Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014

A confidential report by Israeli military police investigators seen by The Intercept explains how a tragic series of mistakes by air force, naval, and intelligence officers led to an airstrike in which four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were killed by missiles launched from an armed drone.

Testimony from the officers involved in the attack, which has been concealed from the public until now, confirms for the first time that the children — four cousins ages 10 and 11 — were pursued and killed by drone operators who somehow mistook them, in broad daylight, for Hamas militants.

The testimony raises new questions about whether the attack, which unfolded in front of dozens of journalists and triggered global outrage, was carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life and without proper authorization. After killing the first boy, the drone operators told investigators, they had sought clarification from their superiors as to how far along the beach, used by civilians, they could pursue the fleeing survivors. Less than a minute later, as the boys ran for their lives, the drone operators decided to launch a second missile, killing three more children, despite never getting an answer to their question.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer representing the families of the victims, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones to kill Palestinians poses “many questions concerning human judgment, ethics, and compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Remotely piloted bombers “alter the process of human decision-making,” Bishara said, and the use of the technology in the 2014 beach attack “expands the circle of people responsible for the actual killing of the Bakr children.”

Just hours before the attack, on the morning of July 16, 2014, the public relations unit of the Israel Defense Forces had been promoting the idea that the live video feeds provided by drones enabled its air force to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

The PR unit released operational footage, apparently taken from the screens of Israeli drone operators, which documented how three Israeli airstrikes had been called off that week because figures, identified as civilians, had appeared close to targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Those images were released one week into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in which Israel would eventually kill 1,391 civilians, including 526 children.

Later that same day, at about 3:30 p.m., an Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drone hovering over a beach in Gaza City transmitted images of eight figures clambering from the strand onto a jetty.

A small shipping container on the jetty had been destroyed by an Israeli missile the day before, based on intelligence indicating that it might have been used by Hamas naval commandos to store weapons. Some analysts have questioned that intelligence, however, since there were no secondary explosions after the structure was hit and journalists staying in nearby hotels reported that no militants had been seen around the jetty that week.

The Israeli military police report reviewed by The Intercept documents what happened next. After one of the figures on the jetty entered the container that had been destroyed the previous day, an Israeli air force commander at the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, ordered the operators of a second drone, which was armed, to fire a missile at the container.

As my colleagues Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke reported in 2016, although the Israeli government maintains an official stance of secrecy around its use of drones to carry out airstrikes, hacked Israeli surveillance images provided to The Intercept by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed an Israeli drone armed with missiles in 2010.

Speaking privately to a visiting American diplomat after Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza, Avichai Mandelblit, who was the country’s chief military prosecutor at the time and now serves as its attorney general, acknowledged that two missiles that injured civilians in a mosque had been fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a leaked State Department cable.

One reason that Israel might decline to acknowledge that its drones have been used to kill Palestinian children is that such information could complicate sales of its drones to foreign governments. In June, the state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $600 million deal to lease Heron drones to Germany’s defense ministry. That deal was initially delayed by concerns from German politicians that the drones, to be used for surveillance, could also be armed. The same state-owned company has also sold drones to Turkey, a strongly pro-Palestinian nation, which has nonetheless used the Israeli technology to bomb Kurds in Iraq.

The Israeli military police report on the 2014 strike seen by The Intercept offers the most direct evidence to date that Israel has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza. Testimony from the drone operators, commanders, and intelligence officers who took part in the attack confirms that they used an armed drone to fire the missile that slammed into the jetty, killing the person who had entered the container, and also to launch a second strike, which killed three of the survivors as they fled across the beach.

According to the testimony of one naval officer involved in the strikes, the mission was initially considered “a great success,” because the strike team believed, wrongly, that they had killed four Hamas militants preparing to launch an attack on Israeli forces.

Within minutes of the two strikes, however, a group of international journalists who had witnessed the attack from nearby hotels reported that the victims torn apart by the missiles were not adult militants but four small boys, cousins who were 10 and 11 years old. Another four boys from the same family survived the attack, but were left with shrapnel wounds and deep emotional scars.

Harrowing images of the children running desperately across the beach after the first missile had killed their cousin were quickly shared by a Palestinian photographer, an Al Jazeera reporter and a camera crew from French television.

A brutal image of the immediate aftermath captured by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, one of the journalists who witnessed the attack, made the killing of the four boys, all of them sons of Gaza fishermen from the Bakr family, reverberate worldwide.

The French TV correspondent Liseron Boudoul, whose report that day included distressing video of the boys running along the beach before the second strike, noted that she and other witnesses to the attack were unclear where, exactly, the missiles had come from — although initial speculation centered on Israeli naval vessels seen just offshore.

The secret testimony from the Israeli military personnel involved in the attack establishes for the first time that the drone operators treated the jetty as a free-fire zone on the mistaken assumption that it was off-limits to anyone but militants.

After images of the attack prompted widespread outrage, Israel’s army conducted a review of the mission and recommended that a military police investigation into possible criminal negligence be conducted. The testimonies collected by the military police from the strike team were included in a report presented to Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, 11 months after the boys were killed.

Efroni did not release the testimonies, but did make a summary of the report’s findings public on June 11, 2015, when he closed the investigation without filing any charges. Israel’s chief military prosecutor decided that no further criminal or disciplinary measures would be taken, since the investigators had concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

Efroni did not explain why that was impossible. Two days before the strike in question, Israel’s military PR unit had released another video clip in which drone operators could be heard deciding to halt strikes because they had identified figures in their live feeds as children.

Adalah, also known as the Haifa-based Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has spent the past three years fighting on behalf of the families of the boys — Ismail Bakr, 10; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11 — to have the decision not to prosecute the soldiers overturned by an Israeli court.

Much of that time has been spent waiting for Israel’s attorney general, Mandelblit, to simply reply to appeals filed by Adalah and two Gazan rights groups, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

In February, Adalah said in a statement that Israel’s own investigation “revealed that the Israeli military did not take any measures to ascertain whether the targets on the ground were civilians, let alone children, prior to intentionally directing the attacks against them.”

Bishara, one of the Adalah lawyers representing the boys’ families, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that the Israeli investigation of the killings, in which the military cleared itself of wrongdoing, was flawed in several ways. To start with, the testimonies were only collected by the military police four months after the incident, and only considered what could be seen of the beach through the drone cameras. No testimony was taken from the international journalists who witnessed the attack, and the accounts of Palestinian witnesses, including written affidavits from boys injured in the strikes, were discounted.

A Wall Street Journal video report filed on the day of the attack by Nick Casey, a correspondent staying in a hotel close to the jetty, cast doubt on the Israeli intelligence that designated the site a Hamas compound. Casey’s report, which featured images of the first young victim’s mangled body being taken from the jetty, explained that “no one knew why this place had been bombarded; there have been no Hamas attacks from here and no rockets that we’ve seen.”

When the Israeli authorities closed the case in 2015, Alexander Marquardt, a former ABC Jerusalem correspondent who had also witnessed the attack, disputed the finding that the jetty was sealed off from the beach, arguing that it was open to civilians.

According to the testimony seen by The Intercept, one of the officers involved in the missile strikes told investigators that when he saw one of the figures entering the destroyed container, he had checked with an intelligence officer to be sure that only militants could enter the compound before opening fire.

However, the chief intelligence naval officer, a woman identified only as “Colonel N.” in the report, testified that since the entrance to the area was unguarded on the day of the attack, it was not closed to civilians.

Although the copy of the report reviewed by The Intercept includes redactions, there is no indication as to why this apparent discrepancy between the two testimonies was ignored when the decision to close the investigation was made.

One of the officers also testified that although the site was surrounded by a fence when the intelligence estimate was made before Operation Protective Edge began, the fence could have been destroyed in the previous day’s attack, leaving the jetty open to the public.

One soldier told investigators that according to “dozens” of statements from Gaza fishermen, the local population was aware that the jetty was a Hamas compound. The source of this claim is unknown, however, and a lawyer who has worked on the Adalah appeal told The Intercept that there was no evidence to support it in the parts of the report the army was obliged to share with the victims’ families.

Everyone involved in the strike, including the air force officer who coordinated the attack from Palmachim air base, told investigators that even though they had a live video feed of the area during the attack, “we couldn’t tell they were children.”

The testimonies also reveal a crucial moment when the attack could have been halted, but was not. After the first missile was fired at the shack, killing one of the boys, and the other children ran out to the beach, the attack team requested clarification about how far onto the beach they were permitted to fire.

The attack team radioed a superior officer, asking where, exactly, the area designated a closed military zone ended. They wanted to know if there was a point at which they could no longer shoot at the fleeing figures, as they approached an area of beach umbrellas and tents used by civilians.

When they received no response to that query, the attack team fired a second missile at the fleeing children, about 30 seconds after the first strike, which killed three of the boys and wounded at least one more of their cousins.

One naval officer, who took part in the life-and-death decisions, testified that to the best of his recollection, they had launched the second missile while the fleeing figures were still inside what they took to be a closed military compound, but the missile had landed after the fleeing figures were already outside it, on the beach.

The air force officer who coordinated the strikes told investigators that he had previously been in charge of “hundreds of attacks,” but this incident remained “engraved” in his memory because the intelligence that the strike team was given was a 180-degree difference from the facts on the ground.

Adalah, which filed an updated appeal in the case in May and is still waiting for a response, also noted that the Israeli authorities have refused to let lawyers for the families see any of the video from the two drones recorded during the attack.

Without seeing that video, it is impossible to say whether or not the drone operators should have been able to tell that their targets were children, but Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect who has investigated drone strikes, has argued in the past that the optical resolution of drone cameras might not be nearly as high as military commanders claim.

After previously analyzing drone surveillance video of suspected Islamic State militants in Iraq, Weizman said it was only possible to tell that the figures were carrying weapons, and that one of them was a child, by studying their shadows. That identification was only possible, he said, because the video was “taken either very early or very late in the day.”

Since there would be no long shadow in aerial images recorded earlier in the afternoon — like those of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza that July day at around 3:30 p.m. — Weizman observed that high-resolution images selectively released by military commanders to justify airstrikes “could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.” Most of the footage “that is continuously harvested by drones,” Weizman said, is “far more ambiguous.”

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones was something of an open secret, but since the technology did not yet cut humans out of the decision-making process, the military commanders who ordered the strikes, and the drone pilots who executed them, were no less responsible for killing the boys than if they had been flying over the beach in a jet or a helicopter at the time.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment.

Top Photo: Smoke billowed from a beachside shack in Gaza City on July 16, 2014, after two missiles fired by Israeli drone operators killed four young boys mistaken for militants.

The post Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014 appeared first on The Intercept.

Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014

A confidential report by Israeli military police investigators seen by The Intercept explains how a tragic series of mistakes by air force, naval, and intelligence officers led to an airstrike in which four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were killed by missiles launched from an armed drone.

Testimony from the officers involved in the attack, which has been concealed from the public until now, confirms for the first time that the children — four cousins ages 10 and 11 — were pursued and killed by drone operators who somehow mistook them, in broad daylight, for Hamas militants.

The testimony raises new questions about whether the attack, which unfolded in front of dozens of journalists and triggered global outrage, was carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life and without proper authorization. After killing the first boy, the drone operators told investigators, they had sought clarification from their superiors as to how far along the beach, used by civilians, they could pursue the fleeing survivors. Less than a minute later, as the boys ran for their lives, the drone operators decided to launch a second missile, killing three more children, despite never getting an answer to their question.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer representing the families of the victims, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones to kill Palestinians poses “many questions concerning human judgment, ethics, and compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Remotely piloted bombers “alter the process of human decision-making,” Bishara said, and the use of the technology in the 2014 beach attack “expands the circle of people responsible for the actual killing of the Bakr children.”

Just hours before the attack, on the morning of July 16, 2014, the public relations unit of the Israel Defense Forces had been promoting the idea that the live video feeds provided by drones enabled its air force to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

The PR unit released operational footage, apparently taken from the screens of Israeli drone operators, which documented how three Israeli airstrikes had been called off that week because figures, identified as civilians, had appeared close to targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Those images were released one week into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in which Israel would eventually kill 1,391 civilians, including 526 children.

