Palestinians pass through an Israeli military checkpoint separating occupied East Jerusalem from the West Bank. (Photo credit: Emil Salman)
The Israeli government closely monitors the communications and movements of millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza), who have lived under Israeli military rule since 1967, and inside Israel, making Palestinians one of the most surveilled people in the world.
This mass surveillance is part of a complex web of control Israel has imposed on Palestinians, particularly in the occupied territories. This system of control includes restricting the physical movement of people and goods, dividing and isolating Palestinian cities and towns from one another and the outside world, and suppressing freedom of speech on and offline.
The following fact sheet provides an overview of Israel’s methods of surveillance and physical control over Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Israeli surveillance & tracking of Palestinians
Israel uses cameras and facial recognition technology to record and track Palestinians, including at military checkpoints they’re forced to pass through in the occupied West Bank.
- In November 2021, the Washington Post reported that Israel escalated its monitoring of Palestinians in the West Bank over the past two years with a “broad surveillance effort” including 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 and, one former soldier said, can sometimes see into private homes.” Israel has also installed an extensive network of cameras with a facial recognition system in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem.
- Facial recognition and surveillance technology developed by Israel on Palestinians in the occupied territories is exported abroad, marketed as “field tested,” and is widely used in the US and by multinational corporations.
Israel uses military drones and balloons extensively to monitor Palestinians in the occupied territories, particularly in besieged Gaza.
- Combined with the fact that Israel also uses drones to tear gas and kill Palestinians, their ubiquitous presence overhead causes widespread anxiety and fear among the population.
Israel uses powerful spyware technology like Pegasus, developed by the Israeli military and private companies run by former soldiers, to spy on the smartphones of Palestinians.
- Pegasus allows users to spy on smartphones, accessing the targeted individual’s encrypted communications, audio and video files, photos, location data, camera and microphone. In early November 2021, it was revealed Israel had been using Pegasus to spy on six leading Palestinian civil society organizations, including human rights defenders documenting Israeli abuses. The Palestinian Authority said Pegasus spyware had also been found on the phones of three senior Palestinian diplomats.
- On November 3, 2021, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Israeli firm that sells Pegasus (with approval from Israel’s government), the NSO Group, because the spyware has repeatedly been used by authoritarian governments to “maliciously target” journalists, human rights defenders, political dissidents, and others.
Israel uses collaborators to spy on other Palestinians and to incite conflict among Palestinians, often pressuring people into cooperating with violence, imprisonment, and blackmail based on personal information acquired from surveillance or other collaborators.
- Since it began its occupation of the Palestinian territories during the June 1967 war, Israel’s military and secret police, the Shin Bet, have used collaborators to spy on the occupied Palestinian population. Frequently, Palestinians are coerced into collaborating with physical violence, imprisonment, threats to publicly expose potentially embarrassing personal information, or to deny them or their loved ones the ability to travel to undergo medical treatment not available in the West Bank or Gaza.
- In September 2014, a group of 43 veterans of the Israeli military’s top secret intelligence gathering Unit 8200 signed a public letter sent to their commanders and the prime minister declaring they would no longer work on anything having to do with the occupied territories during their mandatory reserve duty because of the harm caused by Israel’s “all-encompassing” spying. They singled out the use of personal information gleaned from spying to blackmail people into collaborating. According to The New York Times:
“In the testimony and in interviews… the Unit 8200 veterans described exploitative activities focused on innocents whom Israel hoped to enlist as collaborators. They said information about medical conditions and sexual orientation were among the tidbits collected. They said that Palestinians lacked legal protections from harassment, extortion and injury. ‘Palestinians’ sex talks were always a hot item to pass on from one person in the unit to the other for a good laugh,’ read one officer’s testimony.”
- The veterans’ letter also noted how Israel uses information gathered from spying to sow discord within Palestinian society and as secret evidence in Israel’s military court system that human rights organizations have condemned as unjust, reading in part:
“The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. It is used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself. In many cases, intelligence prevents defendants from receiving a fair trial in military courts, as the evidence against them is not revealed.”
Israel closely monitors Palestinians on social media, arresting 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.
- During the escalation in violence in May 2021 provoked by Israel’s attempts to forcibly displace Palestinian families from their homes and assaults on Palestinian worshippers in the revered Noble Sanctuary mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem, millions of posts by Palestinians and their supporters, including journalists and human rights defenders, were blocked and restricted by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, prompting condemnation from rights groups. Accounts belonging to Palestinians were also suspended, including the Instagram account of Mona El-Kurd, who was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people of 2021 along with her brother Mohammed because of the prominent role they’ve played in resisting settlers’ attempts to take over the homes of their family and other Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
2. Israeli restrictions on the physical movement of Palestinians
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.
- All Palestinians in the occupied territories are required to have Israeli-issued ID cards that are color-coded, affecting everything from freedom of movement to family unity. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have green IDs and Palestinians in East Jerusalem have blue IDs. Palestinians with green IDs are barred from entering Jerusalem or other parts of historic Palestine inside Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders without special permission, which is rarely granted. All Palestinians in the occupied territories require Israeli permission to travel abroad.
- Israel’s control of the population registry provides the Israel army with a huge database of information covering every Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing it to control their movements and residency rights. According to Human Rights Watch:
“Since 1967, the population registry has been central to Israel’s administrative efforts to control the demographic composition of the occupied Palestinian territory… Israel has used Palestinians’ residency status as a tool to control their ability to reside in, move within, and travel abroad from the West Bank, as well as to travel from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank.”
Israel uses walls, military checkpoints, and other physical obstacles to control and limit the movements of Palestinians.
- At any given time, there are hundreds of Israeli military checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles to Palestinian movement inside the occupied West Bank, an area smaller than the state of Delaware. A network of Israeli-only highways that connect settlements to one another and to Israel proper further divides Palestinian communities - whose land the roads were built on - and restricts the movement of people. Israel’s settlement enterprise and West Bank wall also limit the movement of Palestinians and cut them off from their land and one another. Israel has built a wall along the frontier of occupied and besieged Gaza as well to make it easier to imprison and control the Palestinians there.
Israel’s illegal siege and blockade of Gaza prevents 2 million Palestinians from leaving the tiny impoverished coastal enclave, except for rare exceptions.
- Since 2007, Israel has imposed a crippling siege and naval blockade on Gaza, which has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups as collective punishment of the entire population and illegal. Under the siege, it’s almost impossible for Palestinians to leave tiny, impoverished Gaza, even to travel to the West Bank or Jerusalem to study, work, visit family, or receive life-saving medical treatment. The Israeli military also prevents fishermen in Gaza from traveling far from shore, denying them the ability to reach the most productive fishing grounds, frequently detaining, shooting at and injuring or killing them, in the process. Gaza is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
Israel prevents most Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem.
- Israel denies most Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza the ability to travel to occupied East Jerusalem to visit family, friends, do business, or worship at its holy sites, even though according to international law East Jerusalem is not legally part of Israel and is considered a single territorial unit along with the rest of the occupied territories. Jerusalem is central to Palestinian national identity, culture, and religious life, and yet most Palestinians are not allowed to visit or live in the city because of racist Israeli policies designed to increase the number of Jewish residents and decrease the number of Palestinians.
Israel denies most Palestinians in the diaspora the right to visit their homeland.
- In addition to restricting the movement of Palestinians directly under its control, Israel prevents most Palestinians who live outside of Palestine/Israel from returning or visiting their homeland. More Palestinians live outside of Palestine/Israel than inside, with millions of refugees denied their legal right to return because they’re not Jewish. Meanwhile, Jews born anywhere in the world can move to Israel or a settlement built illegally on occupied Palestinian land and automatically receive Israeli citizenship and have more rights than the indigenous Palestinians around them.