How Israel is automating the occupation of Palestine

General views of the separation wall in Bethlehem on 16 June 2013 in the occupied West Bank. [Getty]
5 min read
07 July, 2021
In-depth: Israel is using advances in biometric technology to facilitate its military occupation, with movement restrictions, policing, and surveillance becoming increasingly digitised.

In June, Israeli public broadcaster Kan announced that the Israeli army would discontinue its long-standing and controversial practice of raids - what the military call “intelligence mapping” - on Palestinian homes.

The process, where soldiers force entry into homes each night to register the household and outline the building has, up until now, been established Israeli policy for over 50 years.

Israel’s army has been under continuous pressure from three prominent human rights groups, Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, and Physicians for Human Rights Israel, who released a joint report last November condemning the military practice.

The report includes testimonies from Palestinian families as well as from soldiers and commanders who were involved in the raids, which revealed details of severe psychological consequences on individuals, families, and wider Palestinian society.

"Israel has long been accused of using the occupied West Bank as a testbed for developing new technologies before marketing them overseas"

Israeli Major General Tamir Yadai, leader of the Central Command, concluded that the decision came about, in part after influence from the human rights groups, but also due to technological advances that will enable the surveillance of Palestinians without physical entry into a home, Kan reported.

The deployment of new technologies by Israel to maintain control over Palestinians is by no means a recent phenomenon, but rather a shift from traditional surveillance and intimidation practices to ever-increasingly digitised ones.

Israel's ongoing automation of the occupation

Israel has long been accused of using the occupied West Bank as a testbed for developing new technologies before marketing them overseas, which includes performing invasive digital operations such as mobile and internet monitoring, social media blocking and censoring, and biometric data collection.

Mabat 2000 (which is the Hebrew word for “gaze”), is Israel’s vast and sophisticated network of CCTV, licence plate recognition, and internet protocol cameras throughout the Old City in East Jerusalem, which has been in place for over two decades.

Israel separation wall - Getty
A general view of Israel's separation wall near Jerusalem. [Getty]

There is approximately one camera per 100 people out of the total population of 40,000 covering only 0.9 square kilometres. A Privacy International report on biometrics and counterterrorism referenced that there has been no code of practice developed for Mabat 2000.

In 2019, AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition firm, began rolling out automated checkpoints between the occupied West Bank and Israel. Palestinians are electronically registered by tapping an ID card onto a sensor and staring into a small camera that scans their face in order to be granted access.

Lt. Col. Nurit Cohen-Inger, head of Sigma Branch which focuses on developing machine learning, video analysis, and smart chatbots for military applications, told The Times of Israel that the new AI system makes it easier for Palestinians to enter and work in Israel, “the system identifies them and the process is becoming completely automatic.”

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Microsoft had previously announced their funding of AnyVision in June 2019 but came under fire as concerns were raised around privacy rights, and ethics and accountability of the facial recognition software.

The technology company subsequently withdrew its funding, and mentioned in a public statement that “such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology”.

Israel has also been known to station drones at Palestinian protests to surveil the crowds or drop large amounts of tear gas. More recently, ‘talking drones’ were spotted at the weekly protests against the occupation in the village of Qaddum earlier last year.

"The deployment of new technologies is by no means a recent phenomenon, but rather a shift from traditional surveillance and intimidation practices to ever-increasingly digitised ones"

An Israeli activist told +972 magazine that the talking drones told her to ‘“go home” and “don’t stand with the enemy” in Hebrew. Although the IDF only admitted to using drones to tell people to go home, activists were concerned that the purpose was to scan the faces of people who attended by making them look up.

More recently, predictive policing of Palestinians and Palestinian content online has stirred a public and global outcry. The infamous Israeli Cyber Unit has systematically worked with big tech companies including Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, requesting content by or for Palestinians to be removed from the platforms.

According to the Israeli General Attorney’s Office, The Cyber Unit made 19,606 requests in 2019 to social media companies for content to be removed.

Jerusalem - GETTY
Israel has a vast and sophisticated network of CCTV, licence plate recognition, and internet protocol cameras throughout the Old City in East Jerusalem. [Getty]

Nadim Nashif, co-founder of Palestinian digital rights organisation 7amleh, told The New Arab, “there’s also a hierarchy to these requests, for example, if a request comes from the government, they give it a higher validity and in many cases, they don’t ask questions they simply take down content”.

Lack of protection

Although Israel prides itself as a country with an array of legislation surrounding data protection and privacy, including the Protection of Privacy Law; the Registrar of Databases; the Secret Monitoring Law (1979); and the Freedom of Information Law to name a few, Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem don’t hold Israeli citizenship and are therefore not protected by these laws.

In her research on Israel’s impact on Palestinian digital rights, policy analyst Dr Nijmeh Ali told The New Arab, “it is essential to locate the Palestinian experience within international efforts of protecting digital rights and civil liberties”.

No doubt Israel will continue to integrate hi-tech digital systems in handling its ‘operational tasks’, therefore more awareness around the technology and its impacts on fundamental human rights and lives need to be properly addressed.

Sahar Amer is a freelance journalist based in London. She holds a master's degree in Human Rights, Culture & Social Justice from Goldsmiths, University of London and her research interests include technology and digital rights