‘How Do We Control Palestinians? We Make Them Feel Like We Are Everywhere’

Yves here. Western soi-disant experts, particularly China hawks and Silicon Valley boosters, regularly depict China as a surveillance state. Thus, they contend, reliance on Chinese technology opens all sorts of routes for Chinese snooping. This view is based on strong-form claims of the current degree of government monitoring of average citizens. Yet even Wikipedia has in large measure debunked one of the widely-touted scare stories, surrounding China’s social credit system. And as the story below shows, Israel’s surveillance of Palestinians exceeds anything I have seen claimed about China’s spying on its citizens.

The article stresses what sadly must seem obvious, that Israel is also finding a receptive export market for its monitoring devices.

By Petra Molnar, a lawyer and anthropologist specializing in migration and human rights. Her latest book ‘The Walls Have Eyes’ is a global story of the sharpening of borders through technological experiments, reflecting on 6 years of on-the-ground work. Originally published at openDemocracy

We are staring down at the barrel of an automatic rifle, held by a nineteen-year-old. This soldier is one of three giving us a private “escort” through the occupied city of Hebron in the West Bank of Palestine. My colleague journalist Florian Schmitz and I are guided by a group of former Israeli soldiers who started the group Breaking the Silence in March 2004 to shine a light on the countless atrocities perpetrated by Israel in Palestine. They kindly offered us a private tour of Hebron so we can see the impacts of surveillance firsthand.

“Hebron is the laboratory for technology but also the laboratory for violence,” says Ori Givati, a former Israeli soldier who used to serve in Hebron and is now the advocacy director for Breaking the Silence. The Israeli occupation of Palestine has been a breeding ground for technologies like drones, facial recognition, and AI-operated weapons—technologies that are exported and repurposed around the world. That is why we had to go there, and this is where much of this story starts.

We set off from the settlement of Kiryat Arba, on the out-skirts of Hebron—one of the areas that the occupying Jewish settlers have claimed as their own. Israel has been moving quickly to occupy more and more land, separating Palestinian territories from each other. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Hebron, which is now divided into two territories: H1, under Palestinian control; and H2, under the control of the Israeli military. If you are a Palestinian, what would have been a two-minute walk to your grandmother’s house now takes you an hour because you have to avoid certain “sterilized roads” that are made inaccessible to Palestinians. Sometimes you have to ask for permission just to cross the road to the cemetery to bury your dead.

As we wind our way through the cobblestone streets, a small car drives by and a woman settler films our small group with her cell phone, waving a familiar hello to the soldiers. She trails us for a while before speeding off. We climb a hill of broken stones to meet with Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist who runs a community center out of his house, a meeting hub right next to a military checkpoint. We can see the soldiers looking on as we have our coffee and snacks under the shade of a massive olive tree. On the opposite wall is a painting of the red, white, black, and green map of Palestine. Issa had been brutally assaulted by Israeli soldiers the week before while walking around with a Washington Post journalist. The violence was captured on video, which immediately went viral. He wears an army jumpsuit and a Che Guevara–esque cap and his behavior is confident, although occasionally betraying the awareness that he may be Hebron’s number-one persona non grata. And he is obviously not the only one to be harassed and assaulted.

The settlers in Hebron regularly assault children, throw garbage on Palestinian homes, and make the lives of Palestinians unbearable on a daily basis. In fact, while we were there in February 2023, a raid in Nablus killed at least eleven people, including teenagers and a grandmother. In a separate incident, Israeli settlers shot a Palestinian man. As Issa says, “When you’re scared to walk out of your front door and know you will be attacked, you prefer to move away.”

Israel’s ongoing repression of Palestinians and the occupation of their territories for more than half a century has been publicly called a system of apartheid, not only by Israel’s leading human rights group, B’Tselem, in its 2021 report, but also subsequently by international groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. One way that Israel is able to maintain these violent policies is through the surveillance technology that permeates every facet of Palestinian life. As the former Israeli soldier Ori told me, “How do we control the Palestinians? We make them feel like we are everywhere. We are not only invading your home but also your private digital space.”

