The killing of foreign aid workers in Gaza has piled further pressure on Israel over its conduct of the war against Hamas, renewing scrutiny of how the Israeli army selects its targets in an ongoing military campaign that has devastated most of the Gaza Strip and killed or maimed tens of thousands of its inhabitants.   

Israeli officials have promised a thorough investigation after seven staff of the US-based charity World Central Kitchen (WCK) were killed in an air strike in central Gaza on Monday – an attack UN chief Antonio Guterres described as “unconscionable” and “an inevitable result of the way the war is being conducted”.   

The WCK workers, six of them foreign nationals, had been travelling in two armoured cars bearing the charity’s logo, and a third “soft-skinned” vehicle, along a route preapproved and coordinated with the Israeli army.  Defence sources told Haaretz that the convoy was hit three times by missiles fired from a drone because of erroneous suspicions that a terrorist was on board.  

In a video message on Wednesday, the top commander of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), chief of general staff Herzi Halevi, called the incident a “grave mistake”. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had earlier voiced regret for “a tragic case of our forces unintentionally hitting innocent people” in Gaza.  

“It happens in war,” Netanyahu added as he left hospital after undergoing hernia surgery. “We will do everything so that this thing does not happen again.”   

International reactions were swift and damning, with US President Joe Biden saying he was “outraged and heartbroken” and accusing Israel of not doing enough to protect “aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians”. Biden called for a “swift” investigation to bring accountability to what he said was not a “stand-alone incident”.


Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of World Central Kitchen after it was hit by an Israeli air strike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on April 2, 2024. © Ismael Abu Dayyah, AP

Monday’s air strike is hardly the first time aid workers have been killed as they strive to alleviate the suffering of Gazans left on the brink of starvation by Israel’s military campaign.    

“Six months of Israeli bombing has turned Gaza into the world’s most dangerous place to deliver aid,” the UK-based charity Islamic Relief said in a statement on Tuesday, condemning the air strike that killed the WCK workers. “More than 200 aid workers, mostly Palestinians, have been killed – the deadliest ever crisis for humanitarian workers,” the charity added.    

Similar statements have been made about the record number of UN staff, health workers and journalists killed in the devastating war, which health officials in the Hamas-run enclave say has claimed almost 33,000 lives – most of them civilians – in almost six months of fighting.   

The widespread loss of civilian life has prompted growing scrutiny of the targeting processes used by the IDF, including from Israel’s closest allies, said Philip Ingram, a former senior UK military intelligence officer.   

“There is a growing sense that the criteria Israel uses when it comes to its targeting is not what most countries would find acceptable,” Ingram explained. “Israel has got a very robust and mature targeting process. But whenever incidents like this happen, that process is massively called into question.”   

‘Posthumous’ terrorists   

The unprecedented bloodletting witnessed in Gaza over the past six months followed the unprecedented October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, which triggered the latest war.   

Israeli officials say around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the gruesome attacks on Israeli villages and a rave party near Gaza, the deadliest-ever attacks on Israeli soil. Palestinian militants also seized around 250 hostages, about half of whom are believed to remain in Gaza, although some are presumed dead.   

In response, Israel vowed to “eliminate” Hamas, not just defeat it – a goal critics say has put the Israeli military on a collision course with international law.      

By October 9, just two days after the Hamas-led massacre, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said “thousands of tonnes of munitions” had already been dropped on the tiny Strip, adding that “while balancing accuracy with the scope of damage, right now we’re focused on what causes maximum damage”.      

Six months on, with much of Gaza obliterated, the IDF claims to have killed some 13,000 “terrorists”. That figure is more than the number of adult male fatalities counted by Hamas health officials, who have consistently stated that women and children account for more than two-thirds of the overall victims.   

While tolls given by officials in the Hamas-run enclave are regularly disputed, so are some of the body counts coming from the Israeli side. In interviews with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, several reserve and standing army commanders have cast doubt on the claim that the IDF tally included only terrorists.     

“In practice, a terrorist is anyone the IDF has killed in the areas in which its forces operate,” said one reserve officer who served in Gaza, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s quite possible that Palestinians who never held a gun in their lives were elevated to the rank of ‘terrorist’ posthumously, at least by the IDF,” the newspaper added.   

