In the early 2000s, people living in the Gaza Strip became aware of Israeli military drones flying in the sky above their costal enclave. Their distinct sound earned them the name “zenana,” the Arabic word for “buzzing” or “mosquito.”

It was soon apparent that the drones were also armed, and could strike anywhere without warning. The machines have since become a disturbing part of daily life for those who reside in the Gaza Strip and today, many Gazans talk about the drone as a constant presence in their lives—a reminder that they are under deadly surveillance and could be attacked at any moment.

An employee of the Israeli aerospace manufacturer, Aeronatuics Defense Systems. carries an Orbiter 2 UAV after a flight demonstration for foreign buyers in southern Israel, near the border with Gaza. © Daniel Tepper and Vittoria Mentasti, Finalist, LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018

Israel pioneered the use of aerial drones in the 1970s and 80s, first integrating the technology into combat operations during wars with Lebanon and other Arab nations. Early experience on the battlefield catalyzed the development of a robust drone industry that has since emerged as one of the top global exporters of unmanned vehicles in the world.

The Israeli companies that manufacture drone systems have benefited from their unique situation in the Middle East, perpetuated by the many conflicts involving the country. Today, Israel’s most advanced drone systems are tested on their closest neighbors: Palestinians living in the Gaza. Once they are trialled in real world missions, they are then marketed as having been “combat-proven,” the highest level of reliability a product can achieve in the defense industry.

Ground control stations, used to pilot large UAVs, built inside of camouflaged shipping containers at Israel Aeronautic Industries’ main facility, near
Ben Gurion Airport, Israel.
Israel Aeronautic Industries (IAI) was founded in 1953 and the state-owned company is the largest aerospace and defense manufacturer in Israel. IAI has produced fighter jets, missiles, and spacecraft for domestic and international clients and is the largest manufacturer of UAV systems in Israel.

 This hangar is used as a showroom, exhibiting the many UAVs and related systems produced by the company. © Daniel Tepper and Vittoria Mentasti, Finalist, LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018

Photographers Daniel Tepper and Vittoria Mentasti gained access to Israeli companies manufacturing UAVs, and photographed the labor-intensive production of drone systems. They also carried out interviews with representatives of the drone companies, who championed their products as vital tools that provide security in a region rife with conflict. The interviewees also made a point of categorizing drones as humane weapons, providing military forces with ways to engage in combat without risking the lives of pilots, while simultaneously minimizing collateral damage on the ground.

In an effort to make the effects of military drones on the wider population more tangible, the photographers then traveled to the Gaza Strip, where they spoke with civilian survivors of drone strikes, mental health professionals, and countless others, to draw connections between the activities inside the drone factories and the consequences that manifest on the ground where the products are used.

—Daniel Tepper and Vittoria Mentasti

This series was singled out in our Exposure Awards 2018. See all of the inspiring work by the 39 winners, finalists and jurors’ picks!