Israel To Enlist Children For Weapon Development In A Special Training Program

The defense establishment has long been involved with the education system in Israel. However, the involvement was called into question when recently, the defense and education ministries launched Odem, a program for gifted students, who will be involved with the Mossad intelligence service, the Shin Bet security service, and the IDF, and other private institutions that remain unnamed, and will be led by the Defence Ministry’s technological weapons division.

At an initial online session to promote the program, one of the heads of departments in the Mossad reportedly said “Israel needs good fighters and technological superiority. We have no choice. We have to be in the first place. Second and third place on the podium are not enough.”

Odem will be recruiting 14- and 15-year-olds in a 12-year-long program that includes engineering studies and service in the technology unit of the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service, and the Israel Defense Forces. The participants in the program will have “enormous influence,” the Mossad representative said. The curriculum includes attending high school at a boarding school in Katzrin in the Golan Heights; a degree in electrical engineering from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology; and six years in the army. Screening for the program has already begun, for ninth-grade students, and the first class, comprising of 40 students, is scheduled to begin next year.

There is no mention of the specific areas of study on the program’s website, or at the promotional session, however, potential management candidates of the program were issued an invitation two years ago, which specified that the program’s focus will be developing autonomous systems, with Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and unspecified other companies. None of the speakers have elaborated on the ‘significant roles’ that the students will be playing in the security forces.

The Odem program grew out of the Talpiot program, in which participants would defer their army service, but Odem admits students prior to tenth grade and the selection process happens even earlier.

The program’s director, Ronan Keidar, extolled the advantages of the program-a personally designed curriculum that focus on an electrical engineering degree, but also offered ‘courses and experiences in other worlds of content’. All this was followed by the offer of extra support in high school and army service, for no payment from the participant’s side. Keidar also stressed the necessity of having a process of growth in a space that was removed from friends and family, so that the students could ‘immerse themselves in the experience’.

“Robot fighters can be monstrous objects. A high level of ethical interpretation is required to develop them,” said Yagil Levy, political scientist, and professor at the Open University. Referring to autonomous systems and their reliance on artificial intelligence, he said, “There is a major worldwide ethical debate as to whether the use of such systems shifts decisions, and therefore responsibility, from a person or a government to an automatic system, but in Israel, such questions interest almost no one.”

Levy also expressed apprehension about the boarding school, saying that boarding school education makes it easier to create the necessary conditions for developing ‘ethical monsters’. “Secluding people in remote boarding schools will create the suitable atmosphere that will spare unnecessary questions or reliance on civilian systems,” he said.

The Defense Ministry rejected Levy’s statement. “There is major room for dealing with the ethics of autonomic systems,” it said and referred to Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception system and the Trophy system used to protect tanks. “From our standpoint, they already save lives today and will save many lives in the future among our soldiers, while defeating the enemy with minimum casualties and minimum harm to non-combatants.”

“Odem will provide an equal opportunity to students from all over the country, as a part of the defense establishment’s goal to have 30 percent of those drafted into technological units come from outlying areas. The program develops a world of possibilities that unfortunately are not available to everyone,” the ministry stated. Levy points out that it offers a high level of education with extra attention paid to each student. With the rigorous selection process and the enticing offers of extra support and no fees, the program will attract students who cannot afford an elite education. He predicts that this advancement is catered specifically to outlying areas.

This isn’t the first of Israel’s attempts to involve underage children in military manoeuvers. According to reports, there have been previous instances of primary school children being given firearms training in the occupied West Bank. Children who are nine, ten years old were being trained by soldiers on how to use M16 rifles.

The more pressing concern was the enlisting of teenagers in the military. According to Dr. Eran Tamir of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, many studies show that the brain continues to develop into the mid-20s, and so teenagers’ brains are still undergoing development, and it is only later in life that they are better equipped in terms of value-based issues and complex decision making. Tamir points out, high school students have a limited ability “to deeply understand the meaning of decisions that they will be required to make, in designing algorithms to operate autonomous weapons systems, for example. Odem, therefore, raises a raft of moral and ethical problems.”

By way of response, the Defense Ministry stated that students will join the program “of their own free will, with the support of their parents,” and that the program is “committed to the students all along the way. They won’t be required to make decisions about their future in ninth grade, and those who don’t complete the program will return to the high schools from which they came.”

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