Europe's Digital Fortress: How Palestine is the laboratory for testing surveillance equipment sold to the EU


Ileana Maria

Elbit Hermes 900

At the time of publication, Israel's assault on Gaza will be close to entering its seventh month, with a human cost of 30,000 lives at conservative estimates – not including the 416 killed and 4,658 injured since October in the West Bank – with many thousands more lost beneath the rubble of a nearly flattened region that was once home to over 2 million civilians.[1] The violence shows no signs of stopping and Israel continues to receive diplomatic and military support from the US and Europe, despite widespread recognition that a genocide is occurring.

It is not due to any oversight, misunderstanding, or geopolitical complexity that Western governments continue to arm and defend Israel. Rather, Europe and the US's complacency around Israel's actions confirm that much of Western ideology is rooted in a colonial ordering of the world that allows for violence against an Other in the name of safety and security. Indeed, those engaged in struggles against Fortress Europe should be able to see this plainly: the logic of hyper-militarized borders, alliances with despotic governments, and scapegoating of migrants used to justify Europe's border regime is the very same logic used to justify an illegal occupation of Palestinian lands. Israel claims a right to defend itself against dangerous outsiders, echoing the kind of rhetoric found in debates around migration.

Europe and Israel are inextricably bound together in ways that are too numerous to detail in one article. Here, the focus will be on one particular aspect relevant to the civil SAR community, which is how Israel uses its illegal occupation of Palestine to field test military grade weapons and surveillance technology that it then exports to governments and agencies such as Frontex. A look at the historical development of Israel's arms industry will help us, the no border movement, better understand the relevance for what has been happening to Palestinians for the past 75 years[2], and how it is not just a localized conflict, but implicates the EU[3] as well.

Israel is currently ranked as one of the top ten arms suppliers in the world. Per capita, it is at number one. This is the result of decades of investment in state of the art military infrastructure, which have led to the creation of a powerful military and security apparatus.[4] From its early beginnings, Israel refined and developed the tools of occupation and control. The Nakba, which many argue continues to this day, was a period from 1947 to 1949 in which 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their lands, 531 villages were destroyed and 15,000 people killed. Many became refugees in neighboring states, and those that remained endured regular beatings, rape, and internment.[5] To the outside world, Israel portrayed itself as an outpost of democracy, surrounded by hostile neighbor states that threatened its survival. Such a posture was reinforced by the lack of accountability following the events of the Nakba: Israel mirrored to the West what many other settler-colonial states had already long done, which is to engage in a sustained campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing of an indigenous population from their ancestral lands in the name of democracy.

Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel's foreign policy took a turn as it began to align closely with American interests in curbing Soviet influence across the globe. Now an occupying force in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Golan Heights, the defense industry expanded by developing new tactics and weapons to maintain control of the Palestinian population. Neither did it shy away from supplying arms, technology and military to some of the most brutal and repressive regimes. Clients included the Shah of Iran (cooperation with Iran terminated after 1979); death squads and counterinsurgency forces in South and Central America including in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador; the Argentinian Junta; Haiti under the Duvalier regimes; the apartheid government of South Africa; Serbia during the Bosnian genocide; the Hutus during Rwanda's genocide; Sri Lanka during its civil war; and Myanmar during the genocide against the Rohingya. In a 1985 speech given by former head of the Knesset foreign relations committee, Yohanah Ramat, Ramat was especially blunt: "Israel is a pariah state. When people ask us for something, we cannot afford to ask questions about ideology. The only type of regime that Israel would not aid would be one that is anti-American. Also, if we can aid a country that it may be inconvenient for the US to help, we would be cutting off our nose to spite our face not to." From the second half of the twentieth century, Israel had supplied arms to no less than 130 countries across the globe.[6]