Later that same day, at about 3:30 p.m., an Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drone hovering over a beach in Gaza City transmitted images of eight figures clambering from the strand onto a jetty.

A small shipping container on the jetty had been destroyed by an Israeli missile the day before, based on intelligence indicating that it might have been used by Hamas naval commandos to store weapons. Some analysts have questioned that intelligence, however, since there were no secondary explosions after the structure was hit and journalists staying in nearby hotels reported that no militants had been seen around the jetty that week.

The Israeli military police report reviewed by The Intercept documents what happened next. After one of the figures on the jetty entered the container that had been destroyed the previous day, an Israeli air force commander at the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, ordered the operators of a second drone, which was armed, to fire a missile at the container.

As my colleagues Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke reported in 2016, although the Israeli government maintains an official stance of secrecy around its use of drones to carry out airstrikes, hacked Israeli surveillance images provided to The Intercept by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed an Israeli drone armed with missiles in 2010.

Speaking privately to a visiting American diplomat after Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza, Avichai Mandelblit, who was the country’s chief military prosecutor at the time and now serves as its attorney general, acknowledged that two missiles that injured civilians in a mosque had been fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a leaked State Department cable.

One reason that Israel might decline to acknowledge that its drones have been used to kill Palestinian children is that such information could complicate sales of its drones to foreign governments. In June, the state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $600 million deal to lease Heron drones to Germany’s defense ministry. That deal was initially delayed by concerns from German politicians that the drones, to be used for surveillance, could also be armed. The same state-owned company has also sold drones to Turkey, a strongly pro-Palestinian nation, which has nonetheless used the Israeli technology to bomb Kurds in Iraq.

The Israeli military police report on the 2014 strike seen by The Intercept offers the most direct evidence to date that Israel has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza. Testimony from the drone operators, commanders, and intelligence officers who took part in the attack confirms that they used an armed drone to fire the missile that slammed into the jetty, killing the person who had entered the container, and also to launch a second strike, which killed three of the survivors as they fled across the beach.

According to the testimony of one naval officer involved in the strikes, the mission was initially considered “a great success,” because the strike team believed, wrongly, that they had killed four Hamas militants preparing to launch an attack on Israeli forces.

Within minutes of the two strikes, however, a group of international journalists who had witnessed the attack from nearby hotels reported that the victims torn apart by the missiles were not adult militants but four small boys, cousins who were 10 and 11 years old. Another four boys from the same family survived the attack, but were left with shrapnel wounds and deep emotional scars.

Harrowing images of the children running desperately across the beach after the first missile had killed their cousin were quickly shared by a Palestinian photographer, an Al Jazeera reporter and a camera crew from French television.

A brutal image of the immediate aftermath captured by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, one of the journalists who witnessed the attack, made the killing of the four boys, all of them sons of Gaza fishermen from the Bakr family, reverberate worldwide.

The French TV correspondent Liseron Boudoul, whose report that day included distressing video of the boys running along the beach before the second strike, noted that she and other witnesses to the attack were unclear where, exactly, the missiles had come from — although initial speculation centered on Israeli naval vessels seen just offshore.

The secret testimony from the Israeli military personnel involved in the attack establishes for the first time that the drone operators treated the jetty as a free-fire zone on the mistaken assumption that it was off-limits to anyone but militants.

After images of the attack prompted widespread outrage, Israel’s army conducted a review of the mission and recommended that a military police investigation into possible criminal negligence be conducted. The testimonies collected by the military police from the strike team were included in a report presented to Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, 11 months after the boys were killed.

Efroni did not release the testimonies, but did make a summary of the report’s findings public on June 11, 2015, when he closed the investigation without filing any charges. Israel’s chief military prosecutor decided that no further criminal or disciplinary measures would be taken, since the investigators had concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

Efroni did not explain why that was impossible. Two days before the strike in question, Israel’s military PR unit had released another video clip in which drone operators could be heard deciding to halt strikes because they had identified figures in their live feeds as children.

Adalah, also known as the Haifa-based Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has spent the past three years fighting on behalf of the families of the boys — Ismail Bakr, 10; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11 — to have the decision not to prosecute the soldiers overturned by an Israeli court.

Much of that time has been spent waiting for Israel’s attorney general, Mandelblit, to simply reply to appeals filed by Adalah and two Gazan rights groups, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

In February, Adalah said in a statement that Israel’s own investigation “revealed that the Israeli military did not take any measures to ascertain whether the targets on the ground were civilians, let alone children, prior to intentionally directing the attacks against them.”

Bishara, one of the Adalah lawyers representing the boys’ families, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that the Israeli investigation of the killings, in which the military cleared itself of wrongdoing, was flawed in several ways. To start with, the testimonies were only collected by the military police four months after the incident, and only considered what could be seen of the beach through the drone cameras. No testimony was taken from the international journalists who witnessed the attack, and the accounts of Palestinian witnesses, including written affidavits from boys injured in the strikes, were discounted.

A Wall Street Journal video report filed on the day of the attack by Nick Casey, a correspondent staying in a hotel close to the jetty, cast doubt on the Israeli intelligence that designated the site a Hamas compound. Casey’s report, which featured images of the first young victim’s mangled body being taken from the jetty, explained that “no one knew why this place had been bombarded; there have been no Hamas attacks from here and no rockets that we’ve seen.”

When the Israeli authorities closed the case in 2015, Alexander Marquardt, a former ABC Jerusalem correspondent who had also witnessed the attack, disputed the finding that the jetty was sealed off from the beach, arguing that it was open to civilians.

According to the testimony seen by The Intercept, one of the officers involved in the missile strikes told investigators that when he saw one of the figures entering the destroyed container, he had checked with an intelligence officer to be sure that only militants could enter the compound before opening fire.

However, the chief intelligence naval officer, a woman identified only as “Colonel N.” in the report, testified that since the entrance to the area was unguarded on the day of the attack, it was not closed to civilians.

Although the copy of the report reviewed by The Intercept includes redactions, there is no indication as to why this apparent discrepancy between the two testimonies was ignored when the decision to close the investigation was made.

One of the officers also testified that although the site was surrounded by a fence when the intelligence estimate was made before Operation Protective Edge began, the fence could have been destroyed in the previous day’s attack, leaving the jetty open to the public.

One soldier told investigators that according to “dozens” of statements from Gaza fishermen, the local population was aware that the jetty was a Hamas compound. The source of this claim is unknown, however, and a lawyer who has worked on the Adalah appeal told The Intercept that there was no evidence to support it in the parts of the report the army was obliged to share with the victims’ families.

Everyone involved in the strike, including the air force officer who coordinated the attack from Palmachim air base, told investigators that even though they had a live video feed of the area during the attack, “we couldn’t tell they were children.”

The testimonies also reveal a crucial moment when the attack could have been halted, but was not. After the first missile was fired at the shack, killing one of the boys, and the other children ran out to the beach, the attack team requested clarification about how far onto the beach they were permitted to fire.

The attack team radioed a superior officer, asking where, exactly, the area designated a closed military zone ended. They wanted to know if there was a point at which they could no longer shoot at the fleeing figures, as they approached an area of beach umbrellas and tents used by civilians.

When they received no response to that query, the attack team fired a second missile at the fleeing children, about 30 seconds after the first strike, which killed three of the boys and wounded at least one more of their cousins.

One naval officer, who took part in the life-and-death decisions, testified that to the best of his recollection, they had launched the second missile while the fleeing figures were still inside what they took to be a closed military compound, but the missile had landed after the fleeing figures were already outside it, on the beach.

The air force officer who coordinated the strikes told investigators that he had previously been in charge of “hundreds of attacks,” but this incident remained “engraved” in his memory because the intelligence that the strike team was given was a 180-degree difference from the facts on the ground.

Adalah, which filed an updated appeal in the case in May and is still waiting for a response, also noted that the Israeli authorities have refused to let lawyers for the families see any of the video from the two drones recorded during the attack.

Without seeing that video, it is impossible to say whether or not the drone operators should have been able to tell that their targets were children, but Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect who has investigated drone strikes, has argued in the past that the optical resolution of drone cameras might not be nearly as high as military commanders claim.

After previously analyzing drone surveillance video of suspected Islamic State militants in Iraq, Weizman said it was only possible to tell that the figures were carrying weapons, and that one of them was a child, by studying their shadows. That identification was only possible, he said, because the video was “taken either very early or very late in the day.”

Since there would be no long shadow in aerial images recorded earlier in the afternoon — like those of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza that July day at around 3:30 p.m. — Weizman observed that high-resolution images selectively released by military commanders to justify airstrikes “could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.” Most of the footage “that is continuously harvested by drones,” Weizman said, is “far more ambiguous.”

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones was something of an open secret, but since the technology did not yet cut humans out of the decision-making process, the military commanders who ordered the strikes, and the drone pilots who executed them, were no less responsible for killing the boys than if they had been flying over the beach in a jet or a helicopter at the time.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment.

Top Photo: Smoke billowed from a beachside shack in Gaza City on July 16, 2014, after two missiles fired by Israeli drone operators killed four young boys mistaken for militants.

The post Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014 appeared first on The Intercept.

Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014

A confidential report by Israeli military police investigators seen by The Intercept explains how a tragic series of mistakes by air force, naval, and intelligence officers led to an airstrike in which four Palestinian boys playing on a beach in Gaza in 2014 were killed by missiles launched from an armed drone.

Testimony from the officers involved in the attack, which has been concealed from the public until now, confirms for the first time that the children — four cousins ages 10 and 11 — were pursued and killed by drone operators who somehow mistook them, in broad daylight, for Hamas militants.

The testimony raises new questions about whether the attack, which unfolded in front of dozens of journalists and triggered global outrage, was carried out with reckless disregard for civilian life and without proper authorization. After killing the first boy, the drone operators told investigators, they had sought clarification from their superiors as to how far along the beach, used by civilians, they could pursue the fleeing survivors. Less than a minute later, as the boys ran for their lives, the drone operators decided to launch a second missile, killing three more children, despite never getting an answer to their question.

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer representing the families of the victims, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones to kill Palestinians poses “many questions concerning human judgment, ethics, and compliance with international humanitarian law.”

Remotely piloted bombers “alter the process of human decision-making,” Bishara said, and the use of the technology in the 2014 beach attack “expands the circle of people responsible for the actual killing of the Bakr children.”

Just hours before the attack, on the morning of July 16, 2014, the public relations unit of the Israel Defense Forces had been promoting the idea that the live video feeds provided by drones enabled its air force to avoid killing Palestinian civilians.

The PR unit released operational footage, apparently taken from the screens of Israeli drone operators, which documented how three Israeli airstrikes had been called off that week because figures, identified as civilians, had appeared close to targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

Those images were released one week into Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza in which Israel would eventually kill 1,391 civilians, including 526 children.

Later that same day, at about 3:30 p.m., an Israeli Hermes 450 surveillance drone hovering over a beach in Gaza City transmitted images of eight figures clambering from the strand onto a jetty.

A small shipping container on the jetty had been destroyed by an Israeli missile the day before, based on intelligence indicating that it might have been used by Hamas naval commandos to store weapons. Some analysts have questioned that intelligence, however, since there were no secondary explosions after the structure was hit and journalists staying in nearby hotels reported that no militants had been seen around the jetty that week.

The Israeli military police report reviewed by The Intercept documents what happened next. After one of the figures on the jetty entered the container that had been destroyed the previous day, an Israeli air force commander at the Palmachim air base, south of Tel Aviv, ordered the operators of a second drone, which was armed, to fire a missile at the container.

As my colleagues Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke reported in 2016, although the Israeli government maintains an official stance of secrecy around its use of drones to carry out airstrikes, hacked Israeli surveillance images provided to The Intercept by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden showed an Israeli drone armed with missiles in 2010.

