Throughout Operation Protective Edge, the IDF (Zahal)’s “First UAV Squadron” operated non-stop in order to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza. Two senior commanders in the unit reveal how the squadron detected terror targets and minimized harm to civilians in Gaza.
The Israel Air Force ”First UAV Squadron”, also known as the 200 Squadron, operates around the clock gathering intelligence from above. “At any given moment, the squadron has UAVs up in the air,” said Maj S., the deputy commander of the Squadron.
The Daily Mission: Gathering Intelligence
The 200 Squadron is constantly supplying intelligence sources with aerial footage that allows them to detect and track terrorist activity.
“We gather a lot of information which eventually gives us the ability to detect targets that need to be attacked. This is why the minute Operation Protective Edge began, the air force already had a large ‘bank’ of targets,” explained Maj. R, a senior commander in the squadron.
“It’s not enough to detect targets,” explained Maj S. “Every few months, it is essential to check that the target is still relevant. If you find a weapons storage facility today, tomorrow they could take all of the weapons out of the building and build a kindergarten. If I don’t know about that change, I might accidentally target it. That’s why we don’t only find new targets; we also keep track of the existing ones.”
A New Mass of Intelligence Findings
Maj. S. explained how new targets were detected by the 200 Squadron during Operation Protective Edge.
“A target can be many things: a warehouse, a rocket launching site, the vehicle of a terrorist or a group of terrorists. Buildings and warehouses are usually the kind of targets we discover before the operation. During the operation we start to detect and track other targets, such as terror operatives, senior Hamas officials and additional rocket launching sites.
The majority of rockets are launched from within or very close to civilian areas. I have personally seen it [rockets fired] from schools, civilian neighborhoods, people’s backyards. I’ve seen it all. Nothing can surprise me.”
The Main Goal: Preventing Civilian Casualties
For Maj. S, the deputy commander of the UAV’s Squadron, preventing civilian casualties is a top priority. “I don’t have any personal problems with any civilians living in Gaza, and I don’t want to cause harm to any of them.”
“We are a crucial part of the “Roof Knocking” process. [After the stunt-bomb is dropped] we check the target before the actual bomb is dropped. We see who left the area–women, children, and adults–and make sure that nobody enters the area. According to this information, we decide if the target can be struck or not.
“When I detect a new target, I immediately think of how to clear it of civilians. It bothers me that the world doesn’t see how hard we work to minimize harm to civilians. When I say ‘we,’ I mean me personally and my staff. The majority of our work is to prevent harm to innocent people.”
“Unfortunately, civilians do get hurt as a result of our enemies inhumane fighting tactics,” continued Maj. S. ”And when that happens, we investigate the incidents and try to learn from them so that next time the outcome will be different.”
If an Airstrike Clearly Endangers Civilians, It’s Aborted
As a policy, the “First UAV Squadron” orders the abortion of airstrikes if they put civilians at risk. “We had our target in reach– an armed terrorist whose goal was to attack us,” said Maj. R. “Right before the strike, we saw him enter a yard full of children. We knew there was a bomb heading towards the terrorist and of his proximity to the kids, so we immediately aborted the strike. When we saw the explosion on the side, we understood that we’d just prevented unnecessary harm to at least 8 children.”
The UAV’s Protect the Soldiers on the Ground
According to Maj. S, when the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge began and IDF (Zahal) forces entered the Gaza Strip, the UAV’s played an essential role in protecting the soldiers on the ground.
“The forces on the ground have the ability to deal with threats, but only in close range. Our job is to make sure that the areas the soldiers operate in are clear of threats detectable from above. It is important for us to be our best in our mission so that the ground forces operating below know that there is someone protecting them from above.”