Over the course of the Great March of Return protests which started on 30 March, 115 Palestinians were killed and a further 13,000 were injured. Many were shot by live ammunition fired from Israeli positions behind the nominal Gaza-Israel border. Tear gas rained down on protesters from unmanned drones that hovered in the skies. Butterfly bullets shattered the limbs of scores of Palestinians.
This was the repression of protesters by remote control. It was cold, clinical and calculated, with devastating results. Israel is one of the world’s leading developers of high-tech weapons and munitions, and the Great March of Return presented an ideal opportunity to experiment with its latest products. With a guinea pig population of almost two million Palestinians held under siege in Gaza, Israel can boast of its technology and weaponry as being “battle proven” in a corporate world unconcerned about ethics.
Much focus has been given to Israel’s use of drones to drop tear gas on Palestinian protesters and journalists covering the protests. The drones were first seen back in March when footage by Lebanese Al-Mayadeen TV appeared to show small aerial devices dropping gas canisters on anyone close to the Gaza-Israel border. The Times of Israel reported that “a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces said the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] was not operated by the army but by the Border Police.” The Border Police declined to comment.
In an investigation into Israel’s use of drones in this way, Middle East Eye (MEE) noted that “there appear to be three types of drones being used to disperse the gas.” The first is known as the “Cyclone Riot Control Drone System” and is developed by Israeli company ISPRA. The others are believed to have been used for the first time against Great March protesters, with MEE explaining that one is “a drone that releases gas directly from the craft like an aerosol” and the second “a helicopter-style drone which carries rubber bursting grenades with metal tops that disperse gas as they fall.”
Yet drones are not the whole story. Not only has Israel fired live ammunition into crowds of protesters, but reports have also surfaced about the use of “butterfly bullets”. According to an article by Al Jazeera earlier this month,
Medics on the ground say Israeli forces are shooting at demonstrators with a new type of round — never seen before — known as the ‘butterfly bullet’, which explodes upon impact, pulverising tissue, arteries and bone, while causing severe internal injuries.
It is believed that it was these “butterfly bullets” that killed Palestinian journalists Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu-Hussein, who were shot while reporting from Gaza despite being clearly marked as Press. The pair were shot in the abdomen which, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qedra, resulted in “all of their internal organs [being] totally destroyed, pulverised.” He added that the bullets are the deadliest that the Israeli army has ever used.
Israel’s use of these new bullets has been extensive. According to a report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders), “half of the more than 500 patients we have admitted in our clinics have injuries where the bullet has literally destroyed tissue after having pulverised the bone.” The report also noted that the number of patients treated in MSF clinics in the first three weeks of the Great March of Return alone “[was] more than the number we treated throughout all of 2014, when Israel’s military Operation Protective Edge was launched over the Gaza Strip.”
Israel’s use of its latest technology against Palestinians is nothing new. Writing in 2006 in the wake of Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza, during which time Israel withdrew some 8,000 illegal settlers from their positions in the Strip, Darryl Li of the University of Chicago referred to Gaza as a “laboratory”. According to Li, Gaza is “a space where Israel tests and refines various techniques of management, continuously experimenting in search of an optimal balance between maximum control over the territory and minimum responsibility for its non-Jewish population.” He quoted Amos Yadlin, then head of Israeli military intelligence, as saying: “Our vision of air control zeroes in on the notion of control. We’re looking at how you control a city or a territory from the air when it’s no longer legitimate to hold or occupy that territory on the ground.”
It is clear that Israel’s use of new technologies to quell the Great March of Return, therefore, forms just one part of its continuing quest to exert control over Gaza and its besieged population. Drones provide a detached method of control that requires minimal risk for Israel’s own forces and creates space to argue that “its hands are clean” when it comes to international PR. Simultaneously, the devastating effect of the newly-introduced “butterfly bullet” represents a new level of disregard for Palestinian life, as Israel tests its new technologies on a captive population for which it seeks to bear “minimum responsibility”.
The Great March of Return protests acted as a laboratory for Israel to trial its latest technologies in a real-life situation. This provides concrete evidence of the technologies’ efficacy, which can then be used as fuel for international arms trade deals. ISPRA, the company that manufactures the “Cyclone Drone” mentioned above, claims on its website to offer “smart solutions for crowd control” based on “technical knowhow with practical field experience.” As “a leading global supplier for police and defence forces around the world including USA, Canada, Europe, Asia, Central & South America and Africa,” ISPRA and others like it will no doubt benefit in financial and reputational terms from the “successful” way that its products were used against Palestinian protesters in the Great March of Return. As long as international defence and police forces around the world continue to purchase such products, Palestinians will continue to pay with their lives.