Speaking privately to a visiting American diplomat after Israel’s 2009 offensive in Gaza, Avichai Mandelblit, who was the country’s chief military prosecutor at the time and now serves as its attorney general, acknowledged that two missiles that injured civilians in a mosque had been fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle, according to a leaked State Department cable.

One reason that Israel might decline to acknowledge that its drones have been used to kill Palestinian children is that such information could complicate sales of its drones to foreign governments. In June, the state-owned company Israel Aerospace Industries signed a $600 million deal to lease Heron drones to Germany’s defense ministry. That deal was initially delayed by concerns from German politicians that the drones, to be used for surveillance, could also be armed. The same state-owned company has also sold drones to Turkey, a strongly pro-Palestinian nation, which has nonetheless used the Israeli technology to bomb Kurds in Iraq.

The Israeli military police report on the 2014 strike seen by The Intercept offers the most direct evidence to date that Israel has used armed drones to launch attacks in Gaza. Testimony from the drone operators, commanders, and intelligence officers who took part in the attack confirms that they used an armed drone to fire the missile that slammed into the jetty, killing the person who had entered the container, and also to launch a second strike, which killed three of the survivors as they fled across the beach.

According to the testimony of one naval officer involved in the strikes, the mission was initially considered “a great success,” because the strike team believed, wrongly, that they had killed four Hamas militants preparing to launch an attack on Israeli forces.

Within minutes of the two strikes, however, a group of international journalists who had witnessed the attack from nearby hotels reported that the victims torn apart by the missiles were not adult militants but four small boys, cousins who were 10 and 11 years old. Another four boys from the same family survived the attack, but were left with shrapnel wounds and deep emotional scars.

Harrowing images of the children running desperately across the beach after the first missile had killed their cousin were quickly shared by a Palestinian photographer, an Al Jazeera reporter and a camera crew from French television.

A brutal image of the immediate aftermath captured by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times, one of the journalists who witnessed the attack, made the killing of the four boys, all of them sons of Gaza fishermen from the Bakr family, reverberate worldwide.

The French TV correspondent Liseron Boudoul, whose report that day included distressing video of the boys running along the beach before the second strike, noted that she and other witnesses to the attack were unclear where, exactly, the missiles had come from — although initial speculation centered on Israeli naval vessels seen just offshore.

The secret testimony from the Israeli military personnel involved in the attack establishes for the first time that the drone operators treated the jetty as a free-fire zone on the mistaken assumption that it was off-limits to anyone but militants.

After images of the attack prompted widespread outrage, Israel’s army conducted a review of the mission and recommended that a military police investigation into possible criminal negligence be conducted. The testimonies collected by the military police from the strike team were included in a report presented to Israel’s military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, 11 months after the boys were killed.

Efroni did not release the testimonies, but did make a summary of the report’s findings public on June 11, 2015, when he closed the investigation without filing any charges. Israel’s chief military prosecutor decided that no further criminal or disciplinary measures would be taken, since the investigators had concluded that “it would not have been possible for the operational entities involved to have identified these figures, via aerial surveillance, as children.”

Efroni did not explain why that was impossible. Two days before the strike in question, Israel’s military PR unit had released another video clip in which drone operators could be heard deciding to halt strikes because they had identified figures in their live feeds as children.

Adalah, also known as the Haifa-based Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has spent the past three years fighting on behalf of the families of the boys — Ismail Bakr, 10; Ahed Bakr, 10; Zakaria Bakr, 10; and Mohammed Bakr, 11 — to have the decision not to prosecute the soldiers overturned by an Israeli court.

Much of that time has been spent waiting for Israel’s attorney general, Mandelblit, to simply reply to appeals filed by Adalah and two Gazan rights groups, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.

In February, Adalah said in a statement that Israel’s own investigation “revealed that the Israeli military did not take any measures to ascertain whether the targets on the ground were civilians, let alone children, prior to intentionally directing the attacks against them.”

Bishara, one of the Adalah lawyers representing the boys’ families, told The Intercept in a telephone interview that the Israeli investigation of the killings, in which the military cleared itself of wrongdoing, was flawed in several ways. To start with, the testimonies were only collected by the military police four months after the incident, and only considered what could be seen of the beach through the drone cameras. No testimony was taken from the international journalists who witnessed the attack, and the accounts of Palestinian witnesses, including written affidavits from boys injured in the strikes, were discounted.

A Wall Street Journal video report filed on the day of the attack by Nick Casey, a correspondent staying in a hotel close to the jetty, cast doubt on the Israeli intelligence that designated the site a Hamas compound. Casey’s report, which featured images of the first young victim’s mangled body being taken from the jetty, explained that “no one knew why this place had been bombarded; there have been no Hamas attacks from here and no rockets that we’ve seen.”

When the Israeli authorities closed the case in 2015, Alexander Marquardt, a former ABC Jerusalem correspondent who had also witnessed the attack, disputed the finding that the jetty was sealed off from the beach, arguing that it was open to civilians.

According to the testimony seen by The Intercept, one of the officers involved in the missile strikes told investigators that when he saw one of the figures entering the destroyed container, he had checked with an intelligence officer to be sure that only militants could enter the compound before opening fire.

However, the chief intelligence naval officer, a woman identified only as “Colonel N.” in the report, testified that since the entrance to the area was unguarded on the day of the attack, it was not closed to civilians.

Although the copy of the report reviewed by The Intercept includes redactions, there is no indication as to why this apparent discrepancy between the two testimonies was ignored when the decision to close the investigation was made.

One of the officers also testified that although the site was surrounded by a fence when the intelligence estimate was made before Operation Protective Edge began, the fence could have been destroyed in the previous day’s attack, leaving the jetty open to the public.

One soldier told investigators that according to “dozens” of statements from Gaza fishermen, the local population was aware that the jetty was a Hamas compound. The source of this claim is unknown, however, and a lawyer who has worked on the Adalah appeal told The Intercept that there was no evidence to support it in the parts of the report the army was obliged to share with the victims’ families.

Everyone involved in the strike, including the air force officer who coordinated the attack from Palmachim air base, told investigators that even though they had a live video feed of the area during the attack, “we couldn’t tell they were children.”

The testimonies also reveal a crucial moment when the attack could have been halted, but was not. After the first missile was fired at the shack, killing one of the boys, and the other children ran out to the beach, the attack team requested clarification about how far onto the beach they were permitted to fire.

The attack team radioed a superior officer, asking where, exactly, the area designated a closed military zone ended. They wanted to know if there was a point at which they could no longer shoot at the fleeing figures, as they approached an area of beach umbrellas and tents used by civilians.

When they received no response to that query, the attack team fired a second missile at the fleeing children, about 30 seconds after the first strike, which killed three of the boys and wounded at least one more of their cousins.

One naval officer, who took part in the life-and-death decisions, testified that to the best of his recollection, they had launched the second missile while the fleeing figures were still inside what they took to be a closed military compound, but the missile had landed after the fleeing figures were already outside it, on the beach.

The air force officer who coordinated the strikes told investigators that he had previously been in charge of “hundreds of attacks,” but this incident remained “engraved” in his memory because the intelligence that the strike team was given was a 180-degree difference from the facts on the ground.

Adalah, which filed an updated appeal in the case in May and is still waiting for a response, also noted that the Israeli authorities have refused to let lawyers for the families see any of the video from the two drones recorded during the attack.

Without seeing that video, it is impossible to say whether or not the drone operators should have been able to tell that their targets were children, but Eyal Weizman, an Israeli architect who has investigated drone strikes, has argued in the past that the optical resolution of drone cameras might not be nearly as high as military commanders claim.

After previously analyzing drone surveillance video of suspected Islamic State militants in Iraq, Weizman said it was only possible to tell that the figures were carrying weapons, and that one of them was a child, by studying their shadows. That identification was only possible, he said, because the video was “taken either very early or very late in the day.”

Since there would be no long shadow in aerial images recorded earlier in the afternoon — like those of the boys playing on the beach in Gaza that July day at around 3:30 p.m. — Weizman observed that high-resolution images selectively released by military commanders to justify airstrikes “could skew our understanding of how much can be seen by drones and how clear what we see is.” Most of the footage “that is continuously harvested by drones,” Weizman said, is “far more ambiguous.”

Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, told The Intercept that Israel’s use of armed drones was something of an open secret, but since the technology did not yet cut humans out of the decision-making process, the military commanders who ordered the strikes, and the drone pilots who executed them, were no less responsible for killing the boys than if they had been flying over the beach in a jet or a helicopter at the time.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military did not respond to a request for comment.

Top Photo: Smoke billowed from a beachside shack in Gaza City on July 16, 2014, after two missiles fired by Israeli drone operators killed four young boys mistaken for militants.

The post Secret Israeli Report Reveals Armed Drone Killed Four Boys Playing on Gaza Beach in 2014 appeared first on The Intercept.

Zimbabwe Opposition’s Democratic Hopes Dashed as Ruling Party Returns to Mugabe Mode After Disputed Election

Instead of jubilation, a silence fell upon Harare late last week. Final results in Zimbabwe’s contested general election had just been announced, purporting to hand a narrow 50.8 percent victory to former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, an ally of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, who was recently deposed after decades in power. In claiming his win, Mnangagwa, who is in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, embraced the results as free and fair.

Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old opposition candidate, and his Movement for Democratic Change Alliance claimed the election was rigged in favor of Mnangagwa. A preliminary statement by the European Union Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe painted the election campaign as peaceful, with “political freedoms” generally respected, but went on to accuse the state of the same anti-democratic tactics that have marred prior contests. Mnangagwa became the interim president after Mugabe’s presidency came to an end last November in a chaotic series of events that resulted in a military coup.

Amid all the election chaos, the complexity of Zimbabwe’s political landscape — and its native voices — can easily be lost as coverage is filtered through foreign reporters, a result of decades of nonexistent press freedom under Mugabe. The media can ignore or oversimplify important history and context: Zimbabwe is often depicted simply as a land of turmoil overseen by a strongman, with events likely to be distilled to violent moments.

Members of a European Union election observation team speak to voters in Nyatsime, on July 24, 2018. - EU observers have been invited back into the country by the Zimbabwean Government for the first time after a key observer was expelled during the disputed 2002 presidential election. Zimbabwe will hold general elections on July 30, 2018. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of a European Union election observation team speak to voters in Nyatsime, on July 24, 2018.

Photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s election presented an opportunity to regain some democratic control and perhaps show the world that, in the post-Mugabe era, Zimbabwean voices matter. If truly democratic elections could be certified by outside election monitors, Zimbabwe may well have been on the path to repairing its international standing, ending sanctions, and restoring a destroyed economy. Yet the election failed to deliver, instead maintaining the status quo — Mnangagwa’s victory has kept ZANU-PF the only political party to ever hold office in the country.

“It was clear that no one wanted Zanu PF but the only way to prove that was through an election that was free, and fair, [and] credible,” Martin Manyange, a 27-year-old opposition supporter who lives in Harare, told The Intercept via WhatsApp. “Right now, I am disappointed.”

How Zimbabweans’ disappointments play out across the world remains to be seen — especially how the election will affect the country’s ties to the United States, Zimbabwe’s longest-standing official diplomatic relationship. The U.S. opened the first embassy in the newly formed Zimbabwe following negotiations by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who involved the U.S. in the independence struggle and helped steer Mugabe into power in 1980. Although the U.S. has poured the most humanitarian aid into Zimbabwe since 2002, relations between the countries eventually soured: Mugabe clung ruthlessly to power, driving Zimbabwe into isolation through economically devastating policy decisions and human rights abuses. American interest in Zimbabwe no doubt springs from its abundant resource wealth, including gold, diamonds, platinum, and tobacco — resources that attract today’s world powers’ attention. China aided independence guerrilla fighters in 1979 and today is the country’s largest investor. Speculation is rife that China played a role in Mnangagwa’s ascension. Russia has also recently sought opportunities for diamond and platinum mining projects, putting “military cooperation” on the table. Other countries under heavy U.S. sanctions — Iran and North Korea — have long-running ties to Zimbabwe.

