Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How the Occupation Fuels Tel Aviv’s Booming AI Sector

Israel hones invasive surveillance technology on Palestinians before it is exported abroad.

By , a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Duke University.
A new closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera installed on the roof of a private Palestinian home in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood is seen in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021.
A new closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera installed on the roof of a private Palestinian home in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood is seen in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021.
A new closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera installed on the roof of a private Palestinian home in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood is seen in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021. Sophia Goodfriend for Foreign Policy

HEBRON, West Bank—Three closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras peer off the roof of Wijdan Ziadeh’s home in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, where old stone homes and new clapboard caravans crowd the hillside overlooking one of the most sacred sites to both Islam and Judaism. In early 2021, a crowd of teenage soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stormed up a winding staircase to install the cameras on her house’s rooftop. According to Ziadeh, they return every few weeks to make sure the cameras continue working and have broken the lock off the front door if no one is home to let them in.

Ziadeh isn’t alone. Today, a network of artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition cameras overlooking the winding roads and footpaths of the contested city has turned Hebron into what Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories calls a “smart city.”

Over coffee on plush red couches in her dark, shuttered living room in December 2021, Ziadeh described the effect of these technologies. New cameras stare at her patio, track who comes into her home, log her routes through the neighborhood, and allow soldiers to identify and sort her family members based on security ratings the military assigns to Palestinians in the West Bank. Their photos and biographical information are stored in a database called Blue Wolf, which soldiers in Hebron access through smartphones or tablets.

HEBRON, West Bank—Three closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras peer off the roof of Wijdan Ziadeh’s home in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, where old stone homes and new clapboard caravans crowd the hillside overlooking one of the most sacred sites to both Islam and Judaism. In early 2021, a crowd of teenage soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stormed up a winding staircase to install the cameras on her house’s rooftop. According to Ziadeh, they return every few weeks to make sure the cameras continue working and have broken the lock off the front door if no one is home to let them in.

Ziadeh isn’t alone. Today, a network of artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition cameras overlooking the winding roads and footpaths of the contested city has turned Hebron into what Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories calls a “smart city.”

Over coffee on plush red couches in her dark, shuttered living room in December 2021, Ziadeh described the effect of these technologies. New cameras stare at her patio, track who comes into her home, log her routes through the neighborhood, and allow soldiers to identify and sort her family members based on security ratings the military assigns to Palestinians in the West Bank. Their photos and biographical information are stored in a database called Blue Wolf, which soldiers in Hebron access through smartphones or tablets.

“I feel watched all the time, even inside my room,” she said. “We don’t feel safe inside our own homes.”

As the Washington Post reported, the new cameras were rolled out alongside the Blue Wolf system in late 2020. It is an example of Israel’s official move toward a “frictionless” occupation across the West Bank and East Jerusalem based on automated, often AI-based surveillance technology that is meant to reduce interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians.

Hebron has been divided into two separate zones since 1997: H1 and H2. Today the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains limited control over security and civilian matters in H1, which constitutes 81 percent of the city and is home to around 180,000 Palestinians. Israel maintains military control over H2, which includes most of Hebron’s Old City and surrounding neighborhoods like Tel Rumeida.

In H2, 33,000 Palestinians, 750 Jewish settlers, and upward of 800 Israeli soldiers live in an intensely contested area. Over the last two decades, settler compounds and Israeli military infrastructure have transformed H2. Today, new surveillance technologies, such as biometric cameras and the Blue Wolf system, join an existing matrix of checkpoints, watchtowers, and army bases.

Palestinians subjected to Israeli military rule lack basic privacy rights; often, they are entirely exposed to surveillance by Israeli soldiers. This allows companies working with the Israeli military to prototype and refine new technologies on Palestinian civilians in places like Hebron before they are exported abroad, with little regulation to keep them in check.

The IDF claim this new network of surveillance systems is a more humanitarian form of military control. Palestinians, however, liken it to a dystopian nightmare.


For decades, Israel’s military strategy sought to maintain a constant degree of “friction” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where occupying soldiers made their presence known through a matrix of checkpoints, guard posts, closed military zones, and night raids. But in the late 2000s, the IDF adapted its methods. Innovations in AI-powered biometric and digital surveillance, from facial recognition cameras and cyberespionage weapons to license plate scanners, promised a less conspicuous military presence. Intrusive, high-tech tools gave form to the “frictionless” occupation that continues to this day.

Israeli officials say the proliferation of surveillance tech helps “improve movement, access, and daily life” for Palestinians across the West Bank and East Jerusalem by, in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, “[shrinking] the conflict.” Biometric cameras at checkpoints promise to streamline border crossings that once took hours. Drone imaging allegedly reduces the need for IDF soldiers to intrude on Palestinian homes in the dead of night for mapping exercises. Tapping into telecommunications means security agents can gather intelligence from the safe distance of an army base.

But these technologies’ convenience distracts from their brutal effects. Palestinians like Ziadeh fear soldiers will break into their homes to manage cameras installed on the roof. Other Hebron residents said soldiers stop their children on the street to photograph them without their consent. Innovations in biometric surveillance, digital tracking, and automated data processing makes many residents feel as if they are constantly being monitored, even inside the privacy of their own homes.

Over cups of steaming mint tea served outside her home, Fatima Azzih, another resident of Tel Rumeida, gestured to new CCTV cameras the military installed above her patio, peering over her front door and through windows. Azzih said the expansion of surveillance in recent months has led her and her family to remain inside and isolated. “No one wants to come here,” she said. “The kids don’t play outside. We’re constantly watched.”

These surveillance systems are prevalent across Hebron’s Old City, where Israeli settlers protected by Israeli soldiers encroach on Palestinian homes. According to commander Amit Cohen, who heads Israel’s civil administration in the Hebron area, advanced surveillance systems help manage this violent environment. “A network of sensors that knows how to monitor the space in real-time and identify what is unusual and what is not” covers Hebron’s Old City, Cohen told Israel Hayom, making “all the information from the sensors … accessible to the soldiers.”

A Palestinian woman stands at the fence of her house on al-Shuhada street, which is largely closed to Palestinians, in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 9, 2021.
A Palestinian woman stands at the fence of her house on al-Shuhada street, which is largely closed to Palestinians, in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 9, 2021.

A Palestinian woman stands at the fence of her house on al-Shuhada street, which is largely closed to Palestinians, in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 9, 2021.HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

While the PA retains nominal civilian rule in H2, it offers little protection to those Palestinians who remain in the area. Israel has carried out widespread surveillance throughout the West Bank for decades, even in areas ostensibly under full PA control like Ramallah. Today, Israeli soldiers comb through digital communications, tap into phone calls, and build up biometric databases that track Palestinian civilians’ movement across the entire territory. The PA itself has also come under fire for its own invasive surveillance tactics, such as confiscating cellphones at human rights protests and combing social media accounts to carry out targeted arrests of peaceful activists.

In recent years, critics have voiced concerns that security coordination between the PA and the IDF in Hebron and across the West Bank allows the PA to outsource repression while maintaining power. The PA has not held elections since 2006, yet polls show the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank view the current political leadership unfavorably. Without a functioning government that is, even in the best of times, subjected to Israeli military rule, Palestinian civilians do not have recourse to basic legal safeguards against invasive surveillance.

Issa Amro, a lifelong resident and nonviolent activist from Tel Rumeida, argues that Palestinian civilians’ lack of control over these systems is the most dehumanizing part of Israel’s surveillance apparatus.

“We don’t know how soldiers are using this information, and we don’t know what they have access to or what they will use against me,” he said. “There is no influence we can have on the system. We don’t vote for who uses it. We can’t go to court to change some kind of regulation. It doesn’t take into consideration our culture, our need for privacy.”


International law enshrines privacy as a basic human right. But according to Gil Gan-Mor, an Israeli attorney at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the strict data privacy protections in place for Israeli citizens do not extend to Palestinian civilians living under Israeli military rule.

“There isn’t regulation in place in terms of surveillance and privacy,” he said of the West Bank. “Part of the problem is it’s all done under the radar, so we don’t know what technology exists and what limits on the technology can exist.”

