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From Pegasus to Blue Wolf: How Israel’s ‘Surveillance’ Experiment in Palestine Went Global

Published: November 18, 2021 | Print Friendly and PDF
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Source: Mint Press

The revelation, a few years ago, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been conducting mass surveillance on millions of Americans has reignited the conversation on governments’ misconduct and their violation 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 which 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, two million Palestinians are living under an Israeli blockade. They are surrounded by walls, electric fences, underground barriers, navy ships and multitudes of snipers. From above, the tannaana, the Arabic slang word Palestinians have for unmanned drone, watches and records everything. At times, these armed drones are used to blow up anything deemed suspicious from an Israeli ‘security’ perspective. Moreover, every Palestinian wishing to leave or return to Gaza—with only a few who are allowed such privilege—is subjected to the most stringent ‘security’ measures, involving various government intelligences 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’ takes on many other manifestations. While the Israeli objective is to entrap people in Gaza, its aim is to control the everyday life of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Aside from the 1,660 kilometer-long Apartheid Wall in the West Bank, there are many other walls, fences, trenches and various types of barriers that are aimed at fragmenting Palestinian communities in the West Bank. These isolated communities are only connected through an elaborate system of Israeli military checkpoints, many of which are permanent and 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, 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 of a very profitable Israeli experiment.

Luckily, the news of Israel’s undemocratic practices is becoming increasingly known. On November 8, The Washington Post revealed an Israeli mass surveillance operation, which uses ‘Blue Wolf’ technology to create a massive database of all Palestinians.

This additional measure gives soldiers the chance to, using their own cameras, 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 new ‘Facebook for Palestinians’, aside from what has been revealed in the news. However, we know that Israeli soldiers compete to take as many photos of Palestinian faces as possible, as those with the highest number of photos could potentially receive certain rewards, the nature of which remains unclear.

While the ‘Blue Wolf’ story is receiving some attention in 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, to be ready to answer any question about your friends, your family, co-workers and acquaintances. 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 receiving some traction in the media is that Israel has been recently implicated in one of the world’s greatest espionage operations.

Pegasus is a type of malware that spies on iPhones and Android devices, to extract photos, messages, emails and record calls. Tens of thousands of people around the world, many of whom are prominent activists, journalists, officials, business leaders and alike, have fallen victim to this operation. Unsurprisingly, Pegasus is produced by the Israeli technology firm, the 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 on November 8.

Sadly, the Israeli unlawful and undemocratic practices became a subject of international condemnation when the victims were high-ranking personalities, the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and others. When Palestinians were on the other end of Israeli 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 that they have been used against occupied Palestinians. Not only did such a declaration raise 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 world’s intelligences, at European Union territorial waters—largely to intercept war refugees and asylum seekers.

Covering up Israel’s unlawful and inhuman practices against the Palestinians has proven a liability on the very people who justified Israeli actions in the name of security, including Washington. On November 3, the Joe Biden Administration decided to blacklist the Israeli NSO Group for acting “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” This is a proper measure, of course, but it fails to address the ongoing 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.

Feature photo | A four-wheel-drive robot developed by the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries’ ‘REX MKII’. Sebastian Scheiner | AP

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is “These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons” (Clarity Press). Dr. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) and also at the Afro-Middle East Center (AMEC). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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