Indeed, privacy is virtually nonexistent in a place like Hebron. Cameras point into every bedroom, and court-yards like the one we sat in as we spoke with Issa are installed with long-range video and audio surveillance equipment. We wave hello, just to be polite. Issa has in turn been giving video cameras to Palestinians, as a way for them to be able to turn the lens on Israeli soldiers. He also has many installed in his house as a form of protection. But these cameras are no match for the vastness of the Israeli surveillance infrastructure. Israel controls Palestinian Wi-Fi, install cameras on nearly every lamppost—some even disguised as rocks in farmers’ fields— and employs a vast network of biometric surveillance, including facial recognition cameras at checkpoints. Israeli settlers are now being equipped with their own drones by an Israeli company that publicly presents itself as an NGO. Meanwhile, AI-operated guns are mounted at checkpoints.

One night, we head back to Issa’s house from our hotel in H1, where we seem to be its only guests. Florian drives us through the maze of Hebron’s streets while Issa navigates via a patchy video link: “Left, left, now to the right, watch out for the goats.” When we pull over as instructed, a young Palestinian man startles us by jumping into the back seat. He quickly explains that his name is Ahmad, he is an activist, and he is there to help us with the rest of the extremely complicated way back. We would have to avoid the “sterilized” roads that he is not able to be on as a Palestinian.

Back at Issa’s house, we sit next to a fire roaring in an old oil drum. Ahmad and the other men cook us chicken and prepare coffee, with the sound of the azaan, the call to prayer, reverberating over the hills—an auditory reminder of Palestine in this divided city. Living in Hebron his whole life, Ahmad is no stranger to surveillance. “They check us by the eyes,” he says. “They stop us one hour or three hours for nothing. 20055 . . . My number is 20055 at the computer. We are numbers, we are not humans.” I can’t help but think of Yad Vashem.

Israel may be known as “the Harvard of counterterrorism,” but it is also the center of much of the world’s surveillance technology that is normalized and tested out on Palestinians. One of the leading players in border surveillance and spyware, for example, is the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Headquartered in Haifa and started in 1966, Elbit Systems expanded from weapons logistics to become a surveillance powerhouse of nearly eighteen thousand employees worldwide with a revenue of $5.28 billion in 2021.

It even has a book publishing wing, which released a revisionist history book in Bulgaria in 2021 that falsely claims the Bulgarian state saved Jews during World War II. According to professors Raz Segal and Amos Goldberg, Elbit’s desire to get a foothold in the Bulgarian arms market was behind the release of this revisionist history.

Elbit Systems’ flashy demonstrations make frequent appearances at various conferences like the World Border Security Congress, with the company’s cheery yellow logo hiding a business model that Israeli writer Yossi Melman describes as “espionage diplomacy,” which tests out surveillance technology both at the bor- der and in conflict zones, often turning its eye on those trying to document what is happening on the ground.

Elbit Systems is Israel’s biggest defense company, but much of its technology is also used for border enforcement, from armed autonomous surveillance drones like the Hermes, first tested out in Gaza, which now patrols the Mediterranean Sea, to the fixed AI surveillance towers sweeping the Arizona desert.

For anyone working in this space, names like Elbit send chills down their spine, as does the NSO Group—also Israeli— arguably the world’s most successful cybersurveillance firm. Since its founding in 2010, the NSO Group has cemented its global hold through its stellar surveillance capabilities, notably with Pegasus, its flagship surveillance application for spying used by governments from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates to Greece. Pegasus infiltrates mobile phones to extract data or activate a camera or microphone to spy on owners.

The company says the tech is designed to fight crime and terrorism, but it has been found by investigators to have been used on journalists, activists, dissidents, and politicians worldwide.

However, this AI and surveillance technology flows in multiple directions. In one notable example, Google, Amazon, and the Israeli government signed a $1.2 billion contract for Project Nimbus, providing advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to the Israeli government, which could augment the country’s use of digital surveillance in occupied Palestinian territories. This, while the West Bank is in the middle of some of the worst violence and apartheid repression in decades. The contract provoked anger among both Jewish and Palestinian Google employees, who have publicly spoken out about the project. Some, like computer scientist Ariel Koren, have been fired; some have resigned. Others have been silenced.

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Yves Smith