Read moreIsrael’s ‘refuseniks’: ‘I will never justify what Israel is doing in Gaza’

In January, journalism groups and relatives of slain Al Jazeera reporter Hamza Dahdouh accused Israeli officials of fabricating terrorism allegations after he was killed by an Israeli strike on his car, along with freelance reporter Mustafa Thuraya.   

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an American nonprofit that monitors press freedoms internationally, said the IDF had provided three different accounts of why Dahdouh was targeted, eventually claiming he was a member of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad – a claim refuted by his family and colleagues.   

Shifting notions of proportionality   

Dahdouh’s father, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael Dahdouh, had already lost his wife, daughter, another son and a grandson when their home was destroyed by an Israeli strike in October.   

Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh attends the funeral of his wife and children after they were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on October 26, 2023.
Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Dahdouh attends the funeral of his wife and children after they were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on October 26, 2023. © Al Jazeera via Reuters

A daily occurrence in Gaza, such tragic incidents reflect a use of force that even Israel’s closest allies have come to regard as disproportionate, said Ingram, the former intelligence officer.    

“When it comes to targeting there are two main criteria: whether there is a military necessity in attacking the target, and whether the means you employ to that end are proportionate,” he said. “If the aim is to eradicate Hamas, then anything that you believe is Hamas becomes a necessary target.”    

“As for the proportionality that the Israeli government is willing to accept, it is not a level that sits comfortably with many Western nations,” Ingram added.     

Testimonies gathered jointly by the Israeli-Palestinian publication +972 Magazine and the Hebrew-language outlet Local Call suggest many Israeli officers are also uncomfortable with the way the IDF has waged its latest campaign in Gaza. Their accounts question both the range of targets selected and the scale of devastation inflicted.   

One official, who worked on targeting decisions in previous Gaza operations, said the IDF had not previously targeted the homes of junior Hamas members for bombings, but that the houses of suspected Hamas operatives were now being targeted regardless of rank.   

“That is a lot of houses,” the official told +972 and Local Call. “Hamas members who don’t really mean anything live in homes across Gaza. So they mark the home and bomb the house and kill everyone there.”   

In another incident, which they did not specify, sources said 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 [accepted] 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 military source.   

“Nothing happens by accident,” added another military 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.”   

The ‘Gospel’    

Experts say Israel’s ability to track down suspected Hamas militants, and estimate the collateral damage from its strikes, is aided by unprecedented use of artificial intelligence in generating targets at a much faster rate than was previously possible.   

The IDF first advertised its use of AI-powered targeting after an 11-day conflict in Gaza in May 2021 that commanders described as the world’s “first AI war”. The military chief during that conflict, Aviv Kohavi, told Israeli media ahead of the October 7 attacks that AI systems had enabled the IDF to identify “100 new targets every day” whereas human analysts could previously produce only “50 targets in a year”.  

Cette photo diffusée par l'armée israélienne le 29 janvier 2024 montre des soldats israéliens opérant à Khan Younès, dans le sud de la bande de Gaza.
IDF soldiers operating in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, in January 2024. © Israel Defense Forces via AFP

In early November, barely a month into the latest war, a blog entry on the Israeli military’s website said its AI-enhanced “targeting directorate” had identified more than 12,000 targets in just 27 days. An unnamed Israeli official was quoted as saying the AI system, called Habsora (The Gospel), produced targets “for precise attacks on infrastructure associated with Hamas, inflicting great damage on the enemy and minimal harm to those not involved”.   

But the claim of “minimal” collateral damage has been challenged by the accounts of IDF operatives and defence officials cited by +972 and Local Call, one of whom argued that  Gospel had allowed the army to run a “mass assassination factory” in which the “emphasis is on quantity and not on quality”.  

“We prepare the targets automatically and work according to a checklist,” a separate source who previously worked in the target division told the Israeli publications. “It really is like a factory. We work quickly and there is no time to delve deep into the target. The view is that we are judged according to how many targets we manage to generate.”    

