AL-AROUB REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank (AP) — In two volatile locations in the occupied West Bank, Israel has installed robotic weapons capable of firing tear gas, stun grenades and sponge-tip bullets at Palestinian protesters.
The weapons, perched above a crowded Palestinian refugee camp and in a burning West Bank city, use artificial intelligence to track targets. Israel says the technology saves lives – both Israeli and Palestinian. But critics see another step toward a dystopian reality in which Israel tweaks its indefinite occupation of Palestinians while keeping its soldiers out of harm’s way.
The new weapon comes at a time of heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank, where unrest rose sharply in what was the deadliest year since 2006. The victory for former Prime Minister Benjamin’s radical alliance Netanyahu, who includes a far-right-wing party with close ties to the settler movement, has raised concerns about more violence.
Twin turrets, each equipped with a surveillance lens and a gun barrel, were recently installed atop a guard tower bristling with surveillance cameras overlooking Al-Aroub refugee camp in the south of the West Bank. When young Palestinian protesters flood the streets throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers, robotic weapons unleash tear gas or sponge-tip bullets on them, witnesses said.
About a month ago, the army also placed the robots in the nearby city of Hebron, where soldiers often clash with stone-throwing Palestinian residents. The military declined to comment on plans to deploy the system elsewhere in the West Bank.
Palestinian activist Issa Amro said Hebron residents fear the new weapon could be misused or hacked without accountability in life-threatening situations. People also don’t like what they say is a weapons test on civilians, he added.
“We are not training and simulation for Israeli companies,” he said. “It’s something new that needs to be stopped.”
There are no soldiers next to the machines. Instead, the weapons are operated by remote control. With the push of a button, soldiers nestled inside a guard tower can fire at selected targets.
The military says the system is currently being tested and only fires “non-lethal” weapons used for crowd control, such as sponge-tip bullets and tear gas. Residents of Al-Aroub say the turrets repeatedly flooded the hillside camp with gas.
“We don’t open the window, we don’t open the door. We know not to open anything,” said shopkeeper Hussein al-Muzyeen.
Robotic weapons are increasingly being used around the world, with the military expanding their use of drones to carry out deadly strikes from Ukraine to Ethiopia. Remote-controlled weapons like the Israeli system in the West Bank have been used by the United States in Iraq, by South Korea along the border with North Korea, and by various Syrian rebel groups.
Israel, known for its advanced military technologies, is one of the world’s leading producers of drones capable of launching precision-guided missiles. He built a fence along its border with the Gaza Strip equipped with underground and underwater radars and sensors. Above ground, he uses a robotic vehicle, equipped with cameras and machine guns, to patrol the unstable borders. The military is also testing and using advanced surveillance technologies such as facial recognition and biometric data collection on Palestinians navigating routines of the occupation, such as applying for Israeli travel permits.
“Israel uses technology as a way to control the civilian population,” said Dror Sadot, spokesperson for the Israeli rights group B’Tselem. She said even supposedly non-lethal weapons like sponge bullets can cause extreme pain and even be deadly.
Al-Aroub’s turrets were built by Smart Shooter, a company that manufactures “fire control systems” that it says “significantly increase the accuracy, lethality and situational awareness of small arms.” The company claims contracts with dozens of armies around the world, including the US military.
Speaking at the company’s headquarters in Kibbutz Yagur in northern Israel, managing director Michal Mor said the gun required human selection of targets and ammunition.
“They always have a man in the know making the decision about the legitimate target,” she said.
She said the system minimizes casualties by keeping soldiers away from violence and limits collateral damage by making shots more accurate.
In a densely populated area like Al-Aroub, she said soldiers can watch specific people in a crowd and lock the turret on specific body parts. The system only triggers after the algorithms evaluate complex factors such as speed, distance and wind velocity.
The military said these safeguards minimize risks to soldiers and improve oversight of their activities. He also said the technology allows soldiers to target “less sensitive” areas of the body to minimize damage and avoid firing at bystanders.
“That way the system reduces the likelihood of an inaccurate shot,” he said.
But Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director of Human Rights Watch, said Israel is on a “slide toward the digital dehumanization of weapons systems.” By using such technologies, Shakir said Israel was creating “a powder keg for human rights abuses”.
Violence in the West Bank has increased in recent months as Israel intensified arrest raids after a series of Palestinian attacks in Israel killed 19 people last spring. The violence has killed more than 130 Palestinians this year and at least 10 other Israelis have been killed in recent attacks.
Israel says the raids are aimed at dismantling militant infrastructure and that it was forced to act due to the inaction of Palestinian security forces. For Palestinians, the nightly incursions into their cities have weakened their own security forces and tightened Israel’s grip on the lands they want for the state they hope for. Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East War.
In Al-Aroub, residents say the devices fire without warning.
“It’s very fast, even faster than the soldiers,” said Kamel Abu Hishesh, a 19-year-old student. He described near-night clashes where soldiers storm the camp as the automated gun fires tear gas up and down the hill.
Paul Scharre, vice president of the Washington Center for a New American Security think tank and former US Army sniper, said that without emotion and with better aim, automated systems have the potential to reduce violence.
But he said the lack of international standards for “killer robots” is problematic.
Otherwise, he said, it is only a matter of time before these automated systems are equipped to use lethal force.
Associated Press writers Mahmoud Illean in Al-Aroub and Ami Bentov in Kibbutz Yagur, Israel, contributed to this report.
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