Israel's selling point has been the ability to market its military know-how and products as "battle-tested." Seventy-five years of occupation has meant seventy-five years of research and development into creating the tools for "asymmetrical warfare," a type of warfare between state militaries and and an opposition differing significantly in resources, tactics, or power.[7] Such asymmetry describes the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian population, which has been under some form of military rule from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. Zionism serves as the ideological justification for the racist apartheid system that subjugates Palestinians under a complex system of control, isolation, expulsion, imprisonment[8], and extermination.[9] Control is maintained through advanced weaponry and surveillance technologies, which are developed, refined and then sold to the outside. For every incursion into Gaza, the West Bank, or East Jerusalem, Israel can afterwards showcase and sell to prospective buyers weapons marketed as battle-tested. And it has worked: by 2020, Israeli cyber companies represented one-third of global cybersecurity expenditures worldwide.[10] By 2021, Israeli arms sales had reached a record of US$11.3 billion, with Europe as its biggest customer, even before Russia's invasion into Ukraine. Exports include rockets, aerial defense systems, missiles, cyberweapons, radar, and drones, which alone make up a quarter of its defense exports.[11]

One example of how Israel was able to capitalize on its violent occupation is through the expansion of drone warfare.The 2014 Gaza War, also known as Operation Protective Edge, was a seven-week campaign that led to the killing of 2,250 Palestinians, 500 of whom were children, and 70 Israelis, largely soldiers. The IDF experimented with the Hermes 900, a drone made by Elbit Systems, the largest Israeli military manufacturer. During the 2014 assault, four children aged between 9 and 11 were killed by the drone while they were playing football on a beach. Officers later testified that the operation had been "flawless.[12]" Though it is unknown exactly how many were killed by drone strike during Operation Protective Edge, Gazans by then were well acquainted with the usage of Unmanned Aaerial Vehicles, or UAVs: during 2008-2009, 87 people including 29 children were killed by drone strikes, as well as another 36 in 2012 during the 2012 Operation Pillar Defense. Just weeks after the 2014 Gaza War, Elbit Systems displayed its Hermes 900 drone at the annual Israel Unmanned Systems conference, showcasing it along other weapons used in Gaza and marketed as "battle-tested." In one particularly grotesque example of using the extrajudicial killing of Palestinians as a selling point, journalist and illicit arms industry expert Andrew Feinstein reported watching a promotional video by Elbit Systems of its drone technology at the 2009 Paris Air Show. The video showed an airstrike in the occupied territories, which Feinstein later discovered had killed several innocent Palestinians, including children.[13]

Drones were also integral to Israel's aggression during the Great Return March, a peaceful series of actions in Gaza that included speeches, sit ins, artistic performances and athletic events over the course of six weeks from March 30 to May 15, ending on the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. During those six weeks, Israel undertook a brutal military campaign: 112 protesters were killed and 13,190 injured, 7,618 of them by live ammunition[14]. The death toll would increase to more than 200 as protests continued for the next six months.[15] Throughout the period, several trade shows showcasing the weaponry used against Gazans took place in Israel, with officials, the media, and military leadership highlighting in particular the "effectiveness" of UAVs.

It is these very same drones that are being used by Frontex and the EU to monitor migration along land borders and in the Mediterranean. In the Central Mediterranean specifically, Frontex launched in 2019 a call for tenders for drones that could operate from either Malta, Italy or Greece within a radius of 250 nautical miles with the ability to operate in all weather conditions, and both day and night. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), whose Heron drones have been deployed throughout the occupied territories starting from the 2008-2009 onwards, and Airbus received a contract worth 50 million euro. Elbit Systems was also awarded a 50 million euro for the use of its Hermes 900 drone, which later gained notoriety for crash landing in Crete.[16] There is also close collaboration between Israel and Greece, which has invested significantly in defense equipment and training. IAI, Elbit Systems, and Raphael are three Israeli companies that have been given large defense contracts for equipment ranging from drones to helicopters to rockets. In 2021, in the largest defense transaction between the two nations, Elbit Systems signed a deal worth $1.65 billion euro to run a training center for the Hellenic Air Force.