It was on this geopolitical stage that the hopes of those who wanted a new dawn in Zimbabwe came crashing down in the wake of Mnangagwa’s victory. Emboldened by his win, Mnangagwa’s security forces are leading a broad crackdown on the opposition. MDC leaders are being arrested, and activists are going into hiding.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters walk towards the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) headquarters on August 1, 2018 in Harare, to protest against alleged fraud in elections. - Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party won the most seats in parliament, official results showed on August 1, 2018, as the opposition MDC protested against alleged widespread fraud and the count continued in the key presidential race. (Photo by Zinyange AUNTONY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images)

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change supporters walk towards the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission headquarters on Aug. 1, 2018, in Harare, to protest against alleged fraud in elections.

Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

Anticipation ran hot in the months preceding the first vote without Mugabe; hopes were high for a free and fair election that would unify Zimbabweans. For its part, ZANU-PF stoked the suspense by signaling that it was willing to end effective one-party rule and step down should the opposition win. Democratic space looked like it was opening up. People were free to criticize Mnangagwa’s leadership in public — a dangerous practice in Mugabe’s time. Opposition political parties even campaigned in ZANU-PF strongholds. During his short time as interim president, Mnangagwa signaled he was open to more reform when he traveled to Davos for the World Economic Forum, proclaiming, “Zimbabwe is open for business.”

This all bolstered expectations that the 2018 elections might bring real change. Citing the fact that the government invited international election observers, created a new biometric voter roll, and allowed opposition parties to campaign, Michelle Gavin and Todd Moss of the Council on Foreign Relations called the efforts “major progress in Zimbabwe.” However, they concluded, “the election itself appears to be less an effort at restoring the voice of Zimbabwe’s long-suffering citizenry than a charade aimed at the international community.”

The aftermath of the July 30 vote brought back all-too-familiar feelings. Things began to unravel as the opposition MDC made a preliminary claim of victory a day after the election. At a press conference, MDC official Tendai Biti speculated that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was delaying results unnecessarily — raising the possibility of vote tampering. “We know that it is in this period of delay and uncertainty that merchants of chaos and bishops of electoral frauds will do their own things,” said Biti. Nonetheless, Chamisa, the MDC candidate, declared that he won outright. “We’ve more votes than ED,” he posted to Twitter, calling Mnangagwa by his first and middle initials, ED. “We won the popular vote & will defend it!” A familiar storm of election insecurity once again hit the country.

The election committee planned to release presidential voting results on August 1, but announced results for the National Assembly instead. In those races, ZANU-PF won an overwhelming majority of seats. MDC supporters suspected something was afoot. Many had gathered at the party’s Harare headquarters, confident in an imminent presidential victory, but the news of the National Assembly results set them off marching. They were met by riot police and armed soldiers.

Zimbabwean anti riot police officers stand guard at the entrance of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) headquarters in Harare on August 1, 2018, as supporters of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) protest against alleged widespread fraud by the election authority and ruling party, after the announcement of the election's results. - Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party won the most seats in parliament, official results showed on August 1, 2018, but EU observers criticised the Zimbabwe elections for being held on an "un-level playing field". (Photo by Luis TATO / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUIS TATO/AFP/Getty Images)

Zimbabwean anti-riot police officers stand guard at the entrance of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission headquarters in Harare on Aug. 1, 2018.

Photo: Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

Some protesters turned to property destruction, rock-throwing, and attempted looting in the capital city. Many blamed the opposition for the violence and condemned those protesters who turned to destruction. “I think the opposition must take responsibility for inciting their supporters to protest violently,” said one Harare resident, who spoke to The Intercept anonymously for fear of reprisal.

By mid-afternoon, international news outlets were describing Harare as a war zone. The police, apparently unable to handle the protests, called in Zimbabwe’s army by invoking the Public Order and Security Act, which allows for police to be assisted by national defense forces. The law, condemned by Human Rights Watch, has been on the books since 2002 and effectively grants police the power to ban public gatherings, meetings, and utilize military backup. Military personnel are also granted the “same powers, functions, and authority” as police officers.

With the army deployed in Harare, brutality against the growing protest movement included beatings, and at least six civilians were shot dead. The United Kingdom’s Channel 4 News captured scenes from the street. In one instance, protesters threw rocks over the fence into ZANU-PF’s headquarters, and the army opened fire, trapping journalists in the line of one-sided fire. Headlines across the world used phrases like “troops, protesters clash” and described “deadly riots.” However, only small groups of protestors turned to destruction and demonstrators were unarmed. It was the military that opened fire, drawing wide condemnation. Fadzayi Mahere, an independent political candidate, called for Britain to condemn the violence on Twitter, adding, “Even if we were at war, the unjustifiable killing of unarmed civilians offends basic principles of international humanitarian law.” Mnangagwa, for his part, has promised an independent probe into the military actions — the same military which brought him into power.

Relatives and friends mourn on August 4, 2018 at the end of the funeral gathering for Sylvia Maphosa, shot during the post election violence in Harare on August 1, the day after the nation went to the polls in national elections. - At least six people died after troops in the capital Harare opened fire on demonstrators on August 1, alleging that President Emmerson Mnangagwa had stolen the election from MDC leader Nelson Chamisa. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Relatives and friends mourn on August 4, 2018, at the end of the funeral gathering for Sylvia Maphosa, shot during the post-election violence in Harare on August 1, the day after the nation went to the polls in national elections.

Photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

For the military, the violence against protesters marked the end to a period of gratitude that began last year, when troops were greeted with unbridled affection following Mugabe’s removal. Instead, the army is now met with fear. “A few days ago, I just saw a couple of people get shot,” a young Harare resident told The Intercept, requesting anonymity for fear of ongoing retaliation. He referenced the death of Sylvia Maphosa, who was shot in the back. “She wasn’t even protesting, she was coming from work,” he continued. Of the six killed, Gavin Charles, and Ishmael Kumire have also been identified.

On August 4, 27 supporters of the opposition party appeared in court after they were arrested on charges linked to violence in Harare. The prosecution’s attempt to frame them, rather than the army, for the violence didn’t work. Harare Magistrate Nyasha Vhitorini granted bail and chastised the state. She noted that there was no evidence against each person accused, and said the state “bundled all the accused into a group, forgetting the court deals with individuals, not groups.” Nonetheless, the crackdown continued: This week, Biti, the MDC official who suggested vote tampering occurred, was arrested near the border with Zambia; after being released, he reportedly crossed the border and sought asylum, only to be returned to Zimbabwean custody.

In a joint statement released Thursday, the EU, United States, and other countries commented on the arrest of Biti and others, noting they are “deeply disturbed by continued reports that opposition supporters are being targeted by members of the Zimbabwean security forces.”

HARARE, ZIMBABWE - AUGUST 03: President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa conducts a press conference on August 3, 2018 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) officials last night announced the re-election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The election was the first since Robert Mugabe was ousted in a military coup last year, and featured a close race between Mnangagwa and opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC Alliance). Deadly clashes broke out earlier in the week following the release of parliamentary election results, amid allegations of fraud by Chamisa and MDC supporters. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa conducts a press conference on August 3, 2018 in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The man now tasked with restoring functional democracy in Zimbabwe has a past deeply entwined with Mugabe’s. Mnangagwa is known by many names: “The Crocodile,” “ED,” and the “Butcher of Matabeleland” — a reference to the massacre of thousands in the province. To many, Mnangagwa is a deeply revered figure — a hero of the independence war fought in the 1960s and 1970s.

It was during the Zimbabwean civil war in the 1980s — between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union, led by the late Joshua Nkomo — that Mnangagwa’s reputation was born. As Mugabe’s state security minister, he oversaw Operation Gukurahundi: The 5th Brigade, ethnically Shona, massacred thousands of the minority Ndebele people in the southwestern region of Matabeleland who were thought to be ZAPU supporters. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 were killed.

“Mnangagwa was the more volatile person in this war. He basically threatened people, which is why, especially in the south of the country, among the Ndebele people, his ascension to power has been viewed with fear — because of his key role,” a Zimbabwean journalist, who asked not to be identified in the wake of Mugabe’s overthrow, told The Intercept last year. “It’s easy to blame him for what happened, but actually, the person who was ultimately responsible for what happened was Mugabe himself.”

The massacre at Matabeleland opened up a deep wound in Zimbabwe, with no moves toward an apology or reparations. Mugabe, in an interview, once went so far as to blame the Ndebele for their own slaughter: “The dissidents did more harm than the harm that the people allege was done by the 5th Brigade.”

Mnangagwa has long been cast as Mugabe’s enforcer and the mastermind of his brutal policies. As a top aide, he oversaw security forces as violence broke out in the wake of election rigging in 2008, as well as the repossession and redistribution of white-owned farms to landless black people that began around 2000. The policy caused an international backlash: The U.S. and other countries slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe. Mugabe hit back, calling the sanctions “racist.” Last year, Mnangagwa promised to compensate those who lost their land and make diplomatic overtures to the international community.

Yet the U.S. posture on easing tension with Zimbabwe is conditioned on more than just compensation for white landowners. According to a State Department fact sheet, “The easing of restrictive measures, including targeted sanctions and travel bans, will only occur in the context of credible, transparent, and lasting democratic reforms.” With ZANU-PF remaining in control, Mnangagwa will need to follow through on his promised democratic reforms to repair a relationship with the U.S.

A demonstrator holds a placard as he kneels in front of police water cannons, on August 1 2018, in Harare as protests erupted over alleged fraud in the country's election. - Protests in Zimbabwe's historic elections turned bloody on August 1 as a man was shot dead during demonstrations over alleged vote fraud and the president appealed for calm. The man died after soldiers fired live ammunition during opposition protests in downtown Harare, AFP reporters saw. (Photo by Zinyange AUNTONY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty Images)

A demonstrator holds a placard as he kneels in front of police water cannons, on Aug. 1, 2018, in Harare, as protests erupted over alleged fraud in Zimbabwe’s election.

Photo: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images

So far, despite promises, the restoration of a functioning democracy and a united Zimbabwe does not appear in the offing under Mnangagwa. As he focuses on his inauguration, reports about the intensifying crackdown against opposition activists trickled out of Harare. Less than 24 hours after the presidential election results were called, riot police attempted to chase away international journalists with shields from a planned opposition press conference — reminiscent of past elections where opposition was silenced. Reporters Without Borders has slapped Zimbabwe as one of the most restrictive countries for press freedom.

“Zimbabweans have not known justice for the past 38 years. Zimbabweans have not known their happiness and dignity of life for the past 38 years.”

“Zimbabwe has not known peace for the past 38 years,” Chamisa, the opposition leader, told reporters after police left and the media briefing commenced. “Zimbabweans have not known justice for the past 38 years. Zimbabweans have not known their happiness and dignity of life for the past 38 years.”

With independent election monitors set to release further reports on the vote, Chamisa vowed to formally challenge the results in court with evidence and called for an urgent meeting with the heads of the South African Development Community, an intergovernmental body that covers the southern part of the continent. Along with the African Union, the European Union, China, and other countries, the SADC sent a mission to monitor the Zimbabwean election.

Yet the SADC may offer the opposition no succor: SADC’s preliminary report was largely complimentary, lauding Zimbabwe’s “remarkable” progress under their new constitution and the peaceful election day, though the group also noted “delays in the release of voters’ roll,” “alleged lack of transparency,” and the election commission’s bias toward one political party over others. The SADC is currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. He congratulated Mnangagwa in a tweet after the election and added, “We urge the people of Zimbabwe to accept the outcome of the election or follow the legal route should they wish to challenge it. We look forward to great working relations with you.”

Meanwhile, instead of mending ties with the U.S., Zimbabwe appears to be taking a turn toward America’s adversaries. Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Mnangagwa on his re-election, and they are expected to meet next month during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Iran and North Korea have both congratulated Mnangagwa on his re-election and pledged support for a continued relationship.

