When Israel enforces its blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza it is criticized by a large part of the world. When the U.S. employs unmanned aerial systems (or drones) to attack Al Qaeda and Taliban targets in half a dozen countries around the world, its actions are met with silence. What is the difference? Both countries are doing what they must in order to fight a new kind of war. Both Israel and the U.S. have decided that the niceties of peacetime diplomatic and legal constraints on the use of force do not always apply in this new “war in the shadows.” The U.S. has acknowledged that its drone war has inflicted casualties on innocent civilians. But the Obama Administration has trumpeted its use of drones, claiming to have conducted more strikes in 2009 than had the Bush Administration in its last year.
What is different about the behavior of the two countries is Israel’s forbearance in the face of continuous attack. An estimated 3,000 rockets and mortar shells have been launched against Israel from Gaza since Hamas seized power there. What would have been the U.S. reaction if even a small fraction of that number of bombs had been fired at El Paso from Ciudad Juarez across the border in Mexico? When the situation became intolerable, Israel conducted a limited military operation in 2009 against the launch sites in Gaza. A blockade is a legitimate and repeatedly used tool of state power justified by the demonstrated threat Hamas poses to a sovereign nation.
The other difference is that the U.S drone war is conducted in the absence of the media and against targets that do not wield hand-held cameras. This allows the U.S., in effect, to distance itself from what is by the administration’s own admission a major pillar in its war against Al Qaeda.
The use of drones is transforming warfare. Whether it is the armed Predator operating against al Qaeda leaders, the Global Hawk serving as a wide area surveillance platform over Iraq, a Scan Eagle providing route coverage for a Marine convoy in Afghanistan or a hand-held Raven being used by an Army patrol to uncover a Taliban ambush, unmanned aerial systems are permeating the military at all levels. They permit the military to overcome many of the limitations imposed by distance, time on station, terrain and risk to personnel that have limited operations in the past.
But the use of drones to assassinate Al Qaeda leaders should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the war against modern global terrorist organizations is different from past conflicts. It is impossible to treat them as criminals and afford them the protections of the law. When terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah control all the elements of state power — land, population, economic resources, organized military forces — and threaten the survival of other states — they must be treated not as political movements but as hostile powers. That is what the U.S. did in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. That is what Israel is doing with respect to the Hamas terrorist enclave in Gaza. And doing so with enormous restraint.
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