Aside from drones, Frontex has also invested hundreds of millions of euros in surveillance technologies with heavy reliance on the private sector for the development of these tools. Cellebrite, an Israeli firm, markets software it says can bypass passwords on devices, allowing authorities to download personal data without the consent of the device's owner. In a pitch to Moroccan officials, a Cellebrite sales representative made the claim that while 77 percent of refugees arrive without documents, 43 percent arrive with a smartphone, which could be analyzed upon arrival for "traces of illicit activity or trafficking of illicit goods" through keyword search, images saved on the device, or suspicious browsing history.[17] Cellebrite techonology is already used in West Africa, having been disseminated through training under the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community, an agreement between Frontex and 31 other African nations designed to facilitate information exchange and sharing of surveillance technologies[18]. Frontex also contracts with Israeli tech company, Windward, whose tagline is "catch the bad guys at sea." Its software uses AI to aggregate and analyze maritime data for enhanced border security by detecting anomalies at sea.

It is precisely Israel's occupation which has allowed it to develop substantial technical know-how. Take for example the city of Hebron in the West Bank, which was dubbed a "smart city" by Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a unit of the IDF, after a network of CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition technology were rolled out in 2020.[19] The cameras form part of a system of surveillance under which the traditional means of occupation – manned checkpoints, night raids, guard posts, and closed military zones – are slowly being replaced by AI-powered biometric and digital surveillance in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Combined with drone surveillance and the use of sensors that detect anomalies in the environment, Palestinians are subject to monitoring 24/7 with little regard for their rights to privacy. While the tools of mass surveillance are propagated throughout the territories, IDF soldiers resort to more old school methods of entering data on individuals. In the West Bank, an application called Blue Wolf allowed for the creation of a large database referred to as a secretive "Facebook for Palestinians." IDF soldiers competed for who could take the most photographs of Palestinians, with some required to meet daily quotas for entering personal data into the database.[20]

The COVID-19 pandemic also provided opportunity for increased surveillance under the guise of stopping the virus's spread. NSO Group, creator of the notorious Pegasus spyware, partnered with the Israeli government to create Fleming, a contact-tracing software aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, with promises of limits to the storage of personal data[21]. Eventually, documents obtained by Forensic Architecture revealed an unprotected database with private data from more than 30,000 users in Israel/Palestine, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.[22] Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service, was later forced to admit that it used similar cellular tracking services rolled out during the pandemic to send threatening messages to Palestinians and Arab Israelis in East Jerusalem. Texts reading, "You have been identified as someone who took part in violent acts at the al-Aqsa Mosque. We will settle the score," and signed by the intelligence service were sent to thousands of recipients, an act that was justified by the agency as "a clear security need to express an urgent message to a very large number of people, each of whom exists a basis for suspicion that they were involved in committing violent crimes".[23] Many recipients of the messages reported they were nowhere near al-Aqsa Mosque, highlighting the constant suspicion faced by Palestinians.

Indeed, former IDF soldiers have shared how mass surveillance and data-mining is used as a means of intimidation for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Veterans of Unit 8200, an IDF elite intelligence unit, have reported that intelligence gathering to prevent violence include widespread phone tapping, where private information about Palestinians is gathered to use as blackmail their targets. Examples include extorting gay Palestinians or those having affairs to report on their family members, or threatening to cut off medical care to those with health issues.[24] Testimonies by former IDF soldiers even describe footage captured by surveillance cameras of explicit sex acts kept saved in desktop folders.[25] One former soldier remarked, "Take even gays in the Palestinian community. It's not easy, so obviously, they run off to be together outside for a moment," of footage captured while on lookout. Finally, the apartheid state's extensive and draconian system of permits required to enter Israel for work, to access medical care, or to travel abroad, forms another part of a system of bureaucratic control that is easily manipulated to exert power over Palestinians.[26] In exchange for information on loved ones, friends and acquaintances, Palestinians gain access to life-saving medical treatment, or the ability to support and feed their families through the possibility of better paying work.

Finally, it's crucial to understand not just the size Israel's weapons industry and the means of enforcing the occupation, but the revolving door between the military and private sector.[27] It's no secret that many who go on to work in cybersecurity cut their teeth working in IDF intelligence: as of 2018 Israel had 700 private cyber surveillance companies founded by around 2,300 people, 80 percent of whom did intelligence work for the military.[28] One event in particular which highlights this collusion is Tel Aviv's annual Cyber Week, where military heads, venture capitalists, and private surveillance firms come together around a shared vision of outsourcing military operations to the private sector.[29]

