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Gordon Campbell On Israel’s Murderous Use Of AI In Gaza

This may seem like a dumb question– but how come Israel has managed to kill at least 33,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including over 13,000 children? Of course, saturation aerial bombing and artillery shelling of densely populated civilian neighbourhoods will do that. So will the targeting of children by IDF snipers. So will the IDF designation of parts of Gaza as“kill zones” in which every living thing can be shot on sight.

This video of the killing of four apparently unarmed men by repeated drone strikes while they were walking through Khan Younis seems a fairly typical example of the IDF disregard for Palestinian lives. All of this – including the imminent death by starvation of the entire population of Gaza – can be rationalised by Israel’s supporters as means of putting negotiating pressure on Hamas. Yet around the world, such actions are increasingly being seen as evidence of Israel’s genocidal intent.

But there has been something else. Thanks to in-depth investigative reporting by the Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham and his colleagues, we now know that an Artificial Intelligence system called “Lavender” has been used by the IDF to create ‘ kill lists” of Palestiniains targeted for assassination. This marking is appllied because they were thought to be members of Hamas, or sympathetic to it, or suspected of being related to someone who might be either a member or a supporter. (It can be a very loose definition.) Lavender’s appeal to the IDF has been that it has removed the “human bottleneck” involved in locating human targets, and approving their killing :

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During the early stages of the war, the army gave sweeping approval for officers to adopt Lavender’s kill lists, with no requirement to thoroughly check why the machine made those choices or to examine the raw intelligence data on which they were based. One source stated that human personnel often served only as a “rubber stamp” for the machine’s decisions, adding that, normally, they would personally devote only about “20 seconds” to each target before authorizing a bombing.... This was despite knowing that the system makes what are regarded as “errors” in approximately 10 percent of cases, and is known to occasionally mark individuals who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.

Crucially, the Lavender system has been operating within parameters that treat the killing of entire families in their homes as a strategically acceptable (or even desirable) outcome:

Moreover, the Israeli army systematically attacked the targeted individuals while they were in their homes — usually at night while their whole families were present — rather than during the course of military activity. According to the sources, this was because, from what they regarded as an intelligence standpoint, it was easier to locate the individuals in their private houses.

Additional automated systems, including one called “Where’s Daddy?”....were used specifically to track the targeted individuals and carry out bombings when they had entered their family’s residences. The result, as the sources testified, is that thousands of Palestinians — most of them women and children or people who were not involved in the fighting — were wiped out by Israeli airstrikes, especially during the first weeks of the war...

To repeat: this killing of entire families has been a deliberate part of the IDF strategy, and is a

valued feature of its AI programmes:

“We were not interested in killing [Hamas] operatives only when they were in a military building or engaged in a military activity,” A., an intelligence officer told [the reporters]. “On the contrary, the IDF bombed them in homes without hesitation, as a first option. It’s much easier to bomb a family’s home. The system is built to look for them in these situations.”

There was also a kill ratio calculus in play. Meaning: within the IDF, it was deemed to be generally acceptable for 15-20 Palestinian civilians to be killed in order to eliminate one lowly ranked Hamas member or supporter, and for more than 100 civilians to die if a senior Hamas figure was the target.

...The [Israeli] army also decided during the first weeks of the war that, for every junior Hamas operative that Lavender marked, it was permissible to kill up to 15 or 20 civilians; in the past, the military did not authorize any “collateral damage” during assassinations of low-ranking militants. The sources added that, in the event that the target was a senior Hamas official with the rank of battalion or brigade commander, the army on several occasions authorized the killing of more than 100 civilians in the assassination of a single commander.

Despite the 15 (or 20) to one kill ratio for low ranking Hamas-related individuals, the toll was often higher. This was because when only a junior Hamas figure was being targeted, the IDF would drop so-called “dumb bombs” on their homes. These bombs would flatten entire apartment buildings and cause mass casualties, because it was felt to be too expensive to use “smart” precision weaponry to eliminate only a relatively junior Hamas operative or supporter. “You don’t want to waste expensive bombs on un-important people — it’s very expensive for the country, and there’s a shortage [of those bombs],” said one IDF intelligence officer.

Another source said that they had personally authorized the bombing of “hundreds” of private homes of alleged junior operatives marked by Lavender, with many of these attacks killing civilians and entire families as “collateral damage.”

