A Critical Examination of a Primary Protester Demand

One of the primary demands of the recent protests, as listed in the UA and GSU referenda, is for MIT to cut all research associated with the Israeli military. The explanation given is “MIT’s institutional complicity in furthering violence against the Palestinian people through the Institute’s special ties with the Israeli military [1].”

Let’s approach this MIT style. Let’s ask the key questions, then try to find the answers through analysis of documentation and consultation with experts. We need to look at what is actually going on, and how to evaluate actions in a grounded way. The issue is not how research might possibly be used, but rather how it is likely to be used based on the evidence. It is not sufficient to say “this outcome is bad,” but rather benchmark other outcomes to see how this compares.

This process doesn’t get as much attention as chanting slogans and waving signs, but it gets us a lot closer to the truth.

The questions are:

First, let’s look at the research and its uses. SAGE has kindly provided a list of research at MIT  funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense [1]. I am going to take that link as the authoritative list because that is the only evidence the protesters are providing to support their conclusion. I am using only papers and news articles referenced in the SAGE document. 

Here’s their list, what they claim the research is used for, and what their own references actually say it is used for.  Please note the Alleged Use has no independent documentation in the 7,000-word website.  I only listed the Alleged Uses that are related to offensive military activity. If, hypothetically, the research were used to detect missiles launched at Israel, that would not be contributing to the violence against the Palestinian people and should not be cut. The Documented Use is based on the images presented in the SAGE web page itself.  I provided links to the paper when I pulled out information not in the SAGE webpage.


  1. Autonomous robotic swarms
    (alleged use: aerial drone bombings)
    The article referenced is about deploying drone swarms in Gaza.  It is from 2021, and describes drones being used to identify rocket launch sites, for rockets launched at civilian targets in Israel [2].
  2. Pursuit-evasion games
    (alleged use: pursuit of escaping targets through drones)
    An image of a clip from the paper specifically calls out the Iron Dome missile defense system, which destroys rockets launched at civilian targets in Israel.
  3. Underwater docking and monitoring
    (alleged use: no offensive use)
    The paper in the image [3] never mentions underwater anything, so its relationship to the research is unclear.  The paper says the events of interest are natural disasters, biological disasters, and terrorist attacks.
  4. Terahertz quantum-cascade lasers
    (alleged use: no offensive use)
    Two of the alleged uses are anti-missile systems.  It is also supported by NSF and NASA.
  5. Quantum computing
    (alleged use: no offensive use)
    The three alleged uses are MW sensing, GPS-denied navigation, and PATH problems.  None of these are mentioned in the paper [4].
  6. Magnetic wave detection
    (alleged use: no offensive use)
    No new applications listed, uses to date include remote detection of ferrous metals, geophysics and biosensing [5]. Also supported by MIT, US Army Research Lab, Air Force Medical Services.
  7. Compression algorithms
    (alleged use: real-time ML on UAVs)
    The paper describes using it on a commercial toy drone with a Raspberry Pi [6].
  8. Oxidizing environments and biosensors
    (alleged use: no offensive use)
    One alleged use is detecting chemical and biological threats and buried landmines. Another is detecting tagged bacteria from a vehicle or UAV.


In fact, there is no evidence that any of this research is used to attack civilians in Gaza.  The stated purposes, both alleged by SAGE and by their reference documents are almost exclusively defensive or generally beneficial, e.g. detecting rocket launches, jamming missiles, monitoring natural disasters, and detecting landmines.

The only plausible use in association with an offensive military weapon is the drone swarming, but there is no evidence that the research was used in an offensive capacity.  The only available evidence suggests the opposite.

As far as spending, the actual amount spent on drone research is a little over $55,000, according to SAGE spreadsheet [7].  And of course the research is available to investigators everywhere, not just Israel.

So the protests, and the resolutions, and the utter disruption caused by all of that, comes down to $55,000 spent on something that, based on available evidence, is used to detect missiles launched at civilians…

Moving on to the second question—how are the military actions of the Israel Defense Forces in this war different from other countries in similar situations? What are the benchmarks?

The Gaza Ministry of Health has said that over 34,000 people in Gaza have been killed during the war [8]. Let me start by saying without equivocation that each one of these deaths is tragic, equal to each death in Israel on October 7. This is not to imply a balance between the methods and intentions of the opposing forces, but to allow me to continue with my point that war, without exception, creates monumental tragedies. Both parties have a right to respond to attacks, even though they create further tragedy, as long as they are in accordance with international law.

There is a large body of law on what is allowed in international conflicts [9]. 

Very briefly:

There is some debate as to Israel’s behavior.  It is easy to simply look at the numbers and make a judgment, since 34,000 is a staggering number in a peaceful world. And we can see the damage up close every minute on every news outlet and social media site. But that is only using our hearts, and we should be using our brains as well.  How do the IDF actions stack up against the laws?  How do they stack up against other conflicts in similar situations not in a peaceful world?

The military objective is clear. The number of people killed by the terrorist group Hamas on October 7 was the equivalent of thirteen September 11s, taking into account relative populations. The military objective is to eliminate the force that was responsible for that attack, a force that has vowed to do it “twice and three times” until Israel is destroyed [10].

Hamas forces are protected in 400 km of tunnels, buried 5 to 70 m underground [11], which is to say under apartments, hospitals, and every form of infrastructure.  Dropping bombs on the tunnels is a valid military objective.

The requirement for proportionality is not one-for-one, i.e. only kill the number of civilians on the other side that is equal to those killed on your side.  The rule is that civilian harm should not be allowed at all when there is no military objective.  Significant civilian harm is only allowed for a significant military objective.  Ending Hamas, the constant missile attacks, and threats of another October 7 is such an objective.

