Surveillance of Palestinians from Zionism’s Early Days till now has only become more Sophisticated and Intrusive
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
While espionage and surveillance of Palestinians date to the early Zionist period in the 1930s and 40s, more recent intelligence gathering by the Israeli government has only become more sophisticated. It is now used to spy on key Palestinian human rights groups and perhaps even more nefariously to use facial recognition software known as ‘Blue Wolf’ to monitor all Palestinians.
Zionist precursors to Israeli espionage and surveillance of the Palestinians
The espionage of the Palestinians and their leaders dates to the 1930s and 1940s. Then, a group recruited by the Zionist movement called Palmach, an elite underground fighting force belonging to Haganeh or Zionist military organization, was comprised of people posing as Arabs—called the ‘Arab Section.’ One of these recruits, according to Politics Today, was a Syrian-born Jew, Isaac Shoshan, an undercover agent who, during the British mandate, became a member of the Palmach, and was used to spy on Palestinians.
Shoshan, a native Arabic speaker, was trained by the Arab Section in intelligence gathering but also in the Quran, so that he could pose as an Arab Muslim among Palestinians. He was so good at his job that he was named ‘Abu Sheik’ by his comrades. Upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Shoshan became a valued member of Mossad, the national intelligence agency of Israel. Born in Allepo in 1924, he lived to the ripe old age of 96, dying in 2020.
Characterized by Politics Today as “more than an obsession, Israel’s espionage and surveillance have only increased over the years, and technology has contributed to making them even more complicated.” Previously, as in the time of agent Shoshan, intelligence gatherers did their work on the ground, infiltrating Palestinians communities and organizations.
Today, the technology of espionage and surveillance has been advanced by Israel’s own highly sophisticated version of Silicon Valley. Again, according to Politics Today, “From social media to drones, satellites to monitoring phone calls and the internet, Israel has circled the Palestinians from land, air, and sea, and learns of every step they take.”
Going after Palestinian Human Rights Groups through Spyware Surveillance
A continuation of surveillance of Palestinians has flourished, thanks to spectacular advancements in spyware technology. One example of such advancements is the recent designation by the Israeli government of six Palestinian civil society organizations as “terror organizations.” These leading human rights groups are: Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq Law in the Service of Man (Al-Haq), Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees.
Designating these human rights groups as “terror organizations,” according to one of these groups, the Bisan Center, is the “latest bid to delegitimize their image and isolate them from their partners and solidarity networks.” Bisan has reported “a systematic underground campaign of spyware surveillance aimed at infiltrating Palestinian human rights defenders and lawyers’ devices.” Such intrusive monitoring of human rights defenders through attacking their phone and computer devices violates their and their clients’ privacy rights.
The affected human rights organizations subsequently discovered that Israeli intelligence operatives, who are using Pegasus surveillance techniques, had breached the security of one of its staff member’s iPhone devices. Later evidence showed that several human rights defenders and staff devices had been infected. Pegasus gives attackers access to users’ phone messages, emails, media, microphones, cameras, passwords, among many other functions. Basically, Pegasus allows the attacker to spy on an individual’s calls and activities.
The Israeli government’s designation of these human rights groups as terror groups basically outlaws their valuable work on behalf of disenfranchised Palestinians. It has the effect of decriminalizing efforts to provide human rights support to a people forced to live under a military occupation under which many of their civil and human rights are being trampled by a more and more acquisitive Israeli government.
The six groups encourage the international community to “take immediate actions to bring Israel, the home State for Pegasus Spyware, into compliance with its obligations under international law.”
Not satisfied with just human rights organizations, Israel is now enacting mass surveillance of all Palestinians
Now, through artificial intelligence, Israeli security is surveilling Palestinians through automation. Palestinians are aware of the case described earlier, Apple’s legal argument over the hacking of human rights organizations. There is even a joke floating around, per Politics Today, “that Israeli drones, which fly over the Gaza Strip 24/7, can tell if a Palestinian family is going to cook fresh or frozen meat on a random day.” Palestinians believe that all phones brought into Gaza through Israel are tapped.
Recently, it was reported that Israeli security authorities are advocating a software, called ‘Blue Wolf,’ which uses facial recognition to monitor Palestinians. This program focuses mainly on Palestinians, using checkpoints into and out of Israel from the occupied territories. Referred to as ‘Facebook for the Palestinians,’ Blue Wolf is part of an artificial intelligence and automation product launched by the government as part of a mass surveillance program to monitor Palestinians. Palestine is in effect the test market for eventual export and marketing of the technologies and software internationally.
According to Politics Today, “The last thing the world needs is to import Israeli software tested on caged Palestinians whose privacy has been completely violated. Civil society across the globe should raise their voice against Israeli surveillance technologies which will only serve to violate the privacy of peoples in exactly the same way they violate the privacy of Palestinians.”
One result of protests against this surveillance technology, not just in Israeli-occupied Palestine, is that the U.S. Government has blacklisted the Israeli firm, called NSO. The problem with such automated surveillance is the question of who will be next to come under its control? We should not wish it on anybody.
“Israel’s Mass Surveillance of Palestinians Is More Than an Obsession,” Politics Today, 12/8/2021
“Spyware Surveillance of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders,” Bisan Center, 11/8/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
Check out our Blog here!