With Chamisa expected to file an appeal in court before a Friday deadline and looming reports from election observers, supporters of Zimbabwe’s opposition face a long road ahead. As Mnangagwa and his foreign business partners celebrate, MDC supporters like Manyange are pessimistic that the observers’ reports or international pressure will emerge. “I have a feeling that nothing might come out of the engagements,” Manyange said. “SADC, AU, and Zanu PF [sleep] on the same bed.”

Despite the euphoria of Mugabe’s ouster and hopes for the election, little appears poised for change in Zimbabwe. “The situation for ordinary Zimbabweans remains the same — cash shortages, unemployment, power cuts, lack of clean water,” Dr. Tinashe Mushakavanhu, an independent journalist and lecturer, told The Intercept by email. “While re-engaging the international community is of importance, Mnangagwa’s challenge is also to clean up the system and rid [it] of corrupt government officials. If there is no accountability or transparency, what good is international relations?”

Top photo: Zimbabwean opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance president Nelson Chamisa after a press conference in Harare, on August 2, 2018.

The post Zimbabwe Opposition’s Democratic Hopes Dashed as Ruling Party Returns to Mugabe Mode After Disputed Election appeared first on The Intercept.

Inside Google’s Effort to Develop a Censored Search Engine in China

Google analyzed search terms entered into a Beijing-based website to help develop blacklists for a censored search engine it has been planning to launch in China, according to confidential documents seen by The Intercept.

Engineers working on the censorship sampled search queries from 265.com, a Chinese-language web directory service owned by Google.

Unlike Google.com and other Google services, such as YouTube, 265.com is not blocked in China by the country’s so-called Great Firewall, which restricts access to websites deemed undesirable by the ruling Communist Party regime.

265.com was founded in 2003 by Cai Wensheng, a Chinese entrepreneur known as the “the godfather of Chinese webmasters.” In 2008, Google acquired the website, which it now operates as a subsidiary. Records show that 265.com is hosted on Google servers, but its physical address is listed under the name of the “Beijing Guxiang Information and Technology Co.,” which is based out of an office building in the Haidian district in northwest Beijing.

265.com provides news updates, links to information about financial markets, and advertisements for cheap flights and hotels. It also has a function that allows people to search for websites, images, videos, and other content. However, search queries entered on 265.com are redirected to Baidu, the most popular search engine in China and Google’s main competitor in the country.

It appears that Google has used 265.com as a de facto honeypot for market research, storing information about Chinese users’ searches before sending them along to Baidu. Google’s use of 265.com offers an insight into the mechanics behind its planned Chinese censored search platform, code-named Dragonfly, which the company has been preparing since spring 2017.

After gathering sample queries from 265.com, Google engineers used them to review lists of websites that people would see in response to their searches. The Dragonfly developers used a tool they called “BeaconTower” to check whether the websites were blocked by the Great Firewall. They compiled a list of thousands of websites that were banned, and then integrated this information into a censored version of Google’s search engine so that it would automatically manipulate Google results, purging links to websites prohibited in China from the first page shown to users.

They compiled a list of thousands of websites that were banned, and then integrated this information into a censored version of Google.

According to documents and people familiar with the Dragonfly project, teams of Google programmers and engineers have already created a functioning version of the censored search engine. Google’s plan is for its China search platform to be made accessible through a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei,” as The Intercept first reported last week.

The app has been designed to filter out content that China’s authoritarian government views as sensitive, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. The censored search app will “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to internal Google documents.

The documents seen by The Intercept indicate that Google’s search project is being carried out as part of a “joint venture” with another company, presumably one based in China, because internet companies providing services in China are required by law to operate their servers and data centers in the country. In January, Google entered into an agreement with the Chinese company Tencent, which Google said at the time would allow it to “focus on building better products and services.” A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators is asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai to explain whether the Tencent deal is linked to the censored search app.

It is unclear whether, as part of the joint venture, Google’s partner company would be able to unilaterally update the blacklists. Documents seen by The Intercept state that that the “joint venture will have the ability” to blacklist websites and “sensitive queries.”

One source familiar with the project told The Intercept that Google has planned to provide the partner company with an “application programming interface,” or API, that it could potentially use to add blacklisted words or phrases. The source said they believed it was likely that the third-party company would be able to “update the blacklist without Google’s approval,” though the source could not confirm this with certainty. The details about the API have not been reported before.

“We were told to avoid referencing it around our team members.”

Prior to the public exposure of Dragonfly, only a few hundred of Google’s 88,000 employees had been briefed about the project – around 0.35 percent of the total workforce.

The employees working on the project included people tasked with integrating censorship into the search results; “one box” teams focused on localizing Google’s weather and sports results for China; a group focused on building the infrastructure of the search system; and designers and Chinese-language experts who were creating the mobile app.

Select members of Google’s Gmail and YouTube teams were provided with some knowledge about the plans, which were overseen by product managers who spent time studying the profiles of people who would likely use Google in China. The internet giant’s employees in its policy, user experience, and legal departments were also briefed on the censored search effort, according to people familiar with the project.

Google staff who were involved in Dragonfly were ordered to keep quiet about it. “We were told to avoid referencing it around our team members, and if they ask [what we’re working on], to deflect questions,” said a source with knowledge of the plans, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to contact the media.

Following the revelations last week, as news about Dragonfly became known to most of Google’s employees for the first time, anger spread throughout the company’s offices across the world. Company bosses shut down access to documents that contained information about the censorship project. Meanwhile, staff were said to be “upset and scared” because of “total radio silence from leadership.”

A week on from the disclosure, Google’s leadership has still not commented internally about the plans, sources said. Google did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The company’s press office has so far refused to answer questions from dozens of reporters about Dragonfly, saying that it “will not comment on speculation about future plans.”

One insider told The Intercept that memes have circulated among company employees portraying images of China’s censorship. One meme showed a Chinese internet user searching for information about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, only to receive a result saying that the atrocity was a myth.

Another meme that Google staff shared referenced Dong Yaoqiong, a 29-year-old activist who disappeared in Shanghai last month after staging a protest. Before she went missing, Dong had posted a video online of herself defacing a poster of President Xi Jinping while declaring that she opposed “the tyranny of Xi Jinping’s dictatorship and the brain-control oppression imposed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The meme circulating inside Google depicts a search for information about Dong — but it returns no results.

Top photo: A pedestrian walks past the Google Inc. logo displayed outside the building housing the company’s China headquarters in Beijing on Nov. 12, 2012.

The post Inside Google’s Effort to Develop a Censored Search Engine in China appeared first on The Intercept.

The Blowup With Canada Is the Latest Saudi Overreach. Will They Ever Pay a Price?

French President Emmanuel Macron receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 10, 2018. (Sipa via AP Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on April 10, 2018.

Photo: Abd Rabbo Ammar, Pool/SIPA via AP

Have the Saudis gone stark-raving bonkers?

First, they pick a fight with Canada — yeah, that Canada! Maple syrup-loving, hockey-playing, poutine-eating, liberal, multicultural Canada; the land with free health care and a prime minister who wears “Eid Mubarak” socks.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia (over)reacted to a single tweet from the Canadian foreign ministry. The tweet called on the Saudis to “immediately release” imprisoned activist Samar Badawi, sister of Raif, as well as “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” The Saudi foreign ministry lambasted the Canadians for an “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable” statement, announced the “freezing of all new trade and investment transactions” with Canada, demanding the Canadian ambassador leave the country “within the next 24 hours.”

At the same time, Saudi trolls took to Twitter to declare their loud support for … Quebec’s independence. Who knew that an absolute Persian Gulf monarchy was so passionate about a French-speaking secessionist movement 6,000 miles away? (Hey, Canadian trolls — if you even exist — my advice would be to retaliate by offering Ottowa’s backing for independence in the restless, Shia-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It’ll drive them totally nuts.)

Saudi Arabia was just getting started.

And Saudi Arabia was just getting started. On Monday, the kingdom escalated the row by suspending scholarships “for about 16,000 Saudi students” studying in Canada, the Toronto Star reported, “and ordered them to attend schools elsewhere.” (Can you think of a better example of biting your bigoted nose to spite your intolerant face?)

Then — and this is my favorite part of this whole bizarre episode — a Saudi group put out an image on Twitter of a Canadian airliner flying directly toward Toronto’s tallest building over a warning against interfering in others’ affairs. (The Saudi group later deleted it and apologized)

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Much has been made of the kingdom’s “increasingly assertive foreign policy” but, yet again, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, may have bitten off more than he can chew. It’s madness to try and bully a Western government, which up until Sunday was both a friend of Saudi Arabia and a major arms supplier, for offering the mildest of online criticisms of (undeniable) human rights abuses. What message does that send to Riyadh’s other Western allies, who also like to go through the motions of lightly condemning various Saudi abuses in order to appease their voters? Is the game up?

As I observed back in November, MBS is the reverse Midas — everything he touches turns to dust. Why, for example, make so much noise and demonstrate such (faux) outrage over Canada’s “overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs” of the Saudi kingdom, thereby drawing attention to the country’s own “overt and blatant interference” in Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and, of course, Yemen? The double standards are stark.

They could have just ignored Canada’s passing, pro forma admonishment of their crackdown on women’s rights activists and the rest. They’ve done it before. But the Saudis, led by their impulsive and thin-skinned crown prince, have proven themselves to be their own worst enemies. Their Iranian, Qatari, and Turkish rivals couldn’t pay for the kind of negative, anti-Saudi media coverage that the folks in Riyadh seem to produce all by themselves.

Take Yemen. This summer, The Intercept reported on a Saudi airstrike that hit a wedding in the remote mountain village of Al-Raqah, killing 23 civilians, including children, and injuring dozens. In a follow-up, the Washington Post cited U.N. figures showing that “more than three years into Yemen’s civil war, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed and injured, the vast majority by airstrikes.” The Post noted that the Saudi-led coalition “is the only actor in the conflict that uses warplanes, mostly U.S.- and British-made fighter jets. The airstrikes have struck hospitals, schools, markets, motels, migrant boats, gas stations, even funeral gatherings, raising questions about the coalition’s ability to abide by humanitarian laws that call for civilians to be safeguarded.”

“Raising questions” is an understatement. The ongoing Saudi-led blockade and bombardment of Yemen has led to politicians, pundits, and activists across the West accusing the Saudi military of “crimes against humanity” and calling MBS a “war criminal.”

Then there is the whole terrorism issue. This week, as the Saudis escalated their diplomatic spat with the Canadians, the Associated Press reported that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has “cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash,” while “hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.”

According to AP, “these compromises and alliances have allowed al-Qaida militants to survive to fight another day — and risk strengthening the most dangerous branch of the terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks.”

While we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

So what’s the response from President Donald Trump’s team to all this? A State Department official told HuffPost on Monday that the administration would not be taking sides in the spat because “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States.”

Sorry, what? “Both close allies”? Is Canada working with Al Qaeda in Yemen? Cutting deals with, and recruiting fighters from, the group behind the attack on the Twin Towers? And, while we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

To quote Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he sat down to talk foreign policy with me last September, “Do I consider [the Saudis] an ally? I consider them to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism, so I can’t. … No, they are not an ally of the United States.”

Perhaps a bruised Canadian government will now take a similar stance to the independent senator from Vermont. The majority of Canadians, like the majority of Americans and Brits, aren’t fans of their government’s close ties with, and constant sales of arms to, the Saudi dictatorship. Being bullied by MBS and company might make them even more hostile to the Middle East kingdom — and maybe make their elected governments sit up and take more notice of their voters, and less notice of Riyadh. If that happens — fingers crossed! — then Monday’s ridiculous and offensive Twitter image will be the least of the Saudis’ concerns.

The post The Blowup With Canada Is the Latest Saudi Overreach. Will They Ever Pay a Price? appeared first on The Intercept.

The Blowup With Canada Is the Latest Saudi Overreach. Will They Ever Pay a Price?

French President Emmanuel Macron receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 10, 2018. (Sipa via AP Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on April 10, 2018.

Photo: Abd Rabbo Ammar, Pool/SIPA via AP

Have the Saudis gone stark-raving bonkers?

