Israel’s Pernicious Surveillance of Palestinians

A recent article revealed that Israel has been employing a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf to conduct massive surveillance on Palestinians in the city of Hebron, in the Occupied West Bank. According to the testimonies of ex-IDF personnel, Israel has been monitoring Palestinians by integrating facial recognition with a growing network of cameras and smartphones.  

The reported surveillance initiative, which has been in place for the past two years, captures pictures of Palestinians and stores them in a large-scale database. Once the image is captured, the Blue Wolf matches the photo to a person and according to testimonies by Israeli soldiers, their “phones will then flash a specific color that signifies if that individual should be arrested, detained or left undisturbed.” 


According to The Washington Post, in order to build the database used by Blue Wolf “Soldiers competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit. The total number of people photographed is unclear but, at a minimum, ran well into the thousands.” Reportedly, Israeli soldiers went out on patrols, detained Palestinians randomly and photographed their faces with special smartphone cameras to feed their details into the system. 


The implications of Israel’s surveillance campaign in the city of Hebron cannot be underestimated. Israel claims the use of this system to be “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian population.” However, for Palestinians, particularly residents of Hebron in the Occupied West Bank, this massive surveillance initiative is an inherent part of Israel’s longstanding military control and subjugation of Palestinians and their basic rights and fundamental freedoms in an era of high-tech. 


For 25 years, the situation for Palestinians in Hebron has been dire as residents of the city have had their freedom of movement curtailed due to the intensifying restrictions imposed by Israel. According to B’Tselem, the segregation and exclusion of Palestinians from an entire section of the city of Hebron has been applied through the installation of a cruel system of “staffed checkpoints and physical obstructions throughout the center of Hebron which is compounded by daily acts of violence by Israeli security forces and settlers. The regime of separation and violence has made life intolerable and commercial activity impossible for Palestinian residents.” According to testimonies collected by Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, given by Israeli soldiers who served in Hebron, they have “repeatedly described the arbitrary use of military violence against Palestinian residents. The goal – according to the instructions they received – is to increase the sense of persecution.” Accordingly, this massive surveillance campaign employed by Israel corresponds well with Israel’s efforts to maintain “increasing sense of persecution” in the city.  

Israeli soldiers detain Palestinian men in the village of Yabad near the West Bank city of Jenin, 2020.Credit: Jaafar Ashityeh/AFP

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern about the increase in the use of surveillance technology by governments and the lack of robust regulations that guarantee the use of surveillance compliant with international human rights standards. In a statement delivered in September 2021, Bachelet stated that “Artificial intelligence can be a force for good, helping societies overcome some of the great challenges of our times. But AI technologies can have negative, even catastrophic, effects if they are used without sufficient regard to how they affect people’s human rights”. The report issued by the office of the High Commissioner found that AI systems affect the right to privacy in all cases examined, “With AI using personal information and often making decisions that have tangible effects on people’s lives. Nevertheless, deeply intertwined with the question of privacy are various impacts on the enjoyment of other rights, such as the rights to health, education, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression. 


While developed countries around the world have moved towards imposing restrictions on facial recognition and surveillance, the actions of the Israeli authorities in Hebron underscore the intensifying disregard for the basic human rights of Palestinians. According to Roni Pelli, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel “The situation described [in Hebron] constitutes a severe violation of basic rights, such as the right to privacy, as soldiers are incentivized to collect as many photos of Palestinian men, women and children as possible in a sort of competition”.