As far as incidental civilian harm and care that must be taken, the situation in Gaza is difficult to compare to previous conflicts.  Virtually the entire theater of operations is urban, and as mentioned above, every military objective has human shields, by design.  Simply declaring that Israel is prohibited from attacking Hamas because of the density of their human shields means Hamas can operate with impunity, and denies Israel the right of self-defense.  The only way to resolve this question is to establish that Israel is doing at least as much to protect civilian lives as other militaries would in a similar situation.  

Fortunately, there are people who study this exact field.  One such person is John Spencer. He currently serves as the chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and as co-director of the Urban Warfare Project. He is also a founding member of the International Working Group on Subterranean Warfare.  If I tried to imagine someone more qualified, I would have difficulty.

Among other things, he has written:

 "Israel has taken more measures to avoid needless civilian harm than virtually any other nation that's fought an urban war.” (January 31, 2024) [12]

In my long career studying and advising on urban warfare for the U.S. military, I've never known an army to take such measures to attend to the enemy's civilian population, especially while simultaneously combating the enemy in the very same buildings. In fact, by my analysis, Israel has implemented more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history—above and beyond what international law requires and more than the U.S. did in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." (March 26, 2024) [13]

But that is all qualitative.  Let’s look at the quantitative [12]. 

"Of course, the true number of Gaza civilian deaths is unknown. The current Hamas-supplied estimate of over 31,000 does not acknowledge a single combatant death (nor any deaths due to the misfiring of its own rockets or other friendly fire). The IDF estimates it has killed about 13,000 Hamas operatives , a number I believe credible partly because I believe the armed forces of a democratic American ally over a terrorist regime, but also because of the size of Hamas fighters assigned to areas that were cleared and having observed the weapons used, the state of Hamas' tunnels and other aspects of the combat.

That would mean some 18,000 civilians have died in Gaza, a ratio of roughly 1 combatant to 1.5 civilians. Given Hamas' likely inflation of the death count, the real figure could be closer to 1 to 1. Either way, the number would be historically low for modern urban warfare.

The UN, EU and other sources estimate that civilians usually account for 80 percent to 90 percent of casualties, or a 1:9 ratio, in modern war (though this does mix all types of wars). In the 2016-2017 Battle of Mosul, a battle supervised by the U.S. that used the world's most powerful airpower resources, some 10,000 civilians were killed compared to roughly 4,000 ISIS terrorists.” [a ratio of 1:2.5]

[Emphasis added, and the 31,000 figure is from late March. The UN had been using numbers from the Gaza Ministry of Health, but recently revised them, cutting the number of fatalities of women and children by half.  That likely means the ratio in Gaza is even lower than 1:1.5]

So, while the death of 18,000 civilians is undeniably horrific, compared to similar situations it is remarkably small. If Israel only did as well as the US army fighting ISIS, then there would be 14,000 more civilian fatalities as of late March. 

Here’s the conclusion: Israel responded to a horrific attack on its territory with lower civilian casualty ratios than other nations have done in similar circumstances.  None of those casualties can be linked to MIT research.  

Which raises a third line of questioning: 

I look forward to hearing from the MIT community and will be responding to comments.

Citations Links: 

[1] (2024). Scientists Against Genocide Encampment @ MIT. MIT Coalition for Palestine. https://mitsage.my.canva.site 

[2] Gross, J.A. (2021, July 10). In apparent world first, IDF deployed drone swarms in Gaza fighting. The Times of Israel.

[3] Yu, J., Karaman, S., & Rus, D. (2015). Persistent monitoring of events with stochastic arrivals at multiple stations. IEEE Transactions on Robotics, 31(3), 521–535.

[4] ​​Lienhard, B., Vepsäläinen, A., Govia, L. C., Hoffer, C. R., Qiu, J. Y., Ristè, D., Ware, M., Kim, D., Winik, R., Melville, A., Niedzielski, B., Yoder, J., Ribeill, G. J., Ohki, T. A., Krovi, H. K., Orlando, T. P., Gustavsson, S., & Oliver, W. D. (2022). Deep-Neural-Network discrimination of multiplexed Superconducting-QUBIT states. Physical Review Applied, 17(1). 

[5] Maayani, S., Foy, C., Englund, D., & Fink, Y. (2019). Distributed Quantum Fiber magnetometry. Laser & Photonics Reviews, 13(7).
[6] Maalouf, A., Gurfinkel, Y., Diker, B., Gal, O., Rus, D., & Feldman, D. (2023). Deep Learning on Home Drone: Searching for the Optimal Architecture. 2023 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

[7] (2024). Scientists Against Genocide Encampment @ MIT. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Q13sdsOQsxTtkqG-lebja5l-6-Oy8ERVhF1-JjOe8G8/edit#gid=0 

[8] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. https://www.ochaopt.org/content/hostilities-gaza-strip-and-israel-reported-impact-day-236 

[9] (2022, March 7). Frequently asked questions on the rules of war. ICRC. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/ihl-rules-of-war-FAQ-Geneva-Conventions

[10] (2023, November 2). Hamas official vows to 'repeat' Oct 7 attack repeatedly to teach Israel a lesson. Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/hamas-official-vows-to-repeat-oct-7-attack-repeatedly-to-teach-israel-a-lesson/articleshow/104903949.cms?from=mdr 

[11] Inside the tunnels of Gaza. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/graphics/ISRAEL-PALESTINIANS/GAZA-TUNNELS/gkvldmzorvb/

[12] Spencer, J. (2024, January 31). Israel Implemented More Measures to Prevent Civilian Casualties Than Any Other Nation in History. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/israel-implemented-more-measures-prevent-civilian-casualties-any-other-nation-history-opinion-1865613

[13] Spencer, J. (2024, March 25). Israel Has Created a New Standard for Urban Warfare. Why Will No One Admit It? Newsweek