AI scientists have also voiced deep misgivings about the use of complex data-crunching technologies to artificially generate hit lists. The shockingly high civilian casualty rate in Gaza suggests the “factory” is either faulty or operating under questionable guidelines, said Toby Walsh, chief scientist at the University of New South Wales AI Institute in Australia.   

“Either the AI is not as good as the Israelis claim, or it is, and they don’t really care about the collateral damage,” he said. “Either way, it’s a deeply unpleasant suggestion.”   

Walsh highlighted the value of AI in processing the vast amounts of information collected by Israeli intelligence, which is “more than humans can look at”. The question, he added, “is how much humans are left in the loop when it comes to decision-making”.   

He also pointed to the “unexpected” ways in which artificial intelligence can behave in an “unstable environment” such as Gaza, adding: “If I ask my scientist friends who build robots what is the least favourable environment to operate in, they would probably say it’s a battlefield – a place you have little control over, in which adversaries are actively trying to deceive you.”   

Overreliance on technology   

The Gospel is one of several AI programmes used by Israeli military intelligence, said Tal Mimran, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has worked with the Israeli military during previous campaigns, offering legal advice on air strikes as part of a panel of experts sitting in a target room.    

“Even when a target is suggested by AI systems, it always goes through the human factor,” he said. “And that human factor typically includes the perspectives of lawyers, engineers, intelligence officers and operational officers.”   

Mimran said the purpose of AI systems is to ensure that targets remain “high quality” throughout a conflict, whereas targets sourced by human intelligence alone would normally run out in a few weeks, leading to a reduction in both their number and their operational value – and increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.   

“It is a lot of work to create a pool of military targets,” he explained. “A team of 20 intelligence officers will need about 300 days to produce some 200 targets, while AI can produce the same number in seven to 10 days. So this is really a game-changer for the military.”   

If used appropriately, systems such as Gospel should help reduce casualty numbers by providing a more accurate picture of the civilian presence in or around targets, Mimran said, provided certain conditions are met.   

“We have a bias that is called over-reliance on technology, which is exacerbated in the context of a target room, where it is hard to be the one who goes against the stream and halts an operation alone,” he explained. “That’s why it is critical to ensure these systems are programmed to meet a very high threshold of intelligence and other relevant considerations, and that the humans who have the last say receive the appropriate legal and ethical training.”   

Even then, relying on complex systems and algorithms to make life-and-death decisions in a fast-changing war zone is deeply problematic, said Walsh, pointing to the “unexpected” ways in which artificial intelligence can behave in “unstable environments” such as Gaza. 

He added: “If I ask my scientist friends who build robots what is the least favourable environment to operate in, they would probably say it’s a battlefield – a place you have little control over, in which adversaries are actively trying to deceive you.”   

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Khan Younis, on December 11, 2023.
Palestinians mourn relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, outside a morgue in Khan Younis, on December 11, 2023. © Mohammed Dahman, AP

Mimran described the Gaza war as an “extreme case of urban asymmetric conflict”, in which the IDF’s opponent is highly integrated in the local population, making it difficult for Israeli officers to distinguish between enemy combatants and ordinary civilians.

The Israeli army has repeatedly accused Hamas of using the population of Gaza as human shields, a practice condemned by the European Union and others. In return, critics of Israel’s campaign, including the UN special rapporteur on rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, have accused it of using the human-shield accusation to justify high civilian casualty rates and present the extensive collateral damage as both inevitable and lawful.

Acknowledging differences in the Israeli army’s acceptance of collateral damage compared to past conflicts, Mimran cited the trauma of Hamas attacks six months ago as shaping the IDF’s current mindset.    

“It isn’t so much the target that has altered the threshold as the desire to keep IDF soldiers out of harm’s way,” he said. “If there is a greater authority to deploy force now, in situations that would have been considered less grave in the past, it is because Israel feels differently about the idea of losing more soldiers after October 7.”    

But the crimes committed by Hamas do not clear Israel of its responsibility to investigate incidents in which the IDF is at fault, Mimran cautioned, citing the air strike that killed the CWK aid workers on Monday, along with other mass casualty events.   

“When a tragedy happens, a violation of international law happens, Israel has an obligation to investigate and prosecute if necessary,” he said. “Such instances are accumulating, and Israel will need to respond.”   

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