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Inside the Israeli panopticon

Originally published: Red Pepper on March 31, 2023 by Yara Hawari (more by Red Pepper)  | (Posted Apr 06, 2023)

Surveillance has always been a crucial part of Israel’s settler colonial endeavour. Prior to the establishment of the Israeli state in the 1940s, squads from Zionist paramilitary groups roamed Palestine, gathering information on Palestinians, creating what would become known as the ‘village files’. These files contained information and data on all Palestinian villages, towns and cities, including their resistance capabilities. The information collected was central to the eventual takeover and colonisation of Palestine in 1948. By then Zionist forces knew who to execute, who to imprison and which villages would be able to put up a fight.

Today, the surveillance of the Palestinian people continues in violent and terrifying ways. Gaza, often dubbed the largest outdoor prison in the world, is under a panoptican Israeli siege: drones offer a near constant buzz of overhead. The West Bank is carved up into Bantustans with Israeli army checkpoints monitoring – and restricting–Palestinians movements. Facial recognition cameras are dotted across the territories. Drones are here too.

But it’s not only Palestinians who are victims of this surveillance. The technologies used by the Israeli regime are exported all over the world. In 2019 a report from Israel’s Defence Ministry claimed it had doubled its exports of civilian and refugee monitoring technology. In 2022, Frontex, responsible for managing Europe’s borders, and also accused of mass human rights violations, awarded contracts to the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems, to operate its Hermes 900 drone to manage Mediterranean border crossings. Meanwhile India too has invested in drones (and arms) to bolster its surveillance capabilities in Kashmir, which is home to a freedom movement that is being brutally repressed by the Indian state.

A great laboratory

Israel also has no shame in advertising the fact that their army tests out these technologies on Palestinians. In 2012 at a border technology conference in Texas, a former brigadier general for the Israeli army boasted, ‘we have learned lots from Gaza…it is a great laboratory’.

In 2022 an investigation by The Guardian and sixteen other media organisations reported widespread abuse of the hacking software ‘Pegasus’. The spyware was developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli company the NSO Group. Pegasus had the capability to infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems. Human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world were targeted by authoritarian governments who were sold Pegasus by the NSO group. For many Palestinians, the fact that Israel is at the forefront of surveillance and spying across the world is not surprising.

But the Israeli regime doesn’t only rely on technology it creates. Social media has proven to be a fruitful place to conduct surveillance and monitoring. Over the last decade Israel has arrested hundreds of Palestinians based on social media posts using particular algorithms to pick up words like ‘martyr’, ‘the Zionist state’, ‘Al Aqsa’ and more. These people are marked as suspicious and can be subjected to arrest and detention usually under what the broad charge of ‘inciting violence’.

Israeli intelligence forces have also been known to set up fake social media accounts to monitor and to try and extract information from Palestinians. Palestinians, in turn, often report having content removed from their social media accounts. This was particularly the case during the Unity Intifada in May 2021, where hundreds of Palestinian activists reported that content related to the ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah was removed. This is reportedly done in collaboration with social media companies, including Facebook.

In addition to these institutional forms of surveillance, Palestinians are, of course, also subjected to what might be called ‘low-tech’ surveillance by Israeli citizens. Across the West Bank, Israeli settlers work in tandem with Israeli regime forces, patrolling Palestinian villages and often terrorising their residents. Indeed, settlers frequently prevent Palestinians from accessing their agricultural lands, going to school and even go on rampages like the pogrom in Huwara recently.

The surveillance of Palestinians is massive and intimately intrusive. Crucially, keeping Palestinians tightly monitored curbs resistance and stifles the possibilities of mass mobilisation. This kind of surveillance is not only a violation of fundamental human rights, but also sets a frightening precedent. Many states and regimes who import Israeli security technologies are inflicting these methods onto their populations and ones they rule over. From Palestine, to Kashmir and Latin America, overcoming this kind of surveillance has to be a global fight.

Dr. Yara Hawari is a Palestinian academic, writer, and senior policy analyst for Al Shabaka.

Parts of this paper will reappear in an edited working paper with the governance programme at the Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations.

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