The Eyes In The Holy City – OpEd


By Devika Ajith Panicker

Hebron, the holy site of the Tomb of Abraham, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs to the Jewish community, or Al Khalil to the Muslims, is an important city to all Abrahamic religions. The Palestinian communities hold the Old City of Hebron in high regard, due to its religious and cultural significance and as an economic centre.

This significance attracts inevitable tensions, making Hebron the centre of growing illegal settler movements and the subsequent increasing policing and surveillance from the Israeli state. The Etzion bloc in Hebron built in 1967 was one of the first illegal settlements in the West Bank. The proximity of the two communities, with diametrically opposing ideological and religious leanings, has often sparked communal tensions and violence.

An infamous example of one such agitation was the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre of 1994, when Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler, mass murdered 29 Palestinians praying at the Haram Al-Ibrahimi mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. While most Israeli citizens denounced the massacre, Goldstein is seen as a hero by some Israeli settlers, particularly those in Hebron. Protests and riots among the Palestinians ensued in the wake of the massacre, drawing further violent retaliation from the Israeli state forces resulting in the death of 11 civilians and forced closure of shops and homes of Palestinians. The Ibrahimi mosque was also sectioned off with singular access for settlers and Jewish visitors to a majority of the holy site. This incident cemented the Israeli military presence in the city and opened the door to the expansion of the surveillance programme that the state continues to exercise and advance.

International institutions have recognised the Israeli state’s success in creating a network of surveillance to ensure “a frictionless occupation”. The rise of mass surveillance technology employed in areas of occupied West Bank, specifically in Hebron, can only be described as highly invasive, beyond any Orwellian imagination. Hebron is divided into two regions, with the Israeli military-protected illegal settlements on one side, H2, and Palestinian authority-controlled, H1. The 33,750 Palestinian citizens living in the Israeli-controlled H2 region of the historic city of Hebron are subject to constant surveillance. The area is dotted with checkpoints that severely hinder the freedom of movement for the supposed protection of 800 Israeli settlers.

In Hebron, particularly, the surveillance network consists of three functions, namely, the Red Wolf software; the Blue Wolf app for Israeli defence forces; and the White Wolf app for illegal settlers. The Red Wolf software is the backbone of the system, building a detailed profile of Palestinian civilians as they go through any of the 21 checkpoints in the Hebron area, including name, age, marital status, family information, medical history, prior arrests or detentions, etc. Blue Wolf, an app that uses the aforementioned database of Palestinian civilians living in Hebron, is one of the lesser-known Israeli surveillance technology apparatus.

The database cross-references the civilians with past incidents of arrests or dissent and categorises them into three groups: Red, yellow, and green, indicating their perceived ‘threat factor’. The soldiers are then notified of the individual’s levels when they pass through the checkpoints, which often result in indefinite detentions. The White Wolf app is designed for the settlers living in the H2, allowing them access to the same information that is collected by the state forces, thus, subjecting the Palestinian civilians to further scrutiny from those far outside the already poorly regulated system.

The Amnesty International has termed this practice as “automated apartheid”; however, the Israeli state has asserted that it is part of an initiative to create a “smart city” in Hebron. The indiscriminate use of checkpoints and monitoring of civilians are practised to protect Israel’s illegal settlement project in Hebron. Under Israel’s Right of Return policy, more than half a million settlers have made their home in the West Bank, having essentially taken the land from Palestinian civilians while being protected by the Israeli army.

International communities and numerous civil and human rights organisations, and even a section of Israelis, have criticised such extreme actions that add fuel to the fire. The West Bank, particularly the highly policed neighbourhoods in Hebron, provide the Israeli defence industry with a substantial testing ground in their backyard for its sophisticated and invasive technology exports to the international community. Working alongside surveillance technology like the Wolf Pack, the checkpoints are fitted with remote-controlled systems that fire stun grenades and tear gas. Developed by the Israeli defence firm, Smart Shooter, this system is employed at checkpoints with high civilian populations. Observers have long condemned such an approach to defence modernisation as it illustrates the trend of maximising the damage inflicted while minimising the need for actual combatants or military force on the ground.

For years, domestic tensions within Israel have fostered distrust in the current administration. Even Israel’s state apparatus has warned against the use of excessive force against the Palestinian community in the West Bank and Gaza. A major cause of frustration toward the Israeli state has been its strategy of the use of force and normalising the aggressive displacement of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. The disapproval is reflected in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s approval rating, which has hit rock bottom following the recent terrorist attack on Israel.

While tensions are still sky-high, this attack was a reality check for the highly sophisticated Israeli Defence Forces. Their superior surveillance and monitoring apparatus did not predict the devastating attack that initiated the war, killing thousands. The attacks have resurfaced questions of where the state’s priorities lie and whether their views have been skewed by their agenda in the West Bank. To redirect, the Israeli state has launched an aggressive offence on Gaza, making use of all defence technology in its arsenal.

However, the ground reality remains unchanged. The domestic and international communities have called into question the effectiveness of the Netanyahu administration and demand accountability. The catastrophe has shaken the conscience of many and may bring radical changes that shift the dynamics towards stability—or foment further instability—in West Asia.

  • About the author: Devika Ajith Panicker is a research intern at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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