Israel’s merciless AI tool is placing targets on Palestinian civilians

Posted on : 2023-12-17 09:40 KST Modified on : 2023-12-17 09:40 KST
An AI-based targeting system called “Habsora” is generating more targets than the IDF can keep up with, allowing for mass casualties in Gaza
A Palestinian child is rescued from the rubble after an Israeli air raid on Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Oct. 21. (AP/Yonhap)
A Palestinian child is rescued from the rubble after an Israeli air raid on Khan Younis in southern Gaza on Oct. 21. (AP/Yonhap)

The horrific civilian bloodshed continues in Gaza. After Hamas carried out its surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip. An official report released on Dec. 7 revealed that Israel had killed 16,015 people thus far.

However, it is estimated that the number of Palestinian casualties far outnumbers the official report released by the Ministry of Health in Gaza. The ministry’s statistics include only the identified dead, which means that the victims crushed under the rubble of buildings collapsed by Israel’s indiscriminate attacks are not included.

Recent days have also seen attacks on hospitals and medical facilities, leading to a spike in the death of doctors as well as UN and Palestinian officials, making the identification of victims even harder.

Generating targets so fast not even the IDF can keep up with

With an estimated population of 2.3 million, it is alarming that so many people have been lost in Gaza in just two months, but even more concerning is the scale of civilian casualties, including children and women.

Of the 14,800 Palestinians killed through Nov. 23, when the temporary ceasefire began, more than 6,000 were children and 4,000 were women, accounting for 67% of the total victims. Since then, according to the Dec. 7 report, that percentage has risen to 70%.

A paper in the Lancet, a respected medical journal, that analyzed the Oct. 26 report from the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, shows a more detailed age distribution of victims.

According to the paper, 42.8% of those killed were 19 years old or younger. Of those killed, 11.5% were children aged 0-4, 11.5% aged 5-9, 10.7% aged 10-14, and 9.1% aged 15-19. Of these, boys aged 0-4 years accounted for the second highest percentage of deaths, after men aged 30-34 years.

Why are so many children and women being killed in Gaza? Why are so many family trees being snubbed out on such a massive scale, with more than 312 families having lost 10 or more relatives as of Nov. 11, when more than 11,000 Palestinians were killed?

Are we to understand that this is merely “collateral damage” caused by Israel’s “Operation Iron Swords,” carried out to wipe out Hamas, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed? Or are the Israeli forces killing all Palestinians on sight, not just Hamas operatives, since they see all Palestinians as the enemy?

An investigative report by Yuval Abraham in +972 Magazine, an independent outlet reporting from Israel-Palestine, provides hints at the answers.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are reportedly using an artificial intelligence system called “Habsora” (Hebrew for “the gospel”) to select targets. What used to be done manually by humans is now done automatically and in a fraction of a second, making mass destruction possible.

The IDF’s targeting division, which was created in 2019, uses Habsora to produce targets at a rate that is unparalleled in the past. Whereas it used to take a year to select 50 targets, it can now produce 100 new targets a day, making it difficult for the IDF to keep up.

Habsora can target even the lowest-level Hamas operative, instigating large-scale attacks on their residences. By targeting the home of operatives, rather than their military units, civilians end up becoming targets. As a result, entire families have been wiped out simply because a family member is a Hamas operative, and people who have nothing to do with Hamas have been killed simply for living next door.

Unlike operations manned by humans, Habsora does not go through a thorough vetting process, which leads to attacks on families who have no connection to Hamas. Furthermore, locations can become targets simply because Hamas operatives had meetings there, or even if they were merely passing by.

Given that Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, virtually anywhere in Gaza could become a target.

Relaxing criteria for killing Palestinian civilians

The IDF has become an AI-equipped killing machine thanks to an Israeli doctrine explicitly aimed at harming civilians. According to the Dahiya doctrine, Israel must use its unparalleled and overwhelming military power to attack civilian and government infrastructure in order to turn civilians against Hamas.

While separating civilians from guerrillas is an age-old counter-guerrilla tactic, the Dahiya doctrine differs in that it aims to attack civilian neighborhoods on a large scale, rather than separating civilians and introducing them to strategic locations.

To this end, the IDF categorizes its targets into four categories: tactical targets, underground targets, “power targets,” and family homes/operatives’ homes. Power targets are facilities that are not directly related to Hamas’ military activities but are known to have a significant impact on Palestinian civilians. Since Oct. 7, Israel’s attacks have focused on such power targets, including large buildings, government facilities and mosques. It is also indiscriminately targeting civilian residences. In one instance, it bombed the home of a Palestinian journalist’s family, killing 21 members of the family.

Immediately after the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the Israeli government announced that it would respond differently than in the past. Netanyahu stepped up and vowed to “eradicate” Hamas. On Oct. 9, Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson Daniel Hagari declared that “while balancing accuracy with the scope of damage, right now we’re focused on what causes maximum damage.”

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who developed the Dahiya doctrine, is a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

The current Israeli government includes dangerously far-right figures, and because of their policies, the IDF has led operations that are very tolerant of killing civilians.

Whereas in the past, attacks on civilian facilities would have been preceded by warnings to give civilians time to flee, the IDF now attacks civilian facilities and residential areas without warning. On Oct. 25, for example, a 12-story apartment building in Gaza City was bombed without warning, crushing more than 120 residents under the rubble. The Israeli military has even attacked refugee camps, drawing criticism from Amnesty International.

Ultimately, the mass slaughter that is currently being carried out in the Gaza Strip can be regarded as the joint product of the Habsora AI-powered targeting system, the Dahiya doctrine, and the policies of the current Israeli government. And since the US and Western Europe have supported the Israeli government and helped arm the Israeli Defense Force, they too bear some share of the blame.

(This article draws heavily on “‘A mass assassination factory’: Inside Israel’s calculated bombing of Gaza” by Yuval Abraham, published in +972 Magazine. The original article contains several photos depicting the scale of destruction in the Gaza Strip.)

By Suh Jae-jung, professor of political science and international relations at the International Christian University in Tokyo

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