Institutionalized Voyeurism

Not surprisingly, the public debate over the law for a biometric database has ignored the fact that the Israeli authorities are goading the Palestinians to surrender biometric data of their own.

Not surprisingly, the public debate over the law for a biometric database has ignored the fact that the Israeli authorities are goading the Palestinians to surrender biometric data of their own - handprints, fingerprints and facial images indicating the distance between an individual's nose and eyes. Since 2005, such data has been contained in the magnetic cards introduced in 1989 as additional identification cards for Palestinians.

Until June 2008, a magnetic card (which accompanied the standard identity card) was presented as proof that Israeli authorities had no security-related claims against the bearer. He or she could file a request for a travel permit (to Israel, Gaza, the West Bank or Jewish settlements) and, with a fairly high degree of certainty, expect it to be granted. A year and a half ago, once the Palestinians' "biometrization" had sunk in and they had accepted the situation - hoping it would improve freedom of movement and opportunities to eke out a living - Israeli authorities completely altered the original function of the magnetic card. It stopped serving as proof that the bearer is not denied entry into Israel (denial that anyway does not indicate links to armed hostile activity). Instead, the card has transformed into just a tool for collecting information.

This invasive document is an additional layer in the sophisticated and institutionalized control, quarantine, surveillance and monitoring to which Israel subjects the occupied Palestinian population.

This institution is made up of territorial units of changing sizes. The Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem are territorial units, and so are the enclaves of villages and cities engulfed in a sea of Area C (the 61 percent of the West Bank under Israeli security and administrative authority), wedged between settlements or behind the separation fence. Concrete walls, wire fences, watchtowers, hundreds of roadblocks made of rocks and mounds of earth, and manned military checkpoints situated at the few entrances left to every territorial unit. These are the visual, architectural contours of institutionalized quarantine.

The techniques of monitoring and surveillance are geared to constantly accumulate information about every individual. There are strictly technological methods of doing this - fixed cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, reconnaissance balloons, wiretaps, helicopters. There are other methods which stem directly from the reality of the occupation - the Palestinian population registry, for example, is under the control of Israel's interior and defense ministries. The information on Palestinian IDs and passports - date of birth, address, marital status, number of children - is only valid with the approval of these Israeli ministries. Also, when barging into private homes and public buildings, the Israel Defense Forces confiscate valuable documents: computer hard disks, complete archives, correspondence.

And there are the personified techniques of collecting data. An entire army is occupied with espionage and detective work: Inspectors from the National Insurance Institute and Jerusalem municipality acting in East Jerusalem; Shin Bet officers; experts on "Arab affairs" of the Civil Administration and its field inspectors; airport authority employees; and Palestinian collaborators.

Even seemingly friendly conversations with Palestinian Authority officials yield copious amounts of information. Every permit request is accompanied by some kind of inquiry or extraction of information. Israeli authorities know couples' fertility problems, their cousins and friends abroad, where they work, who their neighbors are, final wills and testaments, hospital stays. Such information flows into the hands of Shin Bet officers in charge of a certain area, coordinators of the Civil Administration and army brigade commanders, who possess detailed maps on which each house is marked and its inhabitants known.

For years, Israel has developed an entire industry of institutionalized voyeurism. It is a bureaucratic apparatus employing high technology, which not only enhances its methods of control, but also manufactures justification for that control to persist. Israeli society warmly embraces these professional voyeurs and their explanation that their work stems from "security demands." But the truth is that in the complete control over the freedom of movement and personal information, and in the fragmentation of territory into separate units, Israel has created an institution whose aim is to contain and discipline the Palestinian public, to try to blackmail it by economical and emotional means. All of this is intended to limit, as much as possible, Palestinian resistance to the terms of surrender that Israel is attempting to force on its leadership.