The Technological End Between the ‘Inside’ of Gaza and the ‘Outside’ of Gaza

September 29, 2014

Helga Tawil-Souri*

Israel tends to approach Gaza in two ways. On the one hand, Gaza is considered and treated as a dangerous threat that needs to be sealed off and contained. Various forms of threat are assumed to emanate from Gaza: an existential threat, an Islamic threat, a threat of rockets, a threat of socio-economic collapse, and so on. Following that logic, the threat must be kept at bay by erecting borders around Gaza that tightly seal and marginalize it. On the other hand, Israel continuously enters Gaza in extremely violent and vicious ways. Operation Protection Edge in Summer 2014 is only the latest – albeit most violent and obvious – example. In this way, Gaza is not a sealed-off territory, but a space through which and inside which the Israeli military apparatus continuously operates. The two measures of sealing (in order to contