Under Israeli surveillance: Living in dystopia, in Palestine

As a Palestinian Jerusalemite, I live in a surveillance society not that different from those in dystopian science fiction novels.

A security camera is seen next to the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem
The Dome of the Rock and the Old City are seen from the Mount of Olives via a security camera in Jerusalem on January 13, 2018 [Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

It has been more than five months since the United States sanctioned the Israeli spyware company NSO Group, and stories about the use and abuse of its Pegasus product continue to break. As various organisations try to push for further measures against Israel for supplying human rights abusers with this tool to further their violations, it is important to remember that Israeli military and surveillance technology is first developed for and tested on Palestinians, before being exported.

Unsurprisingly, Pegasus has already been found on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists, one of whom is now suing NSO in France. Another target happened to be my friend and colleague whose field of work is directly connected to the relationship between Palestine and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

The thought that the Israelis have had full access to our personal conversations and exchanges in group chats has been quite disturbing, to say the least. However, this is not the first time Israel has violated my privacy and it won’t be the last.

As a Palestinian and a Jerusalemite, I find myself living in a surveillance society, not that different from the dystopian science fiction books and films that are popular these days.

Jerusalem and the West Bank are some of the world’s most surveilled places. Not a moment passes without us being made aware of the scale of intrusive surveillance constantly monitoring us: advanced facial recognition cameras, licence plate readers, spyware on our computers and mobile devices, as well as technologies that enable Israeli authorities to listen in to any – and all – of our phone calls.

Let me walk you through the routine surveillance that I go through as an average Palestinian. The surveillance starts in my home; it starts on my phone and computer.

A recent report in the Middle East Eye quoted a former member of the Israeli army’s elite intelligence unit 8200 as saying that Israel can listen to any telephone conversation that takes place in the occupied West Bank and Gaza on the only two mobile networks that serve us, Jawwal and Wataniya.

According to the army veteran, the Israelis listen in on politically active Palestinians and on ordinary Palestinians to find “pressure points”; an example of the latter “might be finding gays who can be pressured to report on their relatives, or finding some man who is cheating on his wife”.

I’ve been working hard to navigate these systems of surveillance my whole life. From self-censorship to carefully choosing where I would express myself, I have developed many methods to ensure I can speak my mind without risking persecution, blackmail or imprisonment. Still, I am aware that despite not doing anything wrong, I am never completely safe – I know people who are doing time in Israeli prisons merely because of their social media activity. The speech and socialisation behaviours that are considered normal and protected in the democratic world are criminalised in apartheid Israel to maintain population control.

The Israeli surveillance continues once I step out into the street. In the centre of East Jerusalem and the Old City, hundreds of cameras equipped with facial recognition technology track our movements. In 2014, there was one security camera for every 100 Palestinians in the city, according to a report published by Who Profits, a research centre focusing on companies profiting from the Israeli occupation.

In 2017, the Israeli government announced its plan to install a further 765 cameras with advanced software with facial recognition capabilities, providing live feedback of individuals’ profiles as they move around the city.

Thus, a walk in the city of Jerusalem is never a relaxing one for we, Palestinians. Knowing that I am watched the entire time, I constantly worry about doing something that may be misinterpreted by authorities and turn me into a target. I become unnecessarily alert and calculative of every step I take.

Whenever I meet with friends in public, we all resign ourselves to the idea that our pattern of behaviour is being watched and analysed in real time. In February, Israeli authorities openly admitted to using a cellular tracking system to target and threaten Palestinians who participated or were near Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem protests last May.

All this surveillance always makes me think I am living in a panopticon – a system of control designed by social theorist Jeremy Bentham which allows authorities to achieve maximum control of the population with minimal effort. Palestinians are indeed living in a panopticon – we are all prisoners of Israel’s surveillance regime.

Israeli occupation takes a heavy toll on our physical and psychological wellbeing, and knowing that we are constantly under surveillance adds to our suffering. We not only have to deal with constant harassment by Israeli soldiers, stop and search abuses, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, but we also do not feel safe in our own homes, when we are surfing the web, talking on the phone, conversing with our friends.

Surveillance does not stop when I leave Jerusalem. When I drive to Ramallah for work, for example, authorities continue to keep track of my routine using high tech surveillance technologies. Throughout the road there are licence plate reader cameras (dubbed Hawk Eyes), that make private information, including real-time location, accessible to the police at the click of a button.

Every checkpoint and every intersection that leads to a Palestinian population centre within the West Bank or leading to Jerusalem is fully monitored by this extensive surveillance system.

This form of surveillance adds to the anxiety Palestinian residents of Jerusalem feel. We constantly live on edge, as the Israeli state demands that we keep Jerusalem as our “centre of life” in order to maintain our right to live there.

Those of us regularly going to the West Bank for school, work or other reasons, constantly worry about having our Jerusalem residence revoked by the occupation. We worry that the Israeli authorities watching us can arbitrarily decide that we spend too much time in Ramallah, for example, and just kick us out of Jerusalem for good.

The surveillance I experience in Jerusalem and Ramallah still cannot compare with what my fellow Palestinians go through in Hebron, where a significantly more intrusive surveillance regime is being tested. There, the Israeli military installed face-scanning cameras at checkpoints in the heart of the city. It enables soldiers to identify Palestinians before even checking their ID cards. The “Hebron Smart City” programme, as Israeli authorities have dubbed it, provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population and can sometimes see into private Palestinian homes, according to testimony gathered by the Washington Post. The Israeli authorities have plans to establish similar “smart city” programmes in the entire West Bank.

In addition, there is the “Blue Wolf” programme. While it was piloted in Hebron, it is now used all over the West Bank. It is a phone application with an advanced facial recognition system that captures photos of Palestinians and matches the information with a database of images so extensive that it has been dubbed the Israeli army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians”. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on March 24 that Israeli soldiers had received instructions from their commanders that, during any shift at a checkpoint or guard post, they must enter the details of at least 50 random Palestinians to the Blue Wolf tracking system.

In Hebron, the application of the Blue Wolf system involves soldiers raiding homes and pulling Palestinian children out of bed to photograph them. Recently, a video was released by B’Tselem showing sleepy Palestinian children in their pyjamas being shouted at by soldiers who ordered them to be photographed. The Israeli soldiers were even heard asking the children to smile and “say cheese” before taking their photographs.

No Israeli would want to be exposed to the same level of surveillance; proposals by law enforcement officials to install such facial recognition cameras in public spaces in Israel were fiercely rejected by politicians. The use of NSO Pegasus software by Israeli police against citizens of Israel was widely debated and condemned as well. But under apartheid, one standard applies to Israelis and another to Palestinians.

For Israeli companies engaged in developing the surveillance and spyware technologies, the occupied territories are just a lab where their products can be tried before being marketed and exported worldwide for profit. For the Israeli government, this surveillance regime is both a tool of control and a money-making business.

For we Palestinians, it is yet another systematic violation of our rights under the ever-deepening repression of the Israeli apartheid state.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.