First, they pick a fight with Canada — yeah, that Canada! Maple syrup-loving, hockey-playing, poutine-eating, liberal, multicultural Canada; the land with free health care and a prime minister who wears “Eid Mubarak” socks.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia (over)reacted to a single tweet from the Canadian foreign ministry. The tweet called on the Saudis to “immediately release” imprisoned activist Samar Badawi, sister of Raif, as well as “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” The Saudi foreign ministry lambasted the Canadians for an “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable” statement, announced the “freezing of all new trade and investment transactions” with Canada, demanding the Canadian ambassador leave the country “within the next 24 hours.”

At the same time, Saudi trolls took to Twitter to declare their loud support for … Quebec’s independence. Who knew that an absolute Persian Gulf monarchy was so passionate about a French-speaking secessionist movement 6,000 miles away? (Hey, Canadian trolls — if you even exist — my advice would be to retaliate by offering Ottowa’s backing for independence in the restless, Shia-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It’ll drive them totally nuts.)

Saudi Arabia was just getting started.

And Saudi Arabia was just getting started. On Monday, the kingdom escalated the row by suspending scholarships “for about 16,000 Saudi students” studying in Canada, the Toronto Star reported, “and ordered them to attend schools elsewhere.” (Can you think of a better example of biting your bigoted nose to spite your intolerant face?)

Then — and this is my favorite part of this whole bizarre episode — a Saudi group put out an image on Twitter of a Canadian airliner flying directly toward Toronto’s tallest building over a warning against interfering in others’ affairs. (The Saudi group later deleted it and apologized)

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Much has been made of the kingdom’s “increasingly assertive foreign policy” but, yet again, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, may have bitten off more than he can chew. It’s madness to try and bully a Western government, which up until Sunday was both a friend of Saudi Arabia and a major arms supplier, for offering the mildest of online criticisms of (undeniable) human rights abuses. What message does that send to Riyadh’s other Western allies, who also like to go through the motions of lightly condemning various Saudi abuses in order to appease their voters? Is the game up?

As I observed back in November, MBS is the reverse Midas — everything he touches turns to dust. Why, for example, make so much noise and demonstrate such (faux) outrage over Canada’s “overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs” of the Saudi kingdom, thereby drawing attention to the country’s own “overt and blatant interference” in Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and, of course, Yemen? The double standards are stark.

They could have just ignored Canada’s passing, pro forma admonishment of their crackdown on women’s rights activists and the rest. They’ve done it before. But the Saudis, led by their impulsive and thin-skinned crown prince, have proven themselves to be their own worst enemies. Their Iranian, Qatari, and Turkish rivals couldn’t pay for the kind of negative, anti-Saudi media coverage that the folks in Riyadh seem to produce all by themselves.

Take Yemen. This summer, The Intercept reported on a Saudi airstrike that hit a wedding in the remote mountain village of Al-Raqah, killing 23 civilians, including children, and injuring dozens. In a follow-up, the Washington Post cited U.N. figures showing that “more than three years into Yemen’s civil war, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed and injured, the vast majority by airstrikes.” The Post noted that the Saudi-led coalition “is the only actor in the conflict that uses warplanes, mostly U.S.- and British-made fighter jets. The airstrikes have struck hospitals, schools, markets, motels, migrant boats, gas stations, even funeral gatherings, raising questions about the coalition’s ability to abide by humanitarian laws that call for civilians to be safeguarded.”

“Raising questions” is an understatement. The ongoing Saudi-led blockade and bombardment of Yemen has led to politicians, pundits, and activists across the West accusing the Saudi military of “crimes against humanity” and calling MBS a “war criminal.”

Then there is the whole terrorism issue. This week, as the Saudis escalated their diplomatic spat with the Canadians, the Associated Press reported that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has “cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash,” while “hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.”

According to AP, “these compromises and alliances have allowed al-Qaida militants to survive to fight another day — and risk strengthening the most dangerous branch of the terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks.”

While we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

So what’s the response from President Donald Trump’s team to all this? A State Department official told HuffPost on Monday that the administration would not be taking sides in the spat because “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States.”

Sorry, what? “Both close allies”? Is Canada working with Al Qaeda in Yemen? Cutting deals with, and recruiting fighters from, the group behind the attack on the Twin Towers? And, while we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

To quote Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he sat down to talk foreign policy with me last September, “Do I consider [the Saudis] an ally? I consider them to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism, so I can’t. … No, they are not an ally of the United States.”

Perhaps a bruised Canadian government will now take a similar stance to the independent senator from Vermont. The majority of Canadians, like the majority of Americans and Brits, aren’t fans of their government’s close ties with, and constant sales of arms to, the Saudi dictatorship. Being bullied by MBS and company might make them even more hostile to the Middle East kingdom — and maybe make their elected governments sit up and take more notice of their voters, and less notice of Riyadh. If that happens — fingers crossed! — then Monday’s ridiculous and offensive Twitter image will be the least of the Saudis’ concerns.

The post The Blowup With Canada Is the Latest Saudi Overreach. Will They Ever Pay a Price? appeared first on The Intercept.

Trump Administration Siding With Former Obama Aide at U.N. to Protect Industry Profits

The Trump administration, fresh off its battle against breastfeeding at the United Nations, is once again pressuring countries to revise a U.N. public health resolution, this time focused on tuberculosis.

The U.S. is seeking to remove language asserting the legal right for developing countries to override drug industry patents and license low-cost versions of otherwise expensive TB medicines, arguing over the wording of a draft declaration for a high-level meeting on tuberculosis scheduled to take place in September.

But in this effort, the administration has an unlikely ally: a former Obama administration senior adviser who has criticized Trump.

Josh Black was the White House director for U.N. and Multilateral Affairs under Barack Obama in 2016. A career diplomat and sanctions negotiator, he served in the State Department under three presidents, but quit this January amid “growing disillusionment” with the Trump administration.

Black now works as the point person at the U.N. for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the nation’s main drug industry lobbyist. And the U.S. meddling on the tuberculosis declaration aligns with PhRMA’s stated desire to protect corporate patents.

It’s not exactly surprising to see continuity among Democratic and Republican presidents on drug patents. The Obama administration repeatedly fought nongovernmental organizations over access to affordable drugs in the developing world, advocating for higher prices and pressuring poorer countries to stop creating generics. “This isn’t something unique to the Trump administration,” said Leonardo Palumbo, an advocacy manager with Médecins Sans Frontières, which first raised concerns about the TB resolution.

The famously loyal Trump operating hand in hand with someone who worked for his heated rival Obama and condemned his leadership is an anomaly. In the rarefied world of global pharmaceutical profits, however, it’s just par for the course.

The Trump administration courted controversy last month when the New York Times reported that it opposed a resolution supporting breastfeeding at the World Health Assembly. The U.S. reportedly threatened countries with trade sanctions and withdrawal of military aid if they introduced the resolution, and later sought to soften the resolution’s text. The aggressive action aligned with the interests of the $70 billion infant formula industry, which has thrived on providing misinformation about breastfeeding to the developing world.

At that same World Health Assembly, countries gathered to prepare for the first U.N. General Assembly high-level meeting on tuberculosis, which was announced in December 2016. Tuberculosis is the world’s leading infectious disease killer and the ninth leading cause of death worldwide, killing 1.674 million people in 2016, per the World Health Organization’s most recent report. Over half of the 10.4 million new cases that year came from just five countries: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines. And new strains of drug-resistant TB reached 600,000 people last year, suggesting a continuing struggle.

Most TB deaths are preventable with early detection and treatment. But the drugs necessary to treat TB are costly, particularly the multidrug-resistant strain. “The average regimen can cost up to $2,000,” said Palumbo.

In 2013, Johnson & Johnson developed bedaquiline, the first new TB treatment in 40 years, but other than that and Japanese manufacturer Otsuka’s delamanid, breakthroughs have been scarce because it’s hard to get a drugmaker to see the profit in creating medicines to eradicate a disease that primarily affects poor countries. And these drugs have suffered from slow scale-up; MSF estimated in February that less than 5 percent of those afflicted with TB had access to the new medicines.

A donation program runs out next year, which could lead to even higher prices. The high-level meeting is intended to guide the global response to TB, with the goal of wiping it out. And civil society groups had one major priority: reaffirm the right for all countries to legally ensure access to affordable TB treatments.

Under the 2001 Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, agreement worked out at a World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, all countries can use “compulsory licensing” to rip patents away from drug companies and produce low-cost versions that increase competition. As Palumbo explains, this flexibility was used to reduce the cost of HIV medications by 99 percent over a 20-year period. “Ensuring intellectual property rights should not be a barrier for wider access to medicines,” Palumbo said.

Again, this is allowable under international trade law. Global society has agreed that countries’ lack of wealth shouldn’t force them to suffer with epidemics that kill citizens on a mass scale, for the sake of a profit margin on a drug company spreadsheet.

But when negotiations ramped up in June, the U.S. rejected this reaffirmation. According to an early draft reviewed by The Intercept, the U.S. objected to paragraphs that specifically cited the TRIPS agreement and the rights of countries to put access to medicines for all above intellectual property concerns. Instead, the U.S. wanted to soften the references to TRIPS, and demanded inclusion of this passage: “Intellectual property rights are an important incentive in the development of new health products.”

The World Health Organization’s Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation, and Intellectual Property includes the same line, but adds, “This incentive alone does not meet the need for the development of new products to fight diseases where the potential paying market is small or uncertain.” The U.S. didn’t want that part in.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières, the U.S. refused to sign the draft declaration without its changes. The European Union, Norway, South Africa, Russia, and the Group of 77 coalition of developing nations all supported the original language; only the U.S. lodged an objection on paper. But in the end, the final draft released on July 20 included the U.S. version.

“How is it possible that global leaders will gather for the first time to decide how to tackle the world’s most deadly infectious disease killer, and yet some countries backed by their big pharma lobbies are pushing to remove any mention of the need for vital medicines to be affordable?” asked Sharonann Lynch with MSF’s Access Campaign in a damning statement.

After a four-day “silence procedure,” South Africa formally objected to the document, reopening negotiations. This sets new negotiations and a somewhat unclear way forward leading up to the high-level meeting in September. South Africa’s ambassador to the U.N., Jerry Matjila, did not answer questions from The Intercept.

If the resolution doesn’t reaffirm compulsory licensing, it sends a political message that countries opting for this legal procedure would face blowback from the world’s global superpower. While the TRIPS option would remain, poor countries wouldn’t have the backing of a global declaration to support their actions.

Health and Human Services spokesperson Ryan Murphy told The Intercept that the U.S. has been the global leader in funding the fight against TB, through research and subsidies for treatments to poorer countries. In a statement, Murphy said, “Experts and stakeholders know that what impedes TB patients from receiving treatments and care is not U.S. insistence on basic protections of intellectual property. Rather, it is the fundamental failure of healthcare systems to connect sick people with lifesaving treatments that are readily available and inexpensive.”

Médecins Sans Frontières didn’t think much of this argument. “There’s nothing stopping government from both taking actions to strengthen health systems and implement measures to promote access to medicines,” Palumbo said. “And when countries spend less on medicines, they have more resources for paid staff.”

But the White House’s line matches the pharmaceutical industry’s position on the issue. In a response to The Intercept, PhRMA spokesperson Megan Van Etten said, “The issues involved in the U.N. negotiations on tuberculosis are much more complex than any one press release has portrayed. Instead of tackling the real barriers to improved TB treatment – particularly the urgent need to strengthen and better fund health care systems – the negotiations risk getting stuck in an ideological trap focused on anti-IP arguments that aren’t relevant to the unique challenges of tuberculosis care.”

