How Israel’s ‘security’ experiment in Palestine went global
The revelation, a few years ago, that the US National Security Agency was conducting mass surveillance on millions of Americans reignited the conversation on governments’ misconduct and their violations of human rights and privacy laws.
Until recently, however, Israel has been spared due criticism, not only for its unlawful spying methods on the Palestinians, but also for being the originator of many of the technologies that are now being heavily criticized by human rights groups worldwide.
Even at the height of various controversies involving government surveillance in 2013, Israel remained on the margins, despite the fact that Tel Aviv, more than any other government in the world, uses racial profiling, mass surveillance and numerous spying techniques to sustain its military occupation of Palestine.
In Gaza, 2 million Palestinians are living under an Israeli blockade. They are surrounded by walls, electric fences, underground barriers, navy ships, and snipers. From above, the unmanned drones watch and record everything. At times, these armed drones are used to destroy anything deemed suspicious from an Israeli “security” perspective.
At the same time, every Palestinian wishing to leave or return to Gaza — with only a few allowed such privilege — is subjected to the most stringent security measures, involving various government intelligence agencies and endless military checks. This applies as much to a Palestinian toddler as it does to a terminally ill woman.
In the West Bank, Israel’s security “experiment” has many other manifestations. While the Israeli objective is to trap people in Gaza, its aim is also to control the everyday life of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Aside from the 1,660-km apartheid wall in the West Bank, there are many other walls, fences, trenches and barriers that are aimed at fragmenting Palestinian communities in the West Bank. These isolated communities are connected only by an elaborate system of Israeli military checkpoints, many of which are permanent, while many more are erected or dismantled depending on the security objectives on any given day.
Much of the surveillance occurs daily at these Israeli checkpoints. While Israel uses the convenient term “security” to justify its practices against Palestinians, actual security has very little to do with what takes place at these checkpoints. Many Palestinians have died, and many mothers have given birth or lost their newborns, while waiting for Israeli security clearance. It is a daily torment and Palestinians are subjected to it because they are the unwitting participants in a highly profitable Israeli experiment.
Luckily, the news of Israel’s undemocratic practices is becoming increasingly known. The Washington Post last week revealed an Israeli mass surveillance operation that is using technology known as Blue Wolf to create a database of all Palestinians. This allows Israeli troops to take pictures of as many Palestinians as possible and match them to a database of images so extensive that one former soldier described it as the army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians.”
We know very little about this database, aside from what has been revealed by the media. However, we know that Israeli soldiers compete to take as many photos of Palestinians as possible, as those with the highest number receive certain rewards, the nature of which remains unclear.
Sadly, Israel’s unlawful and undemocratic practices became the subject of international condemnation only when the victims were high-ranking personalities.
While the Blue Wolf story is receiving attention in the international media, it offers nothing new for Palestinians. To be a Palestinian living under occupation is to carry multiple permits and magnetic cards, to pass various clearances, to have your photo taken regularly, to have your movement monitored, and to be ready to answer any question about your friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances at any time. When that is impractical because, say, you live under siege in Gaza, then the work is entrusted to unmanned drones scanning sky, earth and sea.
The reason that Blue Wolf is gaining traction in the media is that Israel was recently implicated in one of the world’s largest espionage operations.
Pegasus is a type of malware that spies on iPhones and Android devices in order to extract photos, messages and emails, as well as record calls. Tens of thousands of people around the world, including prominent activists, journalists, officials and business leaders, have fallen victim to this operation.
Unsurprisingly, Pegasus is produced by the Israeli technology firm NSO Group, whose products are heavily involved in the monitoring of and spying on Palestinians, as confirmed by the Dublin-based Front Line Defenders and as reported in the New York Times last week.
Sadly, Israel’s unlawful and undemocratic practices became the subject of international condemnation only when the victims were high-ranking personalities, including French President Emmanuel Macron. When Palestinians were on the receiving end of Israel’s spying, surveillance and racial profiling, the story seemed unworthy of reporting.
Worse, for many years, Israel has promoted its sinister “security technology” to the rest of the world as “field-proven,” meaning it has been used against occupied Palestinians. While this declaration raised a few eyebrows, the tried and tested brand allowed Israel to become the world’s eighth-largest arms exporter. Israeli security exports are now utilized in many parts of the world. They can be found at North American and European airports, at the Mexico-US border, in the hands of various intelligence agencies, and on EU territorial waters — largely to intercept refugees and asylum seekers.
Covering up Israel’s unlawful and inhuman practices against the Palestinians has proven a liability for the very people who justified Israeli actions in the name of security, including Washington. The Biden administration this month decided to blacklist the NSO Group for acting “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the US.” This is a proper measure, of course, but fails to address Israeli violations against the Palestinian people.
The truth is, for as long as Israel maintains its military occupation of Palestine, and as long as the Israeli military continues to see Palestinians as subjects in a mass security experiment, the Middle East — in fact, the entire world — will continue to pay the price.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.