Death of journalist in raid raises questions about IDF use of hi-tech - analysis

Even if Israel is in the wrong and Israeli troops killed a journalist that doesn’t mean that releasing details and admitting to faults isn’t worthwhile.

 Tunisian journalists protest the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, in Tunis (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tunisian journalists protest the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, in Tunis
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Last year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas was described as the first “artificial intelligence war.”

However, after the death in Jenin of Palestinian-American Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, questions have been raised about why the technology used didn’t prevent her death or at least document the circumstances of it.

Last year the IDF said that “for the first time, artificial intelligence was a key component and power multiplier in fighting the enemy… We implemented new methods of operation and used technological developments that were a force multiplier for the entire IDF.” Ostensibly this hi-tech method of war is being increasingly used by Israel’s forces.

The media circus that began on Wednesday morning was all too familiar. Israel was immediately accused of killing the journalist, who was wearing a Press vest and was visibly a journalist.

The killing was called “murder in cold blood” and news organizations that didn’t immediately report that Israel was responsible were accused by other journalists and commentators of using passive language and not declaring Israeli forces responsible.

 Mourners, including journalists, carry the body and flak jacket of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqla, who was killed by gunfire during clashes between Palestinians and IDF in Jenin, May 11, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN) Mourners, including journalists, carry the body and flak jacket of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqla, who was killed by gunfire during clashes between Palestinians and IDF in Jenin, May 11, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

Al-Jazeera asserted that this killing “in cold blood” was a breach of international law and many voices are calling for an investigation. Israeli authorities have also asserted they are investigating. The actual investigation appears to be complicated by Palestinian health authorities that are not working with Israelis.  

The fact that Palestinian health authorities don’t want to work with Israeli health professionals to determine the cause and method of death and find the bullet or projectiles that killed Abu Akleh may make a full investigation more difficult.

Hours after the incident many pro-Israel voices were relying on a video of Palestinians shooting into an alley as evidence that their chaotic shooting was responsible.

Others have geo-located the site of the chaotic shooting and the area where the journalist was killed and say they are two different places.

B’Tselem said in the afternoon that “this morning, B’Tselem’s field researcher in Jenin documented the exact locations in which the Palestinian gunman depicted in a video distributed by the Israeli army, fired, as well as the exact location in which journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed.”

The lack of information from authorities is astounding, considering the fact that the IDF has said for years that it is pushing more technology to front line units. This is not just a question of using more drones and unmanned aerial systems that may have video of the incident. Drones have been around for decades. There is also a plethora of other technology linked to the digitization of the IDF, part of the wider Momentum multi-year plan.

All of this tech is supposed to mean that soldiers at the front not only have access to more real-time data and intelligence, but that systems help units avoid casualties both among themselves and civilians.

The assertion is that the use of big data and AI and all this information makes the soldiers more lethal but also means that units can chose the precise correct weapons to deal with the target.

That means this isn’t just about making war more precise. It’s also about harnessing to conflicts all the technology we have at our fingertips in things like smart phones.

This means that soldiers may have more augmented reality – rifles that collect information, automatic target recognition systems and tracking that can help pinpoint threats.

While we don’t know how all this new technology is actually used, or how widespread it is used in every infantry and combat unit, the claims over the years have been that this technology is being pushed out to units in the field.

Combined arms operations, multi-dimensional units, the “ghost unit” and a plethora of other systems that are supposed to aid operations in the field, such as unmanned ground vehicles and small tactical drones, are all part of the Israeli way of war today.

Israel isn’t doing this in a vacuum. Armies all over the world are becoming more digitized. Israel’s large defense companies and smaller start-ups often offer technology abroad or partner with companies and defense industries abroad to offer systems that are operationally proven in Israel.

One of the myths of the use of new technology, going back to the Gulf War and the “revolution in military affairs” is that technology can make war more “clean” by reducing casualties to near-zero.

Indeed, the US war on terror was an attempt to show that using things like drones meant war could be waged far from home and enemies could be neutralized using intelligence.

However, even when the US was leaving Afghanistan last year, Washington conducted a drone strike that killed 10 civilians. That means that despite intelligence and technology, civilians will still be killed.  

However, a wider question about Israel’s use of intelligence and technology is whether the technology is being pushed to the front and whether that technology is actually working and whether it can be brought into the investigation and bring correct information to the public.

It is natural that Israel wants to keep secret some of the details of how it gathers information and its videos during an operation. However, that doesn’t mean that some of this information can’t help to set the record straight on this tragedy.

Why is it that foreign media and NGOs might know more than the authorities? Israel knows that it faces an uphill struggle in the information conflict, but needs to pushback against false information or disinformation. So why after all the years invested in “public diplomacy” is it that the IDF is still so slow?

Even if Israel is in the wrong and Israeli troops killed a journalist that doesn’t mean that releasing details and admitting to faults isn’t worthwhile.

If Israel is in the right and it has information it is better to release some of the details, even if it can’t release all the details jeopardizing the operational security of these operations.

It’s clear that future warfare provides operators and officers with many new tools for precise targeting that will reduce collateral damage; the question is whether it can also help to provide answers in critical incidents like the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.

Ostensibly all this hi-tech should be reducing casualties and also providing answers when things go wrong. If it isn’t performing these basic functions, it may raise questions about whether the battlefield of the future has truly arrived.