Interview: The realities of Israel’s algorithmic warfare

Realities of Algorithmic Warfare researcher Jessica Dorsey recently appeared on Al Jazeera‘s Inside Story to discuss the critical role of AI in Israel’s military strategies in Gaza.

Since Hamas’ October 7 attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently expressed his intention to “destroy Hamas”. After two months of shelling and air strikes, Israel’s operation has devastated much of Gaza. Recent reports now indicate that the Israeli military is deploying new AI technology to broaden its targeting scope. 

The IDF’s targeting system, fueled by extensive data input, employs an AI known as “Habsora” – a Hebrew term translating to “The Gospel”. This AI generates potential targets for Israeli air strikes, which are then vetted by intelligence personnel. This technology significantly increases the quantity of identified targets. The IDF’s former Chief of Staff, Aviv Kohavi, explained that previously, the forces could identify 50 potential targets a year. With the latest advancements, this has increased to at least 100 targets a day.

According to Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport, each target profile that Habsora generates includes an estimation of the civilian casualties that would be caused if the target were to be engaged. This implies that Israeli commanders are informed of the civilian harm that will be caused before they order their personnel to press the button. Instead of using this information to limit casualties, however, Israel has recently modified its rules of engagement, allowing for greater numbers of civilian casualties in its efforts to reach its military goals. As a direct result, over 18,000 Gazan civilians have thus far lost their lives.

In her contribution to Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Jessica Dorsey offered valuable insights into the implications of Israel’s ongoing AI operations. Dorsey, an expert in international humanitarian and human rights law, touched upon multiple significant concerns.

Precision, proportionality, and non-military targets

First is the issue of the precision with which the IDF claims to operate. Dorsey recalls the latest footage showing entire Gaza city blocks flattened and argues that narratives of precision are far from appropriate. The realities on the ground suggest that Israeli activities are rather “calculated” than precise or proportional. +972 Magazine, for example, has reported that Israel has deliberately been bombing so-called “power targets” that are of a non-military nature. Dorsey notes that this tactic is likely used “to create a shock for the civilian population”, which she stresses is a highly concerning development that is “directly contrary to international law”.

Automation bias and meaningful human control

Dorsey furthermore pointed out the alarming speed at which the IDF’s AI-driven targeting system now operates. Current reporting, she notes, shows multiple red flags implying the occurrence of ‘automation bias’. “AI and machine learning develop particular targets or make decisions in a much faster way than humans can. They do this based on algorithms and computer science. Because of the speed at which this happens, humans have a tendency to believe that what the machine generates is in fact the way to go; that what the system generates is to be trusted.” Dorsey emphasized that the resulting over-reliance on AI in military decision-making causes one to doubt how meaningful the “meaningful human control” really is, despite promises by those implementing the advanced technology to maintain human oversight.

International response

Reflecting on his guests’ contributions, Inside Story presenter Jonah Hull remarked that there seems to be little that the international community can do about these concerning developments. Dorsey responded that this may indeed seem to be the case for the short term. However, there are steps taken that Dorsey hopes will have an impact in the long term. “At the moment, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened up investigations into both sides of the atrocities. Certainly, if more comes out about the loosening of constraints, this can turn the tide regarding support from allies. To hear about the United States pushing back on the lack of precision in Israeli targeting is quite a telling step. But I share the sentiment. I wish that something could be done in a much more acute way because people are suffering and civilians are dying as we speak. However, although it might look like nothing is being done, I assure you that that is not the case”.

Watch the full interview here.