- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

PALMACHIM AIR BASE, Israel — With a view from 20,000 feet above the war in southern Lebanon, they can warn hunkered-down infantrymen of guerrillas around the corner poised for an ambush.

But the pilots of the Israeli Air Force’s 200th Squadron never leave the ground. Sitting in the darkness of a windowless shed on this seaside base just south of Tel Aviv, they fly unmanned aerial drones and watch a battery of video screens that teleport them to the battle front of southern Lebanese hamlets more than 100 miles away.

“These are the terrorists,” says Lt. E, a pilot whose name is restricted by military policy to a single initial.

He is reviewing a black-and-while film of a battle at Bint Jbeil last week, explaining that the three blips in a line on the screen are Hezbollah fighters on a stakeout.

More than in any previous Middle East war, Israel has relied on the real-time intelligence provided by the fleet of aerial drones to make its war effort more efficient and reduce casualties.

It highlights how Israel’s army relies on technology to get a leg up on a guerrilla force fighting from its home turf. And yet, high-tech hardware has so far failed to be decisive.

The pilots at Palmachim say there isn’t a ground battle in southern Lebanon that isn’t monitored from above by the unmanned drones.

At the same time, they are scouring the ravines and hamlets of southern Lebanon to find the launchers that are sending hundreds of Katyusha rockets over the border into Israeli cities.

The drone squadron also sits at the nexus of a prickly moral controversy over responsibility for the Lebanese civilian death toll climbing toward 1,000.

The pilots dispute charges of war crimes by human rights groups, saying the drones help differentiate between a legitimate Hezbollah target and innocent bystanders.

“Although we don’t push the trigger, we are the ones that say, ‘OK. This is a target,’” said Lt. G. “We don’t aim at innocent buildings. If it was bombed, something was there.”

But three weeks into the war, Israel’s high-tech weaponry hasn’t yielded the knockout blow initially hoped for. The initial campaign to eliminate Hezbollah’s military capability from the air by remote control has since been supplemented with old-fashioned ground troops.

Five Israeli brigades, or about 10,000 soldiers, continued to battle hundreds of Hezbollah guerrillas inside the Lebanese border yesterday.

“The idea was that causalities could be limited and that a major ground operation could be avoided. We don’t know the details yet, but it seems that it wasn’t nearly as successful as hoped,’ said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“When you have an asymmetric war, and when you have a terrorist group that uses human shields extensively, no technology is going to tell you that there are dozens of children in a basement of a building that is either used for or next to missile launchers.”

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