The Trouble with Gaza

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02/12/2008
More relevant news on the cover of the paper this morning: Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak declared an intention of wiping out Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which, as you might imagine, involves invading the Gaza Strip with significant forces, going house to house, and arresting or killing all of the Hamas officials and fighters. So, where did we go today? To Gaza. Well, not really, but, as you saw in the video, we were within five kilometers of the border and we could see the fence that surrounds the West Bank as we got a presentation from Aeronautics Defense Systems’ VP of business development Shai Palti, who develops unmanned aerial vehicles for the purposes of surveillance. Talk about RMR, what Aeronautics does is create the technology, build the UAVs, then sell surveillance to the military as a service—they call it, jokingly, “pay per view.” Right now, most sales are going to various governments all over the world, including the Israeli military, of course, with whom ADS does 30 percent of its business, but it also sold equipment to St. Petersburg for the 2006 G8 summit, and does work with the U.S. military, Chad, and a number of other countries. It’s also looking for a private security play, however. How about for major sporting events, leasing the surveillance to the local police department who might be concerned about a post-championship riot? Or lease the surveillance to companies with off-shore oil rigs that are unmanned. They get an alert, you fly out there post-haste to see what’s wrong. Or for a remote power station. Why fix cameras there—just lease the surveillance, which would never need servicing or break or have power cut to them. After Palti’s presentation, we went out into the field and got a demonstration. Simply put, these things are cool as hell. First, there is the Orbiter, which can be carried around in two backpacks, put together (without any tools) in less than five minutes, and then launched via a 10-pound high-tech sling shot that uses technology no more advanced than rubber bands. You don’t even really need to fly it. It flies itself. You click on a position on the Microsoft-Windows screen, select circle, and the little plane holds position. Or you click return, and the plane judges the winds, selects a flight plan, and comes back to you, parachuting safely down to earth. All you control is the “payload,” which is a gimble-mounted day-night camera that zooms to 8 cm detail from 1,500 feet up in the air, and can fly as high as 12,000 feet. You can PTZ the camera all over the place, fix the cameras on a certain position, and keep the whole thing in the air for about three hours, the life of the battery. Second is the balloon, which you raise 300 feet up into the air for a temporary eye in the sky that can be put up or taken down in a matter of minutes and uses the exact same payload as the Orbiter. In fact, you can just buy a package of one Orbiter, one balloon, and one payload, and use the two surveillance vehicles as appropriate. And, yes, you can shoot at the balloon and the plane, but the plane is a thousand feet up, almost soundless, and tiny, and the balloon isn’t inflated to a very tight pressure, so if you put a hole in it, it’s just going to leak out slowly, and Palti said you can just bring it down, patch it up with duck tape, and put it back up on the sky. So, obviously, the Israeli military likes using these things to recon what’s going on in Gaza, where, unlike the West Bank, the Israelis do not keep a presence. Amotz noted on the bus ride down, however, that the Israelis still supply all the power and water to Gaza free of charge. For this, Hamas rewards them with a steady stream of Qassad missiles, rudimentary weapons full of anything from nails to aluminum shards, which rain down particularly on Sderot, the southernmost city of consequence in Israel. Roughly 400 rockets were launched in 2007. This week, the Sderotans have been demonstrating in Jerusalem, saying the government is not protecting them. Hence, Barak’s declaration. It is entirely possible that the Isaeli army will enter Gaza while we’re here this week. The fighter jets that flew frequently overhead were not comforting. All of this made Dr. Alan Marcus very nervous. A former Bostonite who moved here 32 years ago (and still retains both an accent and a love of the Red Sox), he’s the head of the planning department for Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 which is at the edge of the range for Hamas’ rockets. He’s so far suffered only eight missile strikes, none of which has injured anyone or caused any significant damage. However, when the Israelis invade Gaza, what happened last year in Lebanon will likely happen here: they’ll unload everything they’ve got, and it’s unclear exactly what they’ve got. Marcus is planning for this week, or maybe next week, to have to send people to shelters to live for as much as a month, until the fighting is contained or the missiles have been exhausted. For communication, they mostly rely on cell phones, and if the cell phones go down he has seven satellite phones to distribute (funded by the city of Baltimore, actually, which is a sister city to Askelon). There’s no fancy municipal wireless system, and the mass notification system consists largely of airhorns and broadcast over city and state radio stations. One cop on our tour asked if they had all of the shelters equipped with hand-crank radios. No. They tell people to use transistor radios and make sure they have lots of batteries. Many of these people will be in private shelters. Since the 1950s, all apartment buildings have had to leave their basements as shelters, and in the 1980s they put in a building code that makes at least one room in the house be of solid concrete, capable of withstanding just about any small rocket fire. Marcus does have some high-tech tools at his disposal, however. Using a GIS system, he’s mapped out the entire city and identified all of the buildings and how many people are likely to be in any of them at any time of day. He can show you a map of the concentrations of elderly, or very young, people who would need more attention in the time of an attack. He can dial down to the site of an attack and tell you how many elderly people, or disabled people, etc., would likely be in every nearby building. This helps him distribute emergency personnel. Again, however, the makeup of Israel’s population makes it very different during a crisis than the United States. Virtually everyone with a military background, and that’s most people who are not immigrants, can be issued orders directly and they can immediately help in the response, organizing and herding those who cannot help themselves. The idea of a civilian defense corps has been virtually abandoned in the United States. Do our community leaders know how to help in the time of a natural disaster or attack? Maybe they do. Maybe the Department of Homeland Security has reached out to someone in West Gray (my little piece of my hometown of Gray) and I just don’t know it. But it doesn’t seem likely. I’m sure the chief of our Fire Department knows what to do (we don’t have a police department), right?