By: Najla M. Shahwan
For years the Israeli government has been closely monitoring the communications and movements of millions of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, and inside Israel, making Palestinians the most surveilled people in the world.
A new report published by Amnesty International last Tuesday revealed that the Israeli Defense Forces are increasingly utilizing advanced facial recognition technology to track the movements of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron and occupied East Jerusalem. In its 82-page report, Amnesty documents how the Israeli authorities are utilizing artificial intelligence-driven surveillance tools, a camera system called “red wolf” since 2022, deploying it at checkpoints as part of a program that “relies on databases consisting exclusively of Palestinian individuals’ data.”
The organization said: “The Israeli authorities are using an experimental facial recognition system known as the ‘red wolf’ to track Palestinians and automate harsh restrictions on their freedom of movement while documenting how red wolf is part of an ever-growing surveillance network that is entrenching the Israeli government’s control over Palestinians, and which helps to maintain Israel’s system of apartheid.”
The “red wolf” is deployed at military checkpoints in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, where it scans Palestinians’ faces and adds them to vast surveillance databases without their consent.
“The Israeli authorities are using sophisticated surveillance tools to supercharge segregation and automate apartheid against Palestinians. In the H2 area of Hebron, we documented how a new facial recognition system called red wolf is reinforcing draconian restrictions on Palestinians’ freedom of movement, using illegitimately acquired biometric data to monitor and control Palestinians’ movements around the city,” said Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.
Besides, Amnesty documented how Israel’s use of facial recognition technology against Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem has increased, especially in the wake of protests in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah over the eviction of Palestinian families in 2021, and the presence of cameras has increased in the area, most likely supporting an Israeli government video surveillance system capable of facial recognition known as Mabat 2000.
Since 2017, Israeli authorities have been upgrading this system to enhance its facial recognition capabilities and give themselves unprecedented powers of surveillance. Amnesty International mapped CCTV cameras across an area of 10 square kilometers (nearly 4 square miles) in occupied East Jerusalem, including the Old City and Sheikh Jarrah, and found the presence of one to two CCTV cameras every 5 meters (16 feet).
Israeli authorities have targeted sites of cultural and political significance with new surveillance tools, such as the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, which has long been a place for Palestinians to meet and hold protests.
In Hebron and occupied East Jerusalem, facial recognition technology supports a dense network of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to keep Palestinians under near-constant observation, part of a deliberate attempt by Israeli authorities to create a hostile and coercive environment for Palestinians, with the aim of minimizing their presence in strategic areas.
At high-fenced checkpoints in Hebron, Palestinians stand in front of facial recognition cameras before being allowed to cross. As their faces are scanned, the software – known as “red wolf” –uses a color-coded system of green, yellow and red to guide soldiers on whether to let the person go, stop them for questioning or arrest them, according to Amnesty’s report.
When the technology fails to identify someone, soldiers train the system by adding their personal information to the database. Although Israel has long restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, technological advances are giving the occupation authorities powerful new tools, the latest of which are the mass surveillance systems, which rely on AI to learn to identify the faces of people based on large stores of images.
However, in Hebron and East Jerusalem, the technology focuses almost entirely on Palestinians, according to Amnesty’s report, marking a new way to automate the control of interior boundaries that separate the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, which Amnesty called “automated apartheid.”
“These databases and tools exclusively record the data of Palestinians,” said the report, which is based on accounts by former Israeli soldiers and Palestinians who live in the surveilled areas, as well as field visits to observe the technology’s use in affected territories.
In November 2021, The Washington Post reported that Israel escalated its monitoring of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank over the past few years with a “broad surveillance effort,” including the use of a facial recognition technology called “blue wolf,” which one former Israeli soldier called the Israeli army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians.” Soldiers were encouraged to take photos of Palestinians, including children and the elderly, for the database, with prizes awarded to units that gathered the most.
The Post also reported that the Israeli army installed face-scanning cameras in Hebron, the largest city in the occupied West Bank, to identify Palestinians before they show their IDs at checkpoints, part of a “wider network of closed-circuit television cameras, dubbed “Hebron Smart City,” that provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population.”
Israel has also installed an extensive network of cameras with a facial recognition system in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.
On the other hand, the Israeli authorities have a facial recognition app, called the “blue wolf,” to identify Palestinians, according to Breaking the Silence, an organization that assisted Amnesty in its report and collects testimonials from Israeli soldiers who have worked in occupied territories.
Soldiers use the app to photograph Palestinians on the street or during home raids to register them in a central database and to check if they are wanted for arrest or questioning, according to Amnesty‘s report and testimonials from Breaking the Silence.
Palestinians are subjected to constant oversight and supervision. They are regularly stopped by soldiers to be photographed using the “blue wolf” app. Surveillance cameras line the streets and drones commonly fly overhead. These recognition systems are not just an invasion of privacy but a powerful tool for control. Surveillance of Palestinians has always been an integral part of Israel’s colonial project.
Israel uses biometric ID cards, travel permits and control of the population registry in the occupied territories to monitor Palestinians and to limit where and with whom they can live and where they can travel. It uses military drones and balloons extensively to monitor Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, particularly in besieged Gaza. Besides, it closely monitors Palestinians on social media, arrests people for posts that encourage resistance to Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime, and pressures tech companies to censor posts and suspend accounts of Palestinian journalists, activists and others.
Israel digitized its occupation and the plethora of new technologies has enabled it to surveil and control the Palestinians it occupies on a massive, intrusive scale enforcing an institutionalized system of oppression against their rights and humanity.
Source: The Daily Sabah