Frontex hires notorious Israeli drones for border security trials

In the course of this year Frontex, the EU border guard agency, will test two military UAVs (drones) for maritime border surveillance in the Mediterranean Sea: the Heron from Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and the Falco from Italian arms giant Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica). Heron drones have a notorious history of use against the Palestinians, adding more objections to their already controversial use for border security. The increasing EU cooperation with Israel on migration is a general point of concern.
In January the contract award notice for the drone trials was published. It stipulates that IAI gets paid €4.75 million for 600 hours of trial flights, winning the contract over two competitors from EU countries. Leonardo gets €1.70 million for 300 hours of trial flights, beating one other company in landing the contract.
The Heron was already demonstrated to Frontex in early 2012, when several arms manufacturers showcased their drones for border security in Greece. At the time Frontex was very keen on the use of drones, but in the following years it proved to be difficult to actually operate them, due to varying aerospace regulations in the EU. In 2013 a planned trial with drones from Austrian firm Scotty Group was cancelled because the company failed to obtain a flight licence from the Greek government.
The Heron is in use by militaries all over the world, including the United States, Turkey, Morocco and India. Its main user, however, is Israel itself. The Israeli Air Force recently announced its fleet of Heron UAVs will be expanded, with a new version of the drone which features new undisclosed capabilities. Israel used the Heron drones, armed with Spike missiles, in the war in Gaza in 2009. According to Human Rights Watch, the use of drones “led to the loss of many civilian lives”, because of “Israel’s targeting choices”.
IAI cooperated with European arms company Airbus on the Harfang UAV, a variant of the Heron. Airbus recommended the Harfang for border surveillance It also promoted the drone as being based on the ‘combat proven’ Heron. Criticised for promoting a drone, ‘tested’ by Israel in Gaza, for tracking refugees, Airbus stated that what “technology partners choose to do with their own developments in their own countries, […] is their own business.”
Israeli military and security companies regularly promote their equipment as ‘combat proven‘ or ‘battle tested’, meaning it has been used for for example the occupation of the West Bank or the blockade of Gaza. On the global border security market Israeli companies are popular because of their involvement in building and equiping the separation wall on the West Bank.
Large arms company Elbit relied on this experience to land several contracts for 
border security on the US-Mexican border.  This includes a $145 million dollar contract in 2014 to build surveillance towers on the border between Arizona and Mexico. And in 2017 Elbit and Elta, a subsidiary of IAI, were contracted for work on President Trump’s infamous project to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
In 2015 Elta was in contact with several European governments on its ‘Virtual Border Patrol’-system, based on social media monitoring and intercepting mobile phone communications. Amnon Sofrin, homeland security projects manager of Elta and former head of the Intelligence Branch of the Mossad said that the balance between individual rights and national security needs to be shifted to the latter.
Magal Security Systems, which build a smart border fence, with camera’s, detectors and sensors, around the Gaza Strip, uses this as a showcase to land border security contracts in Europe. Saar Koush, CEO of the company, said: “Anybody can give you a very nice Powerpoint, but few can show you such a complex project as Gaza that is constantly battle-tested.” Magal has already done border security projects in Spain, on the border between Bulgaria and Serbia and on the border between Slovakia and Ukraine.
The EU is increasingly turning its eye to Israel and Israeli companies for border security. In its Annual Activity Report 2016 Frontex wrote that it made first steps in its relation with Israel, focused on strategic cooperation. In 2014 Frontex selected Israeli firm BTec Electronic Security Systems to participate in its April 2014 workshop on ‘Border Surveillance Sensors and Platforms’, based on an application mail in which BTec boasted that its “technologies, solutions and products are installed on [the] Israeli-Palestinian border”.
Israel is the only non-European full partner country for EU research funding under its 7-year-Framework Programmes. IAI participated in three EU-funded border security research projects: OPARUS, AEROCEPTOR and TALOS. The last one was aimed at developing specially adapted combat robots which “will undertake the proper measures to stop the illegal action almost autonomously with supervision of border guard officers”.
In 2015 Switzerland decided to buy six unarmed surveillance Hermes 900 drones from Elbit, at a cost of approximately €230 million. The Hermes was selected over the Heron UAV “because it delivered the better overall result in all assessed criteria”.
In 2017 it was revealed that, before this decision was made, Swiss officials monitored tests with the Hermes drones at an airfield in the Golan Heights on three separate occasions. This went against official Swiss policy, which does not recognize the Golan Heights, an area taken from Syria after the 1967 war, as being part of Israel. Meanwhile the deal itself was criticized because the Hermes 900 was first used by Israel in the 2014 war in Gaza.
Meanwhile, prime minister Netanyahu of Israel, urges Europe to take an even tougher stance against refugees than it already does. During a meeting with the political leaders of Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland, the so-called Visegrad Group, in July 2017 he advised them to close their borders for refugees from Africa and the Arab world. According to Netanyahu Israel plays an important role in stopping migration to Europe and the EU should reward this by showing more support to Israel.
Ironically, the UNHCR recently noted that new Israeli policies to deport refugees from the dictatorships Sudan and Eritrea will lead to a situation where many of them are forced to flee again, now often trying to reach Europe, again facing many dangers, including passing through or getting stuck in the hell of Libya.
Using the Palestinan Territories as a testing ground, Israel has become a leading global producer and exporter of ‘combat tested’ drones. The EU shouldn’t support this cynical selling strategy by awarding contracts to Israeli military companies as Frontex recently did. Moreover, the increasing cooperation with Israel and the use of military drones for border surveillance are signs of the EU’s continuing boosting and militarisation of border security, which has devastating consequences for refugees.
[MA, 1 March 2018]

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