Amro insists Israel’s denial of Palestinians’ right to privacy while living under occupation has turned places like Hebron into testing sites in global surveillance supply chains. “It’s about using us [as] an experiment for the technology,” he said.

Many Israeli surveillance technologies originate in the occupied Palestinian territories, where Israel’s military rule allows firms to prototype and refine their products before exporting them abroad. It has created somewhat of a revolving door between the Israeli military and tech sector: When private companies work closely with the Israeli military in largely unregulated contexts, army-trained engineers and analysts develop extensive technical skills, which they can put to use in Israel’s booming private surveillance sector once their mandatory service is up.

Firms like NSO Group serve as a stark example of the dangers this status quo poses to civil society around the globe. NSO Group ascended private security markets by aggressively recruiting veterans from elite Israeli intelligence units, who could readily put surveillance know-how in a military context to use in the private sector.

Since 2018, the cyberespionage firm has worked closely with Israel’s foreign office, whose practice of “spyware diplomacy” exported spyware to autocratic regimes and liberal democracies alike. In the years since, Pegasus software has been found on some 50,000 phones worldwide. Recent reports alleged the United States discussed purchasing the technology. But after allegations that the technology was used to hack the phones of journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition politicians in mid-2021, the U.S. Commerce Department placed NSO Group on a blacklist.

Other, less notorious Israeli firms are also spreading their technologies from the occupied Palestinian territories to contexts worldwide. The Israeli facial recognition firm Oosto (formerly AnyVision) outfitted checkpoints across the West Bank with biometric scanners in 2019 and then began exporting these technologies abroad a few months later, where they are now used as facial recognition cameras at the entrances of malls, sports stadiums, and office complexes in 43 countries. The Israeli intelligence company Cellebrite pioneered technology that could break into locked iPhones for the Israeli police and has now exported its data-scraping technology to law enforcement agencies across the United States.

Two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras overlook an intersection in Hebron's Old City in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021.
Two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras overlook an intersection in Hebron's Old City in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021.

Two closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras overlook an intersection in Hebron’s Old City in the occupied West Bank on Dec. 4, 2021.Sophia Goodfriend for Foreign Policy

The trophies of Israel’s private surveillance industry have also corroded Israeli civilians’ right to privacy. Last month, Israeli press reported Israeli police used NSO Group’s Pegasus software against its own civilians, secretly and without warrants, for eight years. The revelations demonstrated the extent to which Israel’s political establishment has partnered with private surveillance firms in the country. Rather than regulating NSO Group’s sales, the government facilitated its expansion into civilian contexts domestically and worldwide.

Legal debates surrounding the use of NSO spyware against Israeli civilians are mounting. As politicians move to legalize invasive surveillance tech, Israeli lawyers and lawmakers are demanding safeguards against its abuse. But whatever policy changes Israel may see in response to recent revelations about NSO Group, it will not tamper with the development and deployment of similar technologies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Palestinian civilians living under occupation, denied basic civil and political rights, are excluded from such debates.

In August 2021, United Nations experts called for a moratorium on the sale and transfer of AI-powered surveillance technology. Human rights advocates said such a move would clamp down on the development of new technologies—from spyware to biometrics—until comprehensive international regulations on their sale and deployment are put in place.

It is unlikely Israel would sign any international regulation limiting the development and deployment of new surveillance tech. However, Palestinian digital rights advocate Nadim Nashif believes a U.N.-led moratorium would weaken the research and development capabilities of private Israeli firms operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. “The companies operating here always go global,” he said. “But if there’s less demand for their products, there’s less of an impetus for them to keep doing harm.”

For now, the impact of surveillance in Hebron is a warning to the rest of the world. Governments worldwide are clamoring for more invasive technologies, and the private market is meeting their demands. Innovation in AI-powered surveillance continues to outpace regulatory frameworks. Reining the private industry in is a small but necessary step to clamp down on the abuse of new technologies—in Palestine and beyond.

Sophia Goodfriend is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Duke University, with expertise in digital rights and digital surveillance in Israel and Palestine. She is based in Jerusalem. Twitter: @sopgood

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