The divided city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank has long been a flashpoint for violence, with an enclave of hard-line, heavily protected Israeli settlers near the Old City, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and security forces from both the Israeli military and the Palestinian administration. Surveillance cameras have been mounted about every 100 metres, including on the roofs of homes.
Across the West Bank, the Israeli military has undertaken a broad surveillance effort to monitor Palestinians by integrating facial recognition into a growing network of cameras and smartphones. This surveillance initiative, which has been rolled out over the past two years, involves in part smartphone technology called Blue Wolf. This allows the military to capture photographs of Palestinians’ faces and match them to an image database so extensive that one former soldier described it as the Israeli Defense Forces’ secret “Facebook for Palestinians”. This is then linked to an app on soldiers’ phones that flashes in different colours – red, yellow and green – to alert them whether a person is to be arrested, detained or left alone.
In addition to Blue Wolf, the Israeli military has installed face-scanning cameras in Hebron to help soldiers at checkpoints identify Palestinians even before they present their ID cards. A wider network of closed-circuit television cameras, dubbed “Hebron Smart City”, provides real-time monitoring of the city’s population and, as one former soldier said, is sometimes able see into private homes.
“The cameras only have one eye — to see Palestinians,” says Issa Amro, an activist and member of Artists + Allies x Hebron. “From the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home, you are on camera.”
A separate smartphone app, called White Wolf, has been developed for use by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Although settlers are not allowed to detain people, “security volunteers” can use White Wolf to scan a Palestinian’s identification card before that person enters a settlement, for example, to work in construction.
The military mentioned “Hebron Smart City” in a 2020 article on the army’s website. It showed a group of female soldiers called “scouts” in front of computer monitors and wearing virtual-reality goggles, and described the initiative as a “major milestone” and a “breakthrough” technology for security in the West Bank. The article said, “a new system of cameras and radars had been installed throughout the city” that can document “everything that happens around it” and “recognize any movement or unfamiliar noise”.
Unlike the border checks, the monitoring in Hebron is happening in a Palestinian city without the local populace being notified. This technology is another instrument of oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people in the West Bank. “While surveillance and privacy are at the forefront of the global public discourse, we see here another disgraceful assumption by the Israeli government and military that when it comes to Palestinians, basic human rights are simply irrelevant,” says Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli military veterans.
The irony of the situation in H2 – the area of Hebron City under Israeli military control – is that for a place in which every Palestinian is continuously watched none feel seen by the international community. Conversations with courageous residents reveal that the most important current task is to act in solidarity with these people whose continued existence is itself an act of resistance.
Without their perseverance, H2 would have already become a Jewish-only area. By continuing to live in their houses, against all the odds, by keeping just a few shops of the once thriving old market open, by taking care of the olive trees, they give hope that one day this land will be returned to its local owners.
This is footage from livestream cameras that we have placed around H2. All are showing views of the city’s various olive groves, most of which are over 900 years old, all of which are constantly attacked by settlers who often set them alight.
The cameras in our project are returning the unending electronic gaze by co-opting the same weaponized technology but using it instead as a community-building strategy. We want to help keep a vigilant eye on these precious trees and to show solidarity by ensuring that the courageous residents and their daily acts of heroism are not only surveilled but also seen.