Not only does this mirror the White House’s position on TB, it’s nearly identical — as in word for word — to a private communication obtained by The Intercept from PhRMA’s lead representative at the U.N., Josh Black.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump meets with representatives from PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. According to its website PhRMA "represents the countrys leading biopharmaceutical researchers and biotechnology companies." From left to right: Josh Pitcock, Chief of Staff to the Vice President; Stephen Ubl, President and CEO, PhARMA; Kenneth C. Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck & Co; the President; and Robert J. Hugin, Executive Chairman, Celgene Corporation. (Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump meets with representatives from PhRMA in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Jan. 31, 2017. From left, Josh Pitcock, Chief of Staff to the Vice President; Stephen Ubl, President and CEO, PhARMA; Kenneth C. Frazier, Chairman and CEO of Merck & Co; the President; and Robert J. Hugin, Executive Chairman, Celgene Corporation.

Photo: Ron Sachs, Pool/Getty Images

Black began his career at the State Department in 2000, working on negotiations on Kosovo’s future status. He moved to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 2008, working on sanctions related to Iran, North Korea, Yemen, South Sudan, and several terrorist groups. He helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal in Vienna in 2015. This led to a White House position advising Obama on U.N. and human rights issues.

After the Trump inauguration, Black returned to the State Department and lasted about a year before resigning. Foreign Policy magazine reported that Black “had grown disillusioned serving an administration that was contemptuous of multilateral institutions.” Obama administration colleagues Samantha Power and Susan Rice praised Black on the way out, calling him a “national treasure” and a “pro’s pro.”

After Trump withdrew from the Iran deal, one of Black’s biggest diplomatic triumphs, he vented in a private Facebook message obtained by The Intercept, lamenting the White House’s “soul-crushing stream of boorishness, malevolence, and ignorance.” He added that “today’s decision … wasn’t just bad policy — it was DUMB policy, poorly executed.”

When Black left the State Department, he moved to PhRMA, becoming associate vice president for international advocacy. There is no direct link of Black to U.S. posturing over the TB declaration, but his entire job description is to “support U.S. pharmaceutical industry engagement with the United Nations” and “ensure that U.N. and other multilateral institutions understand the importance of protecting intellectual property.”

Representatives from the two major companies involved, Johnson & Johnson and Otsuka, both were present at civil society hearings on TB, and spoke on the floor. PhRMA’s role is a bit more obscure. “It’s fair to say they play a role in U.N. debates,” said MSF’s Palumbo. “But it’s more behind the scenes.”

Private communications show Black relating the precise argument of his employer on TB negotiations. He also cited an article from IP Progress, a pro-intellectual property coalition that includes PhRMA, in making his case.

That article makes the claim that most TB drugs are off-patent, although this isn’t accurate for newer, multidrug-resistant treatments from Johnson & Johnson and Otsuka. That talking point, however, wound up in the mouth of the spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. at the TB hearing. “We would like to take this opportunity to point out that most existing treatment drugs for TB are off-patent and inexpensive,” she said, adding that the U.N. should focus on improving health systems rather than be “distracted” by compulsory licensing.

PhRMA did not make Black available for comment. An attempt to reach Black through his Facebook page was not returned.

The Obama administration went hand in hand with PhRMA on the issue of access to drugs in the developing world. PhRMA chastised India’s “anti-innovation intellectual property policies” at the same time that Obama sent John Kerry to the country to pressure them over their use of generic drugs that cut into industry profits.

Members of Congress have sought to prevent a replay in the Trump administration. A bipartisan group of senators have sent a series of letters to administration officials, imploring them to show leadership on the epidemic and close gaps in TB diagnosis and treatment around the world. One of those signatories, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, responded to the controversy over the draft declaration in a statement to The Intercept: “The global fight against TB makes us all safer, and the administration cannot put big pharma’s profits ahead of global health.”

But the Trump administration has consistently backed the drug industry’s efforts to squeeze more money from abroad. The president’s blueprint on lower drug prices is predicated on getting other countries to pay more, with the rather optimistic idea that the industry would subsequently lower prices in the U.S. And Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly executive, publicly criticized how other countries “command unfairly low prices for innovative drugs” at the World Health Assembly this May.

He reinforced this in Senate testimony in June, calling compulsory licensing a “socialist” process to “expropriate the product and get the product even cheaper.”

Putting big pharma’s profits ahead of global health is a bipartisan affair.

Top photo: A man suffering from tuberculosis holds his medication after receiving it at a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)-run clinic in Nairobi on March 24, 2015.

The post Trump Administration Siding With Former Obama Aide at U.N. to Protect Industry Profits appeared first on The Intercept.

Google Struggles to Contain Employee Uproar Over China Censorship Plans

Google bosses were scrambling to contain leaks and internal anger on Wednesday after the company’s confidential plan to launch a censored version of its search engine in China was revealed by The Intercept.

Just a few hundred of Google’s massive 88,000-strong workforce had been briefed on the project prior to the revelations, which triggered a wave of disquiet that spread through the internet giant’s offices across the world.

Company managers responded by swiftly trying to shut down employees’ access to any documents that contained information about the China censorship project, according to Google insiders who witnessed the backlash.

“Everyone’s access to documents got turned off, and is being turned on [on a] document-by-document basis,” said one source. “There’s been total radio silence from leadership, which is making a lot of people upset and scared. … Our internal meme site and Google Plus are full of talk, and people are a.n.g.r.y.”

On a message board forum for Google employees, one company engineer posted a link to The Intercept’s story alongside a note saying that they and two other members of their team had been asked to work on the Chinese censorship project, code-named Dragonfly.

“In my opinion it is just as bad as the leak mentions,” the engineer wrote, adding that they and one other employee had asked their managers to be removed from the project in large part because they were morally uncomfortable with it.

“I had a meeting with my [vice president] about the project before leaving [it]. This was a short meeting for me, because my [vice president] refused to provide any information without me basically agreeing to a verbal [nondisclosure agreement],” noted the engineer. “She did reemphasize that they had good reasons to keep all that private: they didn’t want the project to leak externally! That was enough for me to fuck off [from the team working on Dragonfly].”

“There’s been total radio silence from leadership … a lot of people are upset and scared.”

Google has not commented on its China plans and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the backlash.

Following the disclosure on Wednesday, several new sources inside Google independently confirmed the plans to news organizations, including Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times, Agency France-Presse, Vice News, and Bloomberg. One source who spoke to Bloomberg characterized the project as a “censorship engine,” which they said they viewed as a betrayal of Google’s values. Bloomberg described a ferocious discussion among Google staffers, with some backing the company’s censored search proposal because they believed that boycotting the country would not “bring any positive change.”

Publicly, Google has so far stayed silent about Dragonfly. The company has refused to address dozens of reporters’ questions about the project, and has instead issued a boilerplate statement saying that it does “not comment on speculation about future plans.” One source said some members of Google’s search engine team were on a company trip to Lake Tahoe, between California and Nevada, at the time the news broke, which blindsided them and “spoiled some folks’ vacation.”

The Dragonfly project was launched in spring 2017. Since then, small teams of Google engineers have been developing a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named “Maotai” and “Longfei.” The app has been designed to filter out content deemed undesirable by China’s ruling Communist Party regime, such as information about political opponents, free speech, democracy, human rights, and peaceful protest. The censored search will “blacklist sensitive queries” so that “no results will be shown” at all when people enter certain words or phrases, according to internal Google documents.

Google previously launched a censored search engine in China in 2006, but pulled the service out of the country in 2010, citing Chinese government efforts to limit free speech, block websites, and hack Google’s computer systems. The planned relaunch would represent a stunning reversal of that decision.

The company’s censorship project is likely to draw scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted on Wednesday that he wanted to “learn more” about Google’s plans, which he said appeared “very disturbing.”

Human rights groups responded to the revelations with a chorus of condemnation. Amnesty International issued a statement calling on the internet giant to abandon the plan. “It is impossible to see how such a move is compatible with Google’s ‘do the right thing’ motto, and we are calling on the company to change course,” said Amnesty’s Patrick Poon.

A spokesperson for the New York-based group Human Rights in China said that Google had shown willingness to “trade principles and values for access to the Chinese market.” The spokesperson added: “If Google wants to be a credible global technology leader and demonstrate its commitment to core values and responsible corporate citizenship, it has to do better than kneeling before an authoritarian party-state. In the long run, Google will lose more than its own principled employees who refuse to be complicit.”

Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Google’s plans risked abetting Chinese government abuses. “That Google appears to be developing this censored version of a search engine in the midst of a harsh, nationwide crackdown on human rights in China — with the consultation of senior Chinese government officials — is alarming,” said Wang.

“Thank goodness somebody in Google leaked this information.”

Google insiders say that the app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government. As of last month, its launch was pending approval from officials in Beijing, and slated for potential release in six to nine months. It is unclear whether the leaks — and the public outrage that has followed — will affect the plans. The Chinese government is unlikely to be pleased about the disclosures. State media in the country reportedly denied that Google would be launching the censored search. Either that’s a bold-faced lie, or it means that, in the wake of the revelations and controversy, Communist Party officials have decided they will block approval of Dragonfly.

Some analysts have drawn comparisons between the censorship project and Project Maven, a Google initiative to develop artificial intelligence for U.S. military drones. Project Maven sparked an internal revolt within the company, which led to Google canceling the contract. One of Google’s informal corporate principles is “don’t be evil” — a standard some of the company’s employees felt Project Maven violated.

Charlie Smith, co-founder of GreatFire.org, an organization that monitors Chinese government internet censorship, said he hoped Google employees would refuse to help develop the censored search app.

“Thank goodness somebody in Google leaked this information — that person is a true hero!” Smith told The Intercept. “Hopefully the outrage from Google employees will be enough to convince Google execs that they should not return to China, at least not like this.”

If Google engineers “really speak out about this,” Smith added, “it would be hard for the company to move forward with the plan. … They are really the key here. They must stand up for what is right. Can they really tell themselves that they do no evil?”

Top photo: A Chinese flag flutters near the Google logo on top of Google’s China headquarters in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 22, 2010.

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U.S.-Backed Saudi Airstrike on Family With Nine Children Shows “Clear Violations” of the Laws of War

Shortly before 10 p.m. on the night of May 14, more than a dozen members of the Maswadah family, including nine children, lay sleeping in tents in the shadow of a cliff in Yemen’s northern governorate of Saada. The nomadic family had been eking out a living raising sheep and doing farm work in the region most heavily targeted by the U.S.-supported, Saudi-led bombing campaign that began in 2015.

Unbeknown to the Maswadahs, Royal Saudi Air Force drones had been hovering for 45 minutes over their dwellings at the edge of the wide plain walled by mountains. Saudi duty officers more than 550 miles away watched the family’s tents on their screens, along with two “hot spots” likely created by the body heat of people and animals inside.

What happened next in the Saudi war room is described in a U.S. intelligence report seen by The Intercept. The minute-by-minute account of a single airstrike provides a small yet detailed window into the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, showing how officers in charge of daily air raids are ignoring their own procedures aimed at minimizing civilian casualties. Specialists in international humanitarian law say the incident described in the document shows “clear violations” of the laws of war.

The duty officers monitoring drone feeds in the Joint Forces Command National Defense Operations Center in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on the night of May 14 saw the Maswadahs’ tents, but observed “no personnel or vehicles visible, nor any other intelligence information about the location,” according to the report.

Saudi officers monitoring drone feeds saw the Maswadahs’ tents, but had no “other intelligence information about the location” before ordering the strike.

The Saudi brigadier general in charge on May 14 wasn’t present in the operations center, so the duty officers called him twice to describe the target.

At 9:25 p.m., the absent general issued the order to strike the tents. The RSAF, which was monitoring the site separately, added its own recommendation to strike. “At 2156, an unknown coalition aircraft released a single GBU-12 on the target,” notes the document, referring to a 500-pound, American-made precision-guided bomb that was dropped at 9:56 p.m., less than 50 minutes after the Saudis first caught sight of the tents.

It is not clear whether the aircraft that fired the munition belonged to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which lead the coalition fighting in Yemen, or to a partner nation such as Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, or Sudan. Morocco reportedly withdrew its fighter jets in April.