Such dynamics require scrutiny, especially considering the opacity around Israel's weapons industry: it is the only "democracy" where journalists must submit all articles related to foreign affairs or security to the IDF chief military censor before publication, which then has the power to prevent its publication or redact information contained in it.[30] Israeli human rights lawyer, Eitay Mack, has worked extensively alongside civil society actors to try and shed light on the Israel's defense sector. Mack submitted a freedom of information request, through which it was revealed that the Israeli government approved every defense deal brought to it from 2007 onwards.[31] Specificities on the deals are hard to come by: Israel refused to sign the UN's Arms Trade Treaty, an attempt to apply international standards and transparency around arms deals, as well as limit the transfer of arms to states with human rights violation. Had it signed, not only would information on arms exports be readily available through a registry, but Israel would potentially face restrictions on exports considering its own record of human rights abuses.[32]

In more recent decades, a vision for a new type of warfare that is autonomous and digitally controlled has been put forward, with claims that it will be more humane and less bloody. This is obviously fallacy, as the language used -- the surgical strike, precision munitions – is high technology discourse being used to whitewash war crimes. One need only look at the scale of civilian loss to see this and the sheer terror the Palestinian population lives under, from military checkpoints, to the constant whirr of surveillance drones, to the fear of colonists' aggression on the West Bank. That the victims of that violence are mostly indigenous populations that have been racialized helps us to see another through-line between the colonial logic of domination and submission and the state-building project that made Israel possible in the first place.

Of course, the Israeli tech sector is no different from Silicon Valley, an offshoot of the Department of Defense and breeding ground for invasive surveillance technology. Similarly, scores of countries like France, Britain, the UK, Italy, Germany, and the US have exported arms to repressive regimes, often fueling displacement and forcing people to flee their homes. But it is imperative to disrupt the narrative that Israel is exceptional, that the IDF is the "most moral army in the world," and that its existence is a safeguard to democracy. Not only are these incorrect, they prevent robust conversation around its military-technology complex and how this industry benefits from occupation. That Europe is implicated in the ongoing genocide is made clear by the technology transfers and the strong commercial ties in the arms and surveillance sector between the two regions. Finally, it is imperative that Israel's crimes are situated within the historical context of Western imperialism. Europe's racist border regime and the occupation of Palestine have the same ideological underpinnings, a fact long documented by Palestinians themselves. As we continue to bear witness to a livestreamed genocide, often while facing censorship or backlash in trying to denounce what we are seeing, we must try and continue to center and uplift the voices of Palestinians, as well as demonstrate the connection between their struggles and the fight against borders, and against continued death on land and at sea.

Free Palestine.


[2]While 75 years is typically used throughout various sources to mark the period from the state of Israel's founding up until now, Palestinian historians have written extensively on the colonial process having begun decades before 1948. Indeed, during the British Mandatory period, a demarcation between Arab and newly arriving Jewish settlers was institutionalized through laws granting different access to rights, land, and representation in the government between the two groups. For more, see R. Khalidi, The Hundred Years War on Palestine, 17-54.

[3]It goes without saying that Israel's key ally, the United States, also played an outsized role in Israel's development into a modern superpower, and by extension the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians. However, since the article is focused on the no border movement in Europe, I will write minimally on this particular relationship.


[5]Lowenstein, A. (2023). The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation around the World. Verso.



[8]At the writing of the article, 9,077 including 700 children are being held in Israeli prisons, two thirds of whom have not been charged with a crime and are being held under administrative detention, or arbitrary detainment. It is estimated around forty percent of male Palestinians experience incarceration at some point in their lives. Torture, starvation, sexual abuse, and humiliation are widespread in Israeli prisons. For more see Buttu, D. and Scahill, J. Intercepted. "We have to start thinking in terms of decolonization". Aired on March 20, 2024, 51:00. Both Amnesty International and B'Tselem have several reports on the use of torture and other abuse. See especially: Amnesty International. Israel/OPT: Horrifying cases of torture and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees amid spike in arbitrary arrest,





[13]Palestine Laboratory








[21]In mid-2021, a joint investigation by 17 different media outlets published revelations that NSO Group had supplied its spyware, Pegasus, to a number of authoritarian governments, including Hungary, India, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the UAE.









[30]Palestine Laboratory