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Israel Is Using Emergency Pandemic Measures to Surveil Palestinian Protesters

Israel is currently engaged in a brutal crackdown on Palestinian protesters — and it’s using surveillance measures refined during the COVID-19 pandemic to monitor, track, and harass those protesters.

Israeli forces take a demonstrator into custody as they intervene in Palestinian protests against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip May 18, 2021 in Bethlehem, West Bank. (Wisam Hashlamoun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

As the war in Palestine escalates, the Israeli authorities have relied on an intensive surveillance apparatus which was expanded, refined, and normalized during the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel’s security agency, the Shin Bet or Shabak, is working alongside its Israeli police forces to arrest over seven hundred Palestinians protesting in major cities like East Jerusalem, Lod, and Jaffa. As of Sunday, Israeli courts had filed 116 indictments against those arrested.

Central to such tactics is intensive digital tracking and monitoring. On May 10, a day before Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza strip began, hundreds of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem protested at Al-Aqsa Mosque. They decried decades of Israeli military occupation in Palestine. Palestinians called for the end to a colonial status quo that has culminated, most recently, in the expropriation of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah by Jewish Israeli settlers. Those who attended the protest reported receiving intimidating text messages from the Shabak. “Hello!” the messages read in Arabic, “You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable — Israeli intelligence.”

On that same day, militant, right-wing Jewish Israelis stormed through Jerusalem’s divided old city, celebrating the anniversary of the Israeli state’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967. The crowd chanted, among other things, “death to Arabs” as they vandalized Palestinian property. The rioters did not receive any such warning over their mobile phones.

Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem surmised Israel was using the same GPS surveillance system it had employed during the coronavirus crisis to track Palestinian protesters. “They started this during the pandemic,” an unnamed Palestinian in East Jerusalem told me a a protest in Sheikh Jarrah dispersed on May 14, “and it is here to stay.”

As Israel wages war in Gaza, discriminatory surveillance continues to be central to the state’s crackdown on protesters across the West Bank and ’48 Palestine. The events of this past week provide a lens onto what a post-pandemic surveillance state looks like. It has implications for all of us across the globe.

Vital Systems

The current war began just as Israel’s war against the coronavirus all but disappeared. In March of 2020, Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to “fight coronavirus with the same tools we use to fight terrorism.” Over the next twelve months, the Israeli state leveraged its surveillance apparatus, refined through its decades-long occupation of Palestine, to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic enabled the firms integral to Israel’s military rule over the occupied Palestinian territories to expand through the imperatives of a public health crisis. The NSO Group, infamous for contracting with authoritarian regimes to hack political dissidents’ cellphones, provided location tracking services to the Israeli government. AnyVision, the start-up responsible for outfitting Israeli checkpoints with biometric cameras, installed fever detection cameras at major hospitals across Israel. Elbit Systems, whose drones have killed upward of two hundred in the Gaza strip in the last week, manufactured robotics that could surveil isolated patients in clinical settings.

Just as coronavirus rates plummet into near nonexistence within Israel — but certainly not in the West Bank or Gaza strip — another war has begun. In April, Israeli border police barred Palestinian worshippers from Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, and Jewish settlers forcibly evicted Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Isolated incidents of violence from both Palestinians and Israelis escalated as Israeli police attacked worshippers at Al-Aqsa with tear gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades. Hamas began launching rockets toward Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Southern Israel. The Israeli military responded with a full-on assault on Gaza.

As upward of two hundred Palestinians in the Gaza strip are killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) airstrikes and ten Israelis by Hamas rockets, Palestinian protesters have united across borders and settlement walls. Israeli soldiers killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in the West Bank; peaceful demonstrations and violent riots have broken out in so-called mixed cities within Israel. Over the past week and a half, the world has witnessed an unprecedented uprising across all of historic Palestine.

At the same time, the state of emergency the embattled prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu set in place throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged on. The systems leveraged to track Palestinians and Jewish Israeli citizens alike under the auspices of public health became, once again, tools of military surveillance and policing.

In the past week, Israel’s police have carried out targeted arrests against scores of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, across the remainder of the West Bank, and throughout Israeli cities. Police have detained Jewish Israeli activists leading protests in West Jerusalem as well. In activist spaces, it seems widely understood that the state is surveilling everyone all the time.

COVID-19 provided the material infrastructure and legal scaffolding for such surveillance systems to be refined and normalized. The Israeli supreme court ordered the end to Israel’s encompassing access to Israeli civilian cell phone data in mid-March. However, the current unrest presents another state of emergency which allows digital tracking and surveillance to continue unabated. This is especially true for those living in occupied East Jerusalem and throughout the remainder of the West Bank, where such surveillance has long unfolded extralegally. The companies integral to such operations have profited and developed over the past year; their systems have become more invasive and effective.

Pandemic Capitalism

Since the early days of the pandemic, many have warned of the advent of pandemic capitalism. A technologically mediated world of Amazon fresh deliveries and Zoom conferences consolidates platform monopolies and corporate control. We should also be wary of another side of pandemic profiteering. As military and surveillance firms integrate into new markets and profit from the crisis, they pave the way for the consolidation of ever more expansive and repressive surveillance regimes.

COVID-19 allowed Israeli defense and security firms to frame their products as vital to public health and security. Such firms market their technologies, long used to police and confine communities across historic Palestine, to governments worldwide. Yet the promise that warfare’s violence will fuel technoscientific innovation rationalizes Israeli militarism, allowing it to drag on and intensify.

As events in Palestine evidence, the expansion of surveillance and security systems has grave repercussions for those communities most vulnerable to state surveillance and militarized policing. Amidst large-scale protests against the war in Gaza and across historic Palestine, we should call out those companies profiting from the continuation of a lethally unequal status quo. From Palestine to the United States, now is the time to challenge the companies fueling the expansion of a sinister pandemic capitalism.