GAZA CITY — The buzz began near midnight on a cool evening last month, a dull distant purr that within moments swelled into the rattling sound of an outboard motor common on the fishing boats working just offshore.
At a busy downtown traffic circle not far from the dormant port, a pickup truck full of police pulled up abruptly. The half-dozen men spilled into the streets.
“Inside, inside,” the officers, all of them bearded in the style favored by the Hamas movement that runs Gaza, urged passersby. Then, pointing to the sky, one muttered, “Zenana, zenana.”
The word is the Arabic term that Gazans have given to Israel’s drone aircraft, a ubiquitous and frightening feature of daily life in this crowded strip of land along the sea. Roughly translated, zenana means buzz. But in neighboring Egypt, a source of Gaza custom and culture, the term is slang used to describe a relentlessly nagging wife.
The light-hearted description belies the drones’ jarring effect on life in Gaza, where 1.6 million Palestinians live in cramped refugee camps, breeze-block houses and high-rise apartments built among olive orchards, palm groves and rolling dunes.
The landscape provides cover for Palestinian militants, who in recent years have fired thousands of rockets — some improvised, some military-grade — into Israel’s besieged southern towns and cities. In the call-and-response conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the missile fire has repeatedly provoked Israel to invade, its tanks and troops ebbing and flowing from the strip’s broken streets.
But the most enduring reminder of Israel’s unblinking vigilance and its unfettered power to strike at a moment’s notice is the buzz of circling drones — a soundtrack also provided by American drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas and, increasingly, parts of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
The U.S. drone war is largely invisible, carried out in remote regions sometimes beyond the boundaries of America’s battlefields. U.S. officials are reticent to discuss the program, which President Obama has relied on more than his predecessor to kill enemies. Israel’s close-quarters conflict with Palestinians in the relatively accessible Gaza Strip offers a vivid view of the remote-controlled combat, and of the lives of those affected by these tools of modern war.
Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005, ending a nearly 40-year presence in a territory its forces occupied in the 1967 Middle East War. In 2006 Hamas gunmen captured the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit just outside Gaza’s fortified boundary, and since then, Israel has stepped up military operations and aerial surveillance in the strip.
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says 825 people have been killed by drones in Gaza since the capture of Shalit, who was released in October. Most of those killed, according to the organization, have been civilians mistakenly targeted or caught in the deadly shrapnel shower of a drone strike. By comparison, the New America Foundation says U.S. drones have killed at least 1,807 militants and civilians in Pakistan since 2006.
The Israeli military says it works hard to distinguish between militants and civilians, but that the task is made harder because many of those who fire rockets from Gaza operate amid the fields and houses of residential neighborhoods.
Since 2006, Palestinian rocket fire has killed 16 Israelis, the vast majority of them civilians, including 56-year-old Moshe Ami, who died in a late October rocket strike on the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon. As the Palestinian rocket arsenal improves, more Israeli cities, from the border town of Sderot to the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, are sharing Gazans’ everyday fear of attack from the sky.
Across northern Gaza, the response to the arrival of drones overhead is swift and, for some, almost involuntary. Their near-constant presence shapes life beneath them in a thousand ways — from how Islamist militants communicate to the color of exercise clothes chosen for a morning jog to the quality of satellite-television reception.
When the buzz begins, an unemployed tailor in the hilltop village of Ezret Abed Rabbo walks to his window and opens it — one, then another, until the glass in all of them is safe from what he expects to be an imminent blast. The most recent rocked the area in late October when Israel responded with drones and F-16s to the attack on Ashkelon, killing nine Palestinian militants.
“For us, drones mean death,” said Hamdi Shaqqura, a deputy director of the human rights center. “When you hear drones, you hear death.”
Cradle of the drone
About 30 miles north of Gaza, on the edges of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, lies the cradle of the modern drone, a series of cavernous hangars and modest office buildings.