On Sunday, October 29, Ahmed Azza was given permission to leave his neighborhood for the first time in three days. He passed the surveillance camera trained on his front door and the group of Israeli soldiers stationed on the hill above and walked eight minutes to the checkpoint at the end of his street. He placed his belongings on a table to be searched, made mandatory eye contact with the facial recognition camera, and crossed through the rotating metal barriers into Hebron. Ten hours later, he was given a one-hour window to return home before the checkpoint closed and he was locked out—or in—for the next two days.
Azza lives in Tel Rumeida, Hebron, the most tightly controlled neighborhood in the West Bank. Since 1997, Tel Rumeida has formed part of H2, a section of Hebron controlled by the Israeli government. Around 35,000 Palestinians and 850 Israeli settlers live in this area, where Israeli soldiers impose a system of segregation that heavily restricts the movement of Palestinians. It’s enforced with a network of surveillance that includes at least 21 manned checkpoints, on-the-spot searches, and watchtowers, plus a vast array of CCTV cameras dubbed “Hebron Smart City.” According to critics, the aim of this system is to make life as difficult as possible for Palestinians, slowly forcing them to leave their homes and make way for Israeli settlers.
The West Bank has long been seen as a testing ground for Israeli surveillance technology and tactics. Its defense exports have doubled in the past decade, partially thanks to the success of companies producing surveillance systems, like Elbit, Candiru, and Rafael, as well as NSO Group, which produces the Pegasus spyware. But on October 7, on the other side of Israel, the country’s famed surveillance network apparently failed. Hamas gunmen breached the high-tech border separating Gaza from Israel and murdered 1,400 people, taking more than 200 hostages. Since then, a growing sense of paranoia has given Israel’s government the impetus to ramp up restrictions and surveillance in the West Bank, according to analysts and activists working in the region.
“We’re rats in a lab,” says Azza, over a cup of tea at his workplace in Hebron. “I want to go to the beach, I want to see the sea, I want to taste the water. Here, we don’t have this freedom.”
The flagship component of the West Bank’s surveillance infrastructure is known as “Wolf Pack.” According to Amnesty International, its purpose is to create a database featuring profiles of every Palestinian in the region. One strand of this software, known as Red Wolf, uses facial recognition cameras placed at checkpoints to inform Israeli soldiers via a color-coded system whether to arrest, detain, or allow through Palestinians who approach. If the system doesn’t recognize an individual, it will automatically enroll their biometric data into Red Wolf, without their knowledge.
Another strand, known as Blue Wolf, has been described as “Facebook for Palestinians.” It requires Israeli soldiers to photograph Palestinians individually via a smartphone app in order to record them in the database. According to Breaking the Silence, an NGO made up of former Israeli soldiers that opposes Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories, prizes were offered to different units based on how many Palestinians they could photograph within a week.