As the conflict between Israel and Hamas extends into its second week, it has become quite clear that the renewed hostilities are markedly different that that ones that came before. Unlike previous engagements, this war has been characterized by the innovative use of new technologies — including rockets that target rockets, unmanned drones, and even social media. Given these early precedents, it's fair to say that the means of war have changed yet again — but in a way that's certainly not for the better.
Note: As of this writing, a ceasefire has been declared between Israel and Gaza, one that took effect today at 19:00 GMT.
In conjunction with the escalating number of rocket attacks coming from within Gaza, the first significant act of aggression came from Israel when it assassinated Hamas military head Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari on November 14. On that same day, Avital Leibovich, the international press spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) sent out the following tweet:
This message — and the medium — made it crystal clear that Israel wasn't going to go about its business in the usual way, this time using Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube to both get the word out and to intimidate its opponents. The IDF's Twitter account later announced that it had initiated a military operation on terror sites and leaders in the Gaza Strip, and that:
It's obvious that the IDF is using hashtags like #PillarOfDefense to shape the conversation and influence the way information is being disseminated in wartime. Israel knows it can't control information (unlike the deposed leaders of Egypt and Libya), but it's trying to at least play a part in directing the narrative.
But not everyone sees this development as a positive thing. Futurist Jamais Cascio worries that social media is being used as an enabler of political violence.
"Twitter and similar media had the potential to serve a role similar to the radio stations used to drive the 1990s Rwandan genocide," he recently wrote. Moreover, it's not the first time we've seen this kind of use of social media, he argues, and it won't be the last:
Pro-Israel/IDF, pro-Palestine/Hamas, it doesn't matter here: this is a step forward in what we might term the "weaponization of social media" — the use of Twitter and similar platforms as a parallel battlefield, trying not just to direct the global narrative but to shape the outcome of the fight, as well.
And then there's the Iron Dome defense shield, what has become a veritable rock star in Israel on account of its ability to knock down incoming rockets. The system, which automatically calculates the trajectory of incoming projectiles, launches rockets in order to knock them down before reaching a populated area.
It comes as no surprise that Israel has implemented the system, both because of the ongoing threat of rocket attacks from Gaza and elsewhere, and because it has been an early adopter of advanced technologies.
Indeed, as Patrick Lin told io9, Israel has long been a leader in technology and was the country who gave the U.S. one of its first modern drones — another tool that is being used in the conflict.
"Technologies certainly are changing both war and broader society — though automated defenses such as the Iron Dome really aren't that new," he told us. "In the U.S., we've had fully automated military systems for decades, such as the Phalanx CIWS and Aegis Combat System."
What's new, says Lin, is that only recently have we started to worry about ethical, legal, and policy implications of these technologies, what can only be intensified as weapons become truly autonomous.
Lin, who is the the Director of Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, is worried that commentators are missing the bigger picture.
"New war technologies will proliferate as history shows they always do," he says, "So whatever advantage one side has now will be erased later as adversaries also obtain the same weapons, and this seems to be a silly, unproductive arms race."
Moreover, argues Lin, as these seemingly fantastic technologies get integrated into society and war making, they also make our infrastructure more fragile and vulnerable.
"Think about how devastating a simple cyberattack can be to military, financial, and other systems," he says, "or how disruptive a loss of Internet access or electrical power would be to your work day or society at large."
That being said, he concedes that the Iron Dome is an effective defense — though very expensive. He notes that each Israeli interceptor missile costs about $60,000, compared to the $800 rockets fired by Hamas.
As Lin notes, a quick calculation reveals that, at some point, the Iron Dome will be an unsustainable solution — never mind any technical vulnerabilities with the system itself.
"Worse, it is a technology solution to what is a political or human problem: it is a poor substitute for true diplomacy, which is more enduring and less expensive path," he says.
At best, the Iron Dome is a quick-fix that might very well make the problem worse, particularly if it encourages war instead of negotiations.
Like Cascio, Lin is concerned that these new technologies, whether they be drones, Iron Domes, or social media channels, are preventing both Israel and Hamas from getting to the root of the problem.
If anything, they're making an awful situation even worse.
Images: IDF/Flicker, USA Today.