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The Palestine Laboratory: A Review

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Introduction

In May 2023 a book was published, which foreshadowed the violence that ensued in Palestine in the aftermath of the October 7th incursion into Israel led by Hamas. Anthony Loewenstein, an Australian-German investigative journalist of Jewish origin, provides much needed context for understanding the conflict in his book The Palestine laboratory – How Israel exports the technology of occupation around the world. This thoroughly researched report also brings forth Loewenstein’s personal reflection on Zionism – an ideology he denounces, despite being raised within it, in part due to its inherent racial supremacy sentiment against non-Jews. Against this backdrop, the book paints a grim picture of the life across occupied Palestinian territories, with particular attention to Israel’s testing of its military and surveillance technologies on Palestinians. 

The notion of experimentation with novel technologies on vulnerable Palestinian population resonates with similar accounts, e.g. those of pharmaceutical experimentation in the Global South and experimentation with digital technologies in refugee camps. Emerging technologies appear to be commonly tested on populations who either lack the freedom to consent to such techno-experimentation (such as in the case of occupied Palestinians), or are forced into consent due to a lack of viable alternatives (such as in refugee camps, where the choice seems to be accepting biometric iris scans, or starving). In the Palestine laboratory, the technologies being tested and developed serve to surveil and control the population, and have on top of that proven to be exceptionally profitable, considering the amount of public and private actors around the globe interested in buying Israel’s oppressive technologies.

Technologies of oppression I – weapons

Shortly after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Israel began (and never stopped) “selling weapons to anybody who wants them” (p. 17). The list includes actors associated with atrocities, such as the Sri Lankan military, paramilitary groups in Colombia and Rwanda, and even countries under US or UN arms embargo, such as South Sudan, Azerbaijan and Myanmar. In the words of Israeli politician Yohanah Ramati, Israel is not picky with military exports, and the only regime it would not sell to is one that is anti-American.

More recently, tests of crowd control weapons took place in Hebron, where a system that uses AI to identify targets was installed by Smart Shooter and used to deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and stunt grenades. In 2018, Israel tested the “sea of tears” in Gaza – a military technology consisting of drones dropping tear gas containers, for which Israel claims accurate aim, and yet reporters were hit. Nevertheless, in 2022 Israel announced the use of armed drones for targeted killings in the West Bank. The dehumanization provided by such remote killing technologies is exemplified in the grotesque parallel drawn on the IsraelDefense website, which promotes Elbit’s mobile app for ordering attacks just like “ordering pizza”

Technologies of oppression II – surveillance and spyware

While Gaza has since 1994 been enclosed by a 7 meter high wall with continuously upgraded high tech sensors, the West Bank is littered with cameras, the location of which is largely unknown. The recorded footage is analyzed by AnyVision (now Oosto), an Israeli startup with a global presence, which specializes in AI biometric facial recognition. The continuous surveillance of Palestinians is unethical to such an extent that 34 Israeli veterans of the notorious Unit 82000 refused to continue serving, explaining their reasoning in an open letter.

Thanks to extensive surveillance experience, Israel was ready for COVID-19. The Ministry of defense published a list of Israeli firms that specialize in surveillance, such as Elbit and NSO group, and promoted them to governments as convenient solutions in times of emergency. In 2020, Israel acknowledged its plan to intensify exporting surveillance technologies targeting civilians to anyone interested, apart from Iran, Syria and Lebanon. One important customer has been Frontex, an EU agency that deploys Israeli surveillance drones at sea and on the so-called Balkan route, where it had been alleged to participate in illegal pushbacks of refugees. Another important customer is unsurprisingly the USA, utilizing Israeli surveillance technology for militarizing the US-Mexico border. The manufacturer of both EU and US surveillance exports is Elbit, a company that promotes their military technology as battle tested in Gaza.

A particularly nefarious form of surveillance is spyware – malicious software that infiltrates electronic devices. Israel is a front runner in this department too, with two successful cyber surveillance companies: NSO Group, specializing in long-distance hacking, and Cellebrite, developing shorter range spyware. The NSO Group is infamous for developing Pegasus spyware, which had been used by governments worldwide to spy on dangerous individuals, but also on investigative journalists, activists and political opponents

Technologies of oppression III – digital media 

Israel’s tech-savviness is also apparent in its digital media strategy, which appeals to western liberal values by championing pro-LGBT and pro-feminist messaging. At the same time, this media strategy is also rooted in the adage that sex sells, as Israel had been using female models to promote weapons since 2017 – a pattern still recognizable among IDF influencers broadcasting current military actions. For example, Israeli female soldiers’ TikTok dances could be considered a socio-technical military experiment, as such warfare propaganda is certainly unheard of until now. Simultaneously, major social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, systematically censor Palestinian content.

Conclusion

To conclude this somber account, I offer two quotes that help understanding allegations of genocide in the 2023 Israeli attack on Gaza (brought forth by South Africa and the UN special rapporteur).

The first quote belongs to the late Israeli professor of sociology, Baruch Kimmerling, who coined the term politicide to describe the planned destruction of Palestinian political identity. In a statement that, in light of current events, resembles a premonition, he asserts that politicide of Palestinians “…may also but not necessarily include their partial or complete ethnic cleansing from the territory known as the land of Israel”.

The second quote is offered by Loewenstein in the book reviewed here, concluding concisely that “the Palestine laboratory can only thrive if enough nations believe in its underlying premise”.

Antonia Stanojević
Postdoctoral Researcher at Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society

Antonia Stanojević is an interdisciplinary social and behavioral science researcher, whose  research analyses power dynamics at different levels (interpersonal, organizational, intergroup and transnational) and emphasizes the interconnectedness of these levels, advancing as such a holistic approach to burning societal issues with a focus on positive social impact. Antonia is currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society, where she conducts qualitative and conceptual research into the governance of and governance by emerging technologies.

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