Earlier this month, based on testimony given by former soldiers to the anti-occupation veteran group Breaking the Silence, the Washington Post revealed the existence of Blue Wolf – the latest facial recognition technology used in the system of monitoring, surveillance and control of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories.
In the field, combat soldiers are sent to carry out “adherence”: They go out on patrol, detain Palestinians in order to photograph their faces with special smartphone cameras and feed their details into the system. The choice of Palestinians to be detained is entirely random, there is no intelligence information behind it. The soldiers also force older women and young children to be photographed against their will.
The Israel Defense Forces spokesman explained in response that this system is “part of the fight against terrorism and the efforts to improve the quality of life of the Palestinian population.” The system, according to this concept, reduces the friction between soldiers and Palestinians and enables the soldiers to identify Palestinians with “a security motive” quickly and efficiently.
That may be true, but it’s not the only security logic behind the new system, which long before it was designed to make life easier for the Palestinian subjects was meant to increase Israeli control in the territories. One of the army’s main security strategies there, about which we heard a great deal from dozens of soldiers, is to create “a sense of persecution” in the Palestinian population.
The euphemistic term that parallels this concept is “demonstrating presence,” creating a feeling that soldiers could be anywhere, at any moment, and that no place is safe from a military presence. Blue Wolf and “adherence” are the type of new tools that the IDF is using as part of this military rationale. In that sense, instilling fear is not a byproduct of the army’s new surveillance system. It’s one of its main goals.
Even a decade ago, a soldier who served in the Hebron district in the South Hebron Hills had this to say: “The order said that we have to create a sense of persecution and to demonstrate presence, that was the overall description of everything we did… You enter the villages, prepare checkpoints, start checking houses, that was the routine. Every day in a different place you seize some main junction, some road, some traffic artery.”
For example, let’s take the checkpost, a surprise checkpoint on a road or at the entrance to a village. Dozens of them are created every day, and the purpose of these improvised checkpoints is not to catch terrorists. It’s to make it clear to the Palestinians that the IDF is always there, it can disrupt their lives constantly and that they can’t do anything about it. The greater the number of Palestinians who encounter the regime, the more they will be deterred by it. By that same logic, soldiers who used Blue Wolf told us about competitions among army units, with the winners being those who supplied the largest number of photos.
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Another tool that is very effective for creating a sense of persecution is nighttime raids of Palestinian homes. The head of the IDF Central Command recently declared an end to the use of the practice of mapping houses, but for years, and every night, soldiers entered Palestinian homes for no reason, told them to get out of bed, wrote down their details, mapped the house and left.
This is how it was described by a first lieutenant who served in the Bethlehem district from 2014 to 2015: “And then one of the soldiers would take a notebook and draw the structure of the house, the location of the rooms, who lives there? and where? And in the end he would photograph them. They would stand like that in the middle of the night, each one holding his ID card, and we would photograph them.”
Frequently, the soldiers told us that the documentation of the house wasn’t saved. The “mapping” was a kind of excuse to create a sense of persecution. And what creates a sense of persecution more than a armed soldier standing above the head of a sleeping child?
The Blue Wolf system and the “adherence” are the evolution of creating a sense of persecution in the high-tech era. The soldiers are in effect making it clear to the Palestinians that Big Brother is watching them, gathering every piece of information about their lives and recording their movements. But we must recall that Blue Wolf is only a tool that joins the present arsenal: Along with it there will always be the surprise checkpoints, the fake detentions, training exercises inside Palestinian villages and many other military practices.
Creating a sense of persecution is an age-old practice, and is only one of the many effective tools for maintaining our control in the territories. Generations of soldiers have told us about the various tasks whose purpose was identical. It works, because fear works. But at the end of the day, instilling fear leads to a loss of self. We send soldiers to instill fear in Palestinians and expect them to return and not say a word about what we ordered them to do.
Your country is looking in the mirror, and what it sees is our own version of a 1984 Orwellian dystopia, but this time it’s of our own making.
The writer is the head of Breaking the Silence’s department for testimony collection and research.