civilians nearby.”
“We performed a technological survey and analysis of the surveillance footage. Are people we see in the video surveillance screen armed or not? Are they handling and throwing improvised explosives or not? Are they carrying out military movements and acting aggressively or acting like civilians?” he said to describe how his unit determined when they could strike someone, given that no fighters in Jenin wore uniforms.
Pressed that some of these descriptions could be ambiguous, he responded that his drone unit would only fire on someone if they “actually saw they were armed and there was no room for ambiguity.”
In a recent interview, another IDF drone commander told The Jerusalem Post that the surveillance technology has advanced significantly since a variety of targeting errors that drone operators made in 2014, misidentifying civilians as Hamas fighters.
In addition, A was asked about whether smaller munitions were used, as compared to other fronts, in light of the dense urban layout of Jenin.
"We only hit the exact targets and did not strike any nearby civilians."Captain A
“The category of munitions used was smaller and very precise," he replied. "We only hit the exact targets and did not strike any nearby civilians. You can see this from the results of the operation. No civilians were injured during the airstrikes. We have the capability to be extremely accurate.”
Further, A was asked if the increased operations his unit undertook in Jenin led to a strain in having sufficient personnel (especially given that the operation started right as protests against the government’s judicial overhaul were peaking.)
“We didn’t need more people," he said. "Anyone who was needed was present throughout the operation.”
A was also asked about whether moving more drones to the West Bank took time and resources away from other fronts.
“We are not dedicated to a specific front. We always operate everywhere. Every front where the IDF operates, they need us. We move seamlessly from Gaza to the West Bank and to the northern borders.
“Losing time to move people around is only for manned aircraft and infantry forces,” he said.
In terms of having to learn the West Bank layout as opposed to other fronts, A recalled that “We also had been carrying out lots of intelligence collection for a long time [in the West Bank] and were often deployed there in significant quantities following terror attacks,” to help catch the terrorists.
In other words, what was new for A and his unit was not operating in the West Bank, as much as that they had been “released” to both attack and monitor the area, as opposed to just monitoring.
“There was a difference in terms of using more missiles to strike targets in Judea and Samaria,” he acknowledged, adding, “If we are given the order, we do what needs to be done,” even if air power had not been used in the West Bank since 2006.
A was questioned about whether the new use of drones created surprising situations.
“These were missions you do not see every day," he responded. "Drones did work with the land forces during Operation Protective Edge, but this [the joint work in July 2023] was a new experience for those soldiers who did not go through that. This was a first opportunity to get training in this kind of an operation, which for me was a special situation.”
During the Protective Edge, A was not yet serving in the drone unit.
To bridge the new situations, he said that he consulted with IDF reservists who had served in joint drone-infantry operations during the 2014 Gaza War “who knew how to pass on lessons and useful operational tactics.”
In the moment before a dramatic operation or change, like the moment the airstrikes in Jenin began, all human beings are often nervous or excited.
“We knew beforehand about the operation," A said. "All week we were getting ready, getting to know the physical layout and the forces involved. We engaged in many briefings and went over past operational lessons, with a special focus on Operation Protective Edge.”
“From the start of the operation, we had a good picture. We were ready to adapt and ready for what we eventually saw,” he added.
Still, “it is true that in the moment when you see both a terrorist and an IDF soldier nearby on your monitor, this can cause some additional tension and angst, but we still know how to do our job.”