In two areas of the occupied West Bank, Israel has placed robotic weapons that can fire tear gas, stun grenades and sponge tipped bullets to the Palestinian protesters.
The weapons, located in the Al-Aroub refugee camp and the city of Hebron, use artificial intelligence to track targets. Israel says the technology saves lives, both Israeli and Palestinian. But critics see moral or ethical problems with such weapons systems.
The robotic weapons systems come at a time of heightened tensions in the occupied West Bank. Unrest has escalated there during what has been the deadliest year since 2006.
The victory of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance, which includes a party with close ties to the settler movement, has raised concerns of more violence.
One of the weapons systems is located in a watchtower overlooking the Al-Aroub refugee camp in the southern West Bank. Witnesses say that when young Palestinian protesters take to the streets throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers, the weapons fire tear gas or sponge-tipped bullets at them.
About a month ago, the military also placed the robots in the nearby city of Hebron, where soldiers often clash with Palestinians who throw stones at them. The army declined to comment on its plans to implement the system in other parts of the West Bank.
Palestinian activist Issa Amro said Hebron residents fear the new weapon could be misused or hacked. He added that people also don’t like what they say is a weapons test on civilians.
“We are not a training and simulation for Israeli companies,” he said. “This is something new that must be stopped.”
There are no soldiers next to the machines. Instead, the weapons are operated by remote control. At the touch of a button, soldiers inside a watchtower can fire at selected targets.
The military says the system is in testing and fires only “non-lethal” weapons used for crowd control, such as sponge-tipped bullets and tear gas.
Robotic weapons are becoming more common all over the world. The military uses drones to carry out deadly attacks in places like the Ukraine and Ethiopia. Remote-controlled weapons like the Israeli system in the West Bank have been used by the United States in Iraq, by South Korea along the border with North Korea and by Syrian rebel groups.
Israel, known for its advanced military technologies, is among the world’s leading producers of drones capable of launching precision-guided missiles. It has built a fence along its border with the Gaza Strip equipped with radar and underground and underwater sensors. On the surface, he uses a robotic vehicle, equipped with cameras and machine guns, to patrol the borders.
“Israel is using technology as a means to control the civilian population,” said Dror Sadot, a spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. She said even supposedly non-lethal weapons like sponge bullets can cause extreme pain and even be deadly.
The system in Al-Aroub was built by Smart Shooter, a company that makes “fire control systems” that it says “increase the accuracy, lethality and situational awareness of small arms.” The company has agreements with many militaries around the world, including the US Army.
Speaking at the company’s headquarters in Kibbutz Yagur in northern Israel, Chief Executive Michal Mor said the weapon requires human targeting and military equipment.
“They always have a man…making the decision regarding the legitimate goal,” he said.
She said the system reduces injuries and deaths by distancing soldiers from the violence and making shooting more accurate.
But Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, said Israel is in a “slide towards the digital dehumanization of weapons systems”. By using such technologies, Shakir said Israel is creating “a tinderbox for human rights abuse.” A powder keg is a situation that is likely to become dangerous or violent.
In Al-Aroub, residents say the machines fire without warning.
“He is very fast, even faster than the soldiers,” said Kamel Abu Hishesh, a 19-year-old student. He described the almost nocturnal clashes in which the soldiers enter the camp as the automated gun fires tear gas.
Paul Scharre of the Center for a New American Security is a former US Army shooting expert. He said that without emotion and with better aim, automated systems can possibly reduce violence.
But he said the absence of international rules for “killer robots” is a problem. Otherwise, he said, it’s only a matter of time before these weapons systems are equipped to use deadly force.
I’m John Russell.
And I’m Ashley Thompson.
Sam McNeil reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
words in this story
sponge tipped bullet – north. a kind of projectile that limits the breaking or penetration of the skin
hack – v. computers : to secretly gain access to files on a computer or network to obtain information, cause damage, etc.
precision — north the quality of being precise: accuracy or accuracy
legitimate – adj. permitted according to rules or laws; real, accepted or official
slide – n a movement to a lower or worse state or condition
automated – adj. : to run or operate (something, like a factory or a system) by using machines, computers, etc., instead of people