Over the course of 2020 and 2021, groundbreaking investigations revealed in stark detail Israeli authorities’ intensifying use of surveillance and predictive technologies to police and control Palestinians. Subjecting Palestinians to such scrutiny from security and military apparatuses narrows their expressive spaces and plunges them into a state of constant anxiety. This practice also carries out a commercial purpose: Occupied Palestine effectively functions as an open-air laboratory for Israel to test techniques of espionage and surveillance before selling them to repressive regimes around the world. This commerce has troubling implications, particularly as more governments have leveraged digital monitoring tools against political opponents, activists, journalists, civil society workers, and others deemed “threatening.” The case of the Palestinians, then, can be understood as an ominous example of how various actors can probe deep into private lives through the ever-watching eyes of surveillance.
Palestinians are subjected to multiple layers of surveillance, all of which aim to monitor Palestinian voices, restrict freedom of expression, and discourage their autonomy. Surveillance in Palestine bears an uncanny resemblance to the Panopticon, a mechanism of social and psychological control proposed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. At the center of the Panopticon stands a guard in a watchtower. Surrounding the watchman are prison cells, all within his eyeshot, so the prisoners, not knowing whether they are being watched at any given time, are constantly on their best behavior. The French philosopher Michel Foucault, in his analysis of the Panopticon, argued that its purpose is to “arrange things [so] that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its actions.” The same megalomaniacal logic undergirds Israeli surveillance: The point is not only to watch Palestinians through strategically placed cameras, but also — and what’s perhaps more insidious — to make them feel watched no matter where they are. Israel’s digital surveillance is thus the latest iteration of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tactic of “demonstrating presence,” which promotes Israeli patrols of Palestinian communities for the sole purpose of exhibiting the army’s sprawling reach.
Surveillance lies at the very heart of occupation. As Edward Said wrote in his book Orientalism: “Knowledge of subject races or ‘Orientals’ is what makes their management easy and profitable; knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control.” Surveillance empowers the occupier by yielding information about the politics, culture, and daily life of the occupied.