Abdullah Maswadah, 40, a farmer and father of the nine sleeping children inside the tents that night, told The Intercept that he was awake and outside the square fabric shelters trying to avoid mosquitos when the bomb dropped. Fortunately for his family, the missile failed to hit its intended target. The American-made munition missed the family’s tents, which had been donated by the Red Crescent, “by about 30 meters,” according to the intelligence report. Maswadah estimated that it landed 10 to 15 meters from where his children slept along with his wife, her parents, and her sister on sponge mattresses next to bags of clothes.

“I rushed to my tent and [the tent] had fallen on the kids. Some woke in panic, screaming and crying, and some were still asleep.”

“I rushed to my tent and [the tent] had fallen on the kids,” Maswadah said. “Some woke in panic, screaming and crying, and some were still asleep.” He moved his relatives out into the open and wiped the dust from their faces. All had survived unharmed, likely because the sides of the tents had been reinforced with stone walls.

As preparations for a second strike unfolded in the Saudi operations center, “multiple personnel, to include at least 1 female and 4 children, exited the tent and fled towards a road,” according to the document. The second strike was then aborted.

The coalition and U.S. Central Command did not respond to questions from The Intercept. But the intelligence report includes what appear to be comments from an American intelligence analyst attempting to summarize key takeaways from the misguided strike.

The attack was “an indication of failure to follow proper procedure even though safeguards are in place,” the analyst wrote, without stating what those safeguards were. “The Saudis failed to corroborate the target with additional intelligence sources or weigh the lack of time-sensitivity with the decision to strike immediately.”

Yet, in an apparent attempt to throw a positive light on the near-fatal fiasco, the analyst pointed out “the obvious desire to avoid civilian casualties and do the right thing indicated by the very real distress that was felt [by the Saudis] after they realized civilians were present.” About 15 minutes after the attack, a senior Saudi officer “expressed extreme displeasure that the strike had been ordered due to the lack of intelligence information justifying it,” the report notes. Many Saudi officers “were visibly distressed at the near-miss of a civilian casualty event. They also privately admitted failing to follow their own procedures, which were put in place to prevent incidents like this from occurring.”

A man is seen at the site of an airstrike that destroyed the Community College in Saada, Yemen April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma - RC1B18DAE900

A man stands at the site of an airstrike that destroyed the Community College in Saada, Yemen on April 12, 2018. Civilian locations continue to be targeted, as human rights organizations and others have repeatedly claimed since the start of the coalition air campaign.

Photo: Naif Rahma/Reuters

The Saudi officers’ failure to take any precautions to avoid civilian injury or death was a clear breach of customary international humanitarian law, as was the failure to verify the target, experts said. “Beyond viewing the tents and the hot spots, if no intelligence was ordered to determine if these were military targets, then this is definitely a violation of the principle of precaution. This is the obligation to take all necessary measures to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to minimise incidental loss of civilian life,” said Ioannis Kalpouzos, an expert on the laws of war at City Law School, University of London.

Potential U.S. complicity in violations of the laws of war is more relevant than ever.

Though the U.S. is not known to have used its own fighter pilots and attack aircraft in Yemen, it is more directly involved in the coalition’s air war than it has been in any other foreign-led bombing campaign in modern history. As the intelligence report shows, the U.S. maintains a significant presence in the Saudi operations center. It also sells munitions and aircraft to the coalition and provides maintenance, training, targeting assistance, and mid-air refueling for fighter jets carrying out bombing runs.

Potential U.S. complicity in violations of the laws of war described in the report is more relevant than ever. The U.S. reportedly increased its role in selecting targets for coalition airstrikes soon after the May 14 attack.

In mid-June, the coalition launched a major military offensive against Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, which, along with the surrounding area, was home to 400,000 people. That assault has relied heavily on airstrikes from coalition fighter jets flown by American-trained pilots, armed with American-made missiles, and refueled in the air by U.S. planes. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the expanded U.S. role in target selection is meant to “minimize the number of civilian casualties and the harm to critical infrastructure” in the Hodeidah operation, which the United Nations humanitarian chief in Yemen has said could put 250,000 lives at risk. Some 47,230 households have so far been displaced from the governorate as a result of the fighting.

Yemeni men inspect the damages at a factory allegedly targeted by Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes in the Red Sea town of Hodeidah on July 27, 2018. (Photo by ABDO HYDER / AFP) (Photo credit should read ABDO HYDER/AFP/Getty Images)

Yemeni men inspect the damage at a factory allegedly targeted by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Hodeidah on July 27, 2018.

Photo: Abdo Hyder/AFP/Getty Images

In May, the Trump administration asked Congress to review the proposed sale of 120,000 precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June, Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which has the power to limit such sales, told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that he could not currently support the continued sale of U.S. PGMs – the same type used in the May 14 strike on the Maswadah family’s tents – to the coalition because of concerns over their potential use against civilians.

The intelligence report offers a devastating counterclaim to the U.S. and U.K. arguments for increasing the sale of PGMs, or “smart bombs,” to the coalition as a means of preventing civilian injury and death. Suppliers of PGMs and their political proponents claim that smart bombs, rather than unguided “dumb bombs,” are the primary way to avoid civilian harm. On its website, Raytheon – the largest manufacturer of PGMs in the U.S. – boasts that its PGMs are “avoiding casualties. Reducing risk. Minimizing collateral damage. … [O]ur precision weapons are meeting the mission — hitting the target and nothing else.” That didn’t happen in the May 14 strike, which may have missed the Maswadahs’ tents because of “elevated terrain between the weapon and the target,” according to the U.S. intelligence report.

Moreover, the efficacy of PGMs or any other weapon depends largely on the quality of the targeting. Although the U.S. has killed plenty of civilians in bombing raids across the Middle East and South Asia in recent years, the events that unfolded in the Saudi operations center on the night of May 14 differed from U.S. airstrike protocol in at least one key way: the apparent absence of legal advisers in the Saudi decision-making process.

In a U.S. campaign, lawyers from the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps would usually, though not always, be expected to be involved in deciding whether to order a strike, according to a former U.S. Air Force officer who asked not to be identified because of his ongoing work in the region. Several military lawyers are available 24 hours a day for such consultation, the former officer said. It remains unclear what, if any, legal advice commanders in the Saudi-led coalition seek before carrying out airstrikes.

Concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen prompted the U.S. to suspend the sale to Saudi Arabia of kits to convert “dumb bombs” into “smart bombs,” but the Trump administration quickly reversed that policy.

In December 2016, at the end of the Obama administration, concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen prompted the U.S. to suspend the sale to Saudi Arabia of guided munitions kits to convert “dumb bombs” into “smart bombs” or PGMs, though crucial mid-air refueling of coalition fighter jets continued.

But the Trump administration quickly reversed that policy. In June 2017, the U.S. approved an estimated $750 million in flight and technical training to the Royal Saudi Air Force. In announcing the proposal, the Defense Department said that the training would “include such subjects as civilian casualty avoidance, the law of armed conflict, human rights command and control, and targeting.” A week later, U.S. senators voted to resume PGM sales to Saudi Arabia, approving the sale of more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions.

The sale closely followed President Donald Trump’s visit to the kingdom, his first official foreign visit as president. While there, he boasted of a deal with the Saudis that he claimed would be worth up to $350 billion over the next 10 years, including $110 billion in arms sales. The Obama administration concluded $115 billion worth of defense sales with Saudi Arabia from 2009 to 2016.

The intelligence report shows, however, that 11 months on and over three years into the coalition’s aerial bombing campaign in Yemen, civilians are still being unlawfully targeted, as human rights organizations, a U.N. panel of experts, humanitarian aid agencies, and the European Parliament have repeatedly claimed since the start of the coalition air campaign.

US President Donald Trump (L) is welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C) upon arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017, followed by First Lady Melania Trump (C-R). / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump is welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, center, upon arrival in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Those calling for the suspension of PGM sales to the coalition argue that selling weapons that will be used to target civilians means that the U.S. “is green-lighting the killing of innocent civilians,” as well as exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in a country where more than 8 million people are “a step away from famine.”

“The U.S. and U.K. have justified continued weapons sales to Saudi Arabia based on the coalition’s purported ‘improvements’ — that they will tighten their rules of engagement or credibly investigate strikes that have already occurred,” said Human Rights Watch Yemen researcher Kristine Beckerle. “These promises are empty, these assurances fatally flawed. Whatever changes the coalition has made to its targeting practices, if any, have not prevented the coalition from bombing a wedding, a cholera treatment center, and a range of other civilian targets just this year.”

Saudi Arabia has denied numerous reports of mass civilian casualties caused by coalition airstrikes and alleged violations of the laws of war, including the bombing of hospitals, civilian gatherings, and civilian infrastructure, often with U.S.-made munitions. The coalition says it has carried out its own internal investigations into some 70 airstrikes. In nine cases, the coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team acknowledged fault but blamed guidance systems, pilot error, or erroneous intelligence. This week, the JIAT announced the findings of five additional investigations, stating that no violations occurred.

SANA’A, YEMEN – JUNE 25: People search for survivors under rubble of a house after it was destroyed by an airstrike of the Saudi-led coalition, that killed eight members of one family, and injured 15 others on June 25, 2018 in Amran province north Sana’a, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

People search for survivors under rubble of a house after it was destroyed on June 25, 2018, by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike that killed eight members of one family and injured 15 others in Amran province north of Sana’a, Yemen.

Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

A February 2017 judicial review case brought by the London-based organization Campaign Against the Arms Trade argued that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia should be suspended because the Arms Trade Treaty, ratified by the U.K. in 2014, states that if there is “a risk of any serious violation of international humanitarian law,” arms exports should not be authorized. The U.K.’s High Court ruled against the group last summer, finding that there was no “real risk” of “serious violations” in such sales, and that the U.K. secretary of state’s decision to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia “was not irrational or unlawful.” An appeal on the ruling is expected to be heard later this year.

Although it’s unusual for new evidence to arise in such proceedings, Paul Clark, an international law expert and barrister at Garden Court Chambers in London who is not involved in the CAAT case, said The Intercept’s reporting “might count as new evidence” that could justify a new application to the High Court or submission as part of the appeal.

“If evidence of this type had been available at the time of the High Court decision, it should have impacted on the question of whether the secretary of state made a rational decision,” Clark said. CAAT declined to comment, saying that it had been advised not to speak about the pending appeal.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense’s own “Tracker” database, which collates but does not investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law by the coalition in Yemen, listed 356 potential breaches as of July 4. Of those, 42 occurred between December 2017 and March 2018.

International law requires states to investigate war crimes by their militaries and “fairly prosecute” those responsible, notes Human Rights Watch’s Beckerle. Yet on July 10, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued an unprecedented “noble royal order pardoning all military men … of their respective military and disciplinary penalties” in the war in Yemen.

“The Saudi King’s recent sweeping pardon for soldiers involved in Yemen fundamentally and outrageously undercuts the already deeply flawed coalition investigative mechanism,” Beckerle told The Intercept. “The pardon is almost certain to embolden coalition officers still fighting in Yemen, given the clear message it sends: Don’t worry — no consequences.”

“The pardon is almost certain to embolden coalition officers still fighting in Yemen, given the clear message it sends: Don’t worry — no consequences.”

According to the London-based nonprofit charity Action on Armed Violence, 72 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen from 2015 to 2017 were caused by air-launched weapons. In May, coalition airstrikes were responsible for 73 percent of civilian casualties in Yemen, with 26 percent caused by shelling from Houthi rebels – the coalition’s enemy, according to AOAV, which advocates to reduce global armed violence.

The events of May 14 continue to haunt the Maswadah family. The children and other relatives have moved into caves, which they view as safer than tents. “I can feel death now when I hear the sound of fighter jets,” said Abdullah Maswadah, who, because of the move, is now a half day’s travel from his work as a farm laborer. “The kids burst into tears when they hear the sound [of planes].”

Top photo: A boy watches as a cloud of dust rises from the site of airstrikes in Saada, Yemen, on Feb. 27, 2018.

The post U.S.-Backed Saudi Airstrike on Family With Nine Children Shows “Clear Violations” of the Laws of War appeared first on The Intercept.