So much for the IDF lies and propaganda –dutifully recycled for months by Western media – that Israel has been using precision weaponry in Gaza, and doing its best to minimise civilian casualties, routinely said to be “un-intentional.” It is no wonder so many children are being killed. The bombings and shelling are being preferentially aimed at their family homes.

Pressure on Netanyahu, No Sweat

US President Joe Biden has been a fervent supporter of Israel for over 40 years and, evidently, nothing much has changed. By mid-December last year, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza was already over 15,000, and it had been 10 days since Israel had launched its ground assault into southern Gaza, hitherto regarded as a safe zone. Regardless, Biden said this at a White House gathering on December 12:

You cannot say there’s no Palestinian state at all in the future. And that’s going to be the hard part. But in the meantime, we’re not going to do a damn thing other than protect Israel in the process. Not a single thing.”

Oh, and Biden said this, too:

Bibi and I talk a lot. I’ve known him for 50 years. Some of you know he has a picture on his desk — at least when I’m there, he has it on it. (Laughter.) Eight and a half by eleven, with a picture of — where I wrote, “Bibi…” — when we were both young men, he was at the embassy here and I was a senator. I said, “Bibi, I love you, but I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say.” (Laughter.) That remains to be the case. (Laughter.)

As a junior senator in 1982, Biden reportedly shocked Israel’s then far right PM Menachem Begin with his zealous, unconditional support for Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Over Begin’s objections, Biden had brushed aside the massive civilian casualties that were occurring, and the accusations that Israel’s use of force has been disproportionate. Begin later told the Israeli media that he’d criticized Biden for his devaluing of civilian life:

The senator [Biden] said he would go even further than Israel, adding that he’d forcefully fend off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children. “I disassociated myself from these remarks,” Begin said. “I said to him: “No, sir; attention must be paid. According to our values, it is forbidden to hurt women and children, even in war… Sometimes there are casualties among the civilian population as well. But it is forbidden to aspire to this. This is a yardstick of human civilization, not to hurt civilians.”

The Biden/Begin disagreement is reported here and here. Flash forward to now....since the current Gaza offensive began, Biden has ensured that Israel continues to be supplied with all the weapons and economic aid it asks for. Annelle Sheline, a senior official in the State Department, has resigned in protest at the Biden policy towards Israel and Gaza.

As Sheline recently told the Nation magazine, many of the State Department officials who had survived the Trump years had assumed the Biden administration would advocate for US participation in international institutions, and would re-assert America’s commitment to the rules of international law.“ I think people were just extremely horrified to see the ways in which all of that went out the window.”

In recent weeks, Biden has held a strained White House meeting with a small Muslim delegation – from which a doctor walked out, and during which Biden refused to look at photos of the carnage occurring in southern Gaza. Biden has also ratcheted up his public and private criticisms of Israel, but without making any significant change to US policy. As the Nation pointed out, Biden routinely threatens in words what he refuses to carry out in action. His belated call for “an immediate ceasefire” in Gaza has been ignored by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, without consequences. Three aid corridors were belatedly opened.

Why is Biden even (reluctantly) going through the motions? It is mainly for domestic political reasons. His Gaza policy is deeply unpopular within the Democratic Party that he needs to mobilise to win re-election. According to a Gallup poll released on March 27, 75% of Democrats oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza while only 18% support Israel’s conduct. Among independent voters, 60% oppose the conduct of the Gaza war, while 29% support it. Even among Republican voters, support for the war appears to be on the slide. Currently 64% support the war, and 30% are opposed – down from November’s figures, when 71% of Republicans supported the war and 23% opposed it.

In other words, Biden has been staging a series of manifestly inadequate performative acts-

such as aid air drops, and the building oof a pier to create a minor maritime aid corridor into Gaza. He has also been talking tough to appease the clear majority of Americans who now oppose the Gaza war. This change of tone is especially aimed at placating the Democratic base and independent voters, but without actually doing anything that could be construed as being harmful to Israel’s interests.

With a few exceptions, the Western media has shown limited ability ( or interest) in putting this pantomime into context. Instead, it has been fostering the illusion that substantive conflict exists between Israel and the Biden White House. In reality, such conflicts have had precious little substance, so far.


recently told the Nation magazine

has held a strained White House meeting

According to a Gallup poll released on March 27

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