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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 27 FEBRUARY 2024

Palestinian Authority government quits; US used AI to find air strike targets – official

Palestinian Authority government quits; US used AI to find air strike targets – official
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announces the resignation of his government during a press conference ahead of the weekly Cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 26 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SHADI HATEM)

The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, tendered his resignation amid a broad push by Arab states and the US for the governing agency to reform itself.

The US used artificial intelligence to identify targets hit by air strikes in the Middle East this month, a defence official said, revealing growing military use of the technology for combat.

British House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle rejected a Scottish National Party call for a fresh vote on a ceasefire in Gaza, risking further tensions with the chamber’s third-biggest party following chaotic scenes in Parliament last week. 

Palestinian PM Shtayyeh resigns amid broad calls for reform

Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Mohammad Shtayyeh tendered his resignation amid a broad push by Arab states and the US for the governing agency to reform itself.

It wasn’t immediately clear if President Mahmoud Abbas would allow Shtayyeh and the rest of his government to step down.

But the prime minister’s announcement on Monday marks a likely shift within the Palestinian Authority, as it tries to carve out a role for itself in the governance of the Palestinian territories once the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza comes to an end.

The US and Arab countries in the region have been pushing for a reformed Palestinian Authority since the current fighting began on 7 October, when Hamas raided southern Israeli towns, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 200 others.

“The next stage and its challenges require new governmental and political arrangements,” Shtayyeh said. Those needed to take into account “the emerging reality in the Gaza Strip, the national unity talks, and the urgent need for an inter-Palestinian consensus”.

The PA’s authority must be “over the entire land of Palestine”, he said, referring to Gaza and the West Bank.

The war has so far claimed the lives of about 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the health ministry run by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union. Hamas-led authorities don’t announce how many of those killed in the war are combatants.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in November that he discussed with Abbas “the need to reform, the need to revitalise and revamp the Palestinian Authority” including through moves to end corruption and support a free press.

Shtayyeh said in December that his government was working with US officials on a plan to run Gaza after the war was over and that his preferred outcome of the conflict would be for Hamas to become a junior partner under the broader Palestine Liberation Organisation after accepting PLO principles. 

US used AI to help find Middle East targets for air strikes

The US used artificial intelligence to identify targets hit by air strikes in the Middle East this month, a defence official said, revealing growing military use of the technology for combat.

Machine learning algorithms that can teach themselves to identify objects helped to narrow down targets for more than 85 US air strikes on 2 February, according to Schuyler Moore, chief technology officer for US Central Command, which runs US military operations in the Middle East. The Pentagon said those strikes were conducted by US bombers and fighter aircraft against seven facilities in Iraq and Syria.

“We’ve been using computer vision to identify where there might be threats,” Moore said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “We’ve certainly had more opportunities to target in the last 60 to 90 days,” she said, adding the US was currently looking for “an awful lot” of rocket launchers from hostile forces in the region.

The military has previously acknowledged using computer vision algorithms for intelligence purposes. But Moore’s comments mark the strongest known confirmation that the US military is using the technology to identify enemy targets that were subsequently hit by weapons’ fire.

Moore said AI systems had also helped identify rocket launchers in Yemen and surface vessels in the Red Sea, several of which Central Command, or Centcom, said it had destroyed in multiple weapons strikes during February. Iran-supported Houthi militias in Yemen have repeatedly targeted commercial shipping in the Red Sea with rocket attacks.

The targeting algorithms were developed under Project Maven, a Pentagon initiative started in 2017 to accelerate the adoption of AI and machine learning throughout the Defense Department and to support defence intelligence.

Moore emphasised that Maven’s AI capabilities were being used to help find potential targets but not to verify them or deploy weapons against them.

“There is never an algorithm that’s just running, coming to a conclusion and then pushing on to the next step,” she said. “Every step that involves AI has a human checking in at the end.”

Commons Speaker rejects call for Gaza vote, setting up SNP clash

British House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle rejected a Scottish National Party (SNP) call for a fresh vote on a ceasefire in Gaza, risking further tensions with the chamber’s third-biggest party following chaotic scenes in Parliament last week.

In a statement on Monday, Hoyle said he would not grant the SNP’s request for an emergency debate because the government was set to give a statement on the matter on Tuesday which will be followed by questions.

The decision threatens to exacerbate relations between the politically neutral speaker and the SNP, most of whose MPs have already indicated they’ve lost confidence in his chairmanship. Hoyle last week offered an emergency debate to help make amends for the Commons’s failure to vote on a motion put forward by the party on Wednesday.

“How can MPs have any trust in the speaker when he makes a public commitment one minute, only to rip it up the next,” the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, said on Monday in an emailed statement. “If 30,000 dead Palestinians aren’t worthy of an emergency debate — what is?” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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