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‘A mass assassination factory’: Inside Israel’s calculated bombing of Gaza

Permissive airstrikes on non-military targets and the use of an artificial intelligence system have enabled the Israeli army to carry out its deadliest war on Gaza, a +972 and Local Call investigation reveals. 

by Yuval Abraham

Part 1

The Israeli army’s expanded authorization for bombing non-military targets, the loosening of constraints regarding expected civilian casualties, and the use of an artificial intelligence system to generate more potential targets than ever before, appear to have contributed to the destructive nature of the initial stages of Israel’s current war on the Gaza Strip, an investigation by +972 Magazine and Local Call reveals. These factors, as described by current and former Israeli intelligence members, have likely played a role in producing what has been one of the deadliest military campaigns against Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948.

The investigation by +972 and Local Call is based on conversations with seven current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community — including military intelligence and air force personnel who were involved in Israeli operations in the besieged Strip — in addition to Palestinian testimonies, data, and documentation from the Gaza Strip, and official statements by the IDF Spokesperson and other Israeli state institutions.

Compared to previous Israeli assaults on Gaza, the current war — which Israel has named “Operation Iron Swords,” and which began in the wake of the Hamas-led assault on southern Israel on October 7 — has seen the army significantly expand its bombing of targets that are not distinctly military in nature. These include private residences as well as public buildings, infrastructure, and high-rise blocks, which sources say the army defines as “power targets” (“matarot otzem”).

The bombing of power targets, according to intelligence sources who had first-hand experience with its application in Gaza in the past, is mainly intended to harm Palestinian civil society: to “create a shock” that, among other things, will reverberate powerfully and “lead civilians to put pressure on Hamas,” as one source put it.

Several of the sources, who spoke to +972 and Local Call on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that the Israeli army has files on the vast majority of potential targets in Gaza — including homes — which stipulate the number of civilians who are likely to be killed in an attack on a particular target. This number is calculated and known in advance to the army’s intelligence units, who also know shortly before carrying out an attack roughly how many civilians are certain to be killed.

In one case discussed by the sources, the Israeli military command knowingly approved the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in an attempt to assassinate a single top Hamas military commander. “The numbers increased from dozens of civilian deaths [permitted] as collateral damage as part of an attack on a senior official in previous operations, to hundreds of civilian deaths as collateral damage,” said one source.

Nothing happens by accident,” said another source. “When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target. We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.

According to the investigation, another reason for the large number of targets, and the extensive harm to civilian life in Gaza, is the widespread use of a system called “Habsora” (“The Gospel”), which is largely built on artificial intelligence and can “generate” targets almost automatically at a rate that far exceeds what was previously possible. This AI system, as described by a former intelligence officer, essentially facilitates a “mass assassination factory.

According to the sources, the increasing use of AI-based systems like Habsora allows the army to carry out strikes on residential homes where a single Hamas member lives on a massive scale, even those who are junior Hamas operatives. Yet testimonies of Palestinians in Gaza suggest that since October 7, the army has also attacked many private residences where there was no known or apparent member of Hamas or any other militant group residing. Such strikes, sources confirmed to +972 and Local Call, can knowingly kill entire families in the process.

In the majority of cases, the sources added, military activity is not conducted from these targeted homes. “I remember thinking that it was like if [Palestinian militants] would bomb all the private residences of our families when [Israeli soldiers] go back to sleep at home on the weekend,” one source, who was critical of this practice, recalled.

Another source said that a senior intelligence officer told his officers after October 7 that the goal was to “kill as many Hamas operatives as possible,” for which the criteria around harming Palestinian civilians were significantly relaxed. As such, there are “cases in which we shell based on a wide cellular pinpointing of where the target is, killing civilians. This is often done to save time, instead of doing a little more work to get a more accurate pinpointing,” said the source.

The result of these policies is the staggering loss of human life in Gaza since October 7. Over 300 families have lost 10 or more family members in Israeli bombings in the past two months — a number that is 15 times higher than the figure from what was previously Israel’s deadliest war on Gaza, in 2014. At the time of writing, around 15,000 Palestinians have been reported killed in the war, and counting.

All of this is happening contrary to the protocol used by the IDF in the past,” a source explained. “There is a feeling that senior officials in the army are aware of their failure on October 7, and are busy with the question of how to provide the Israeli public with an image [of victory] that will salvage their reputation.

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