The military’s nightly raids on West Bank homes to collect intelligence – a practice to which the army put an end this week – are just one of the many tactics Israel uses to track, monitor and gather information about the Palestinians. The methods are legion, and the agencies perpetrating what could be called “permanent espionage directed at all Palestinians” are numerous and diverse. Ending the invasive and aggressive method of “mapping,” as the military calls it, is definitely welcome. Fewer people, including numerous children, will awake in fright at night, to a break-in by armed soldiers enjoying the power they wield or hiding their own fears behind pointed guns, barking orders in broken Arabic.
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But even without these searches, the many-armed espionage apparatus used against Palestinians continues and will continue to operate. Information gathering, surveillance and monitoring are a central axis of Israeli control over the Palestinian people, in Israel proper and in territories conquered in 1967; they are disciplinary tools.
Their purpose is to make Palestinians obey and resign themselves to a Jewish takeover of most of their lands in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and Israel proper. It is to acclimatize them to being concentrated in enclaves of limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza, or into detached neighborhoods in Jerusalem or overcrowded towns in Israel, land that has been expropriated over many years and allocated to Jewish communities. When required, when Palestinians show they will not obey or this, surveillance and monitoring are used to intimidate and punish – through arrests, trials and imprisonment by military and civilian courts.
There are some methods of surveillance and information gathering that appear to be innocent, such as the meticulous monitoring of everything written and said in Palestinian media. There is also the close monitoring of social media, a treasure trove for any intelligence agency, even when following public discourse, rather than hacking an account.
But most of the other methods are invasive and aggressive. Some are physically violent; the violence of others is derived from the very asymmetrical power relations and from a will to exploit Palestinian weakness for the benefit of the rule of Israel and its Jewish population. This includes the use of collaborators at all levels, wiretapping, obliging people to carry biometric identity documents, summons by the Shin Bet to a “conversation.” There is also the Shin Bet interrogation of detainees, with or without the use of torture; detentions for the sake of gathering information or incrimination (such as the arrest of fishermen in Gaza or of minors in villages where demonstrations against settlements are held); the use of stool pigeons in prison cells, the use of psychologists, Middle East experts or terror experts to get Palestinian prisoners to talk; placing cameras at checkpoints and surveillance drones and balloons above towns and villages and using face-identification technology.
There are also “natural” methods of collecting intelligence or conducting surveillance, which are part and parcel of the relation between occupier and occupied, as determined by the Oslo Accords. These include “friendly” questioning at Civil Administration offices, regular meetings and talks between senior Israeli officials and representatives of the Palestinian Authority, questioning at border crossings and a demand for extensive information when requesting travel permits – mainly for medical purposes. Israel’s control over the population registry provides the army with a gigantic database, covering all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
It’s not just state institutions – such as the army, the Shin Bet security service and the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and its branches, the Civil Administration and liaison offices – that deal with this constant espionage. Private agencies, which have multiplied in recent years, also engage in it. It’s the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center; the Regavim non-profit, which monitors every shack, sheep pen or terrace that Palestinians build in 60 percent of the West Bank (in what is called Area C); Palestinian Media Watch; NGO Monitor and various settler groups. It is certain that all these organizations – official and unofficial alike – share the information they gather through their own tracking and monitoring.
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When the commander of Central Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, says that the army can forgo home invasions for mapping purposes because it has advanced technological alternatives, one can believe him. But it’s very likely that the army would not have relinquished this method without the efforts of NGOs. These include the obstinacy of Breaking the Silence, which published information on these raids even before a report on this issue came out, and the legal action taken by attorneys Michael Sfard and Hagai Benziman who represented that organization, as well as the Yesh Din and Physicians for Human Rights NGOs.
The nighttime raids are also a means of intimidation, another brick in the structure of dominance. The army and Shin Bet will surely find it easy to label Palestinians as “suspects” in order to continue breaking into their homes at night. The concession doesn’t really hurt the system.
The reality of life under supervision, surveillance and information gathering, meant to discipline and regulate domination, is not an Israeli invention. The 18th century British legal scholar and philosopher Jeremy Bentham built a model of an efficient prison called a panopticon, an all-seeing instrument. This is an architectural model in which prisoners live in illuminated cells (rather than dungeons), under constant surveillance by their jailers, who are located in towers overhead. The prisoners can’t see their jailers, but knowing they are present keeps them disciplined.
Bentham expanded his model to include hospitals, factories and schools, assuming that their efficiency would benefit society. Philosopher Michel Foucault analyzed the panopticon model as a mechanism of power, which allows one to understand the conduct of societies in the liberal-capitalist age, as well as the covert and overt techniques of oppression used by the sovereign against large groups of people.
Ordinary liberal-capitalist societies have democratic measures that moderate the invasiveness of aggressive surveillance mechanisms and try to limit the number of people affected. But it cannot happen in a fundamentally non-democratic reality, as the Israeli occupation is. The panopticon, the sophisticated prison Israel has built, is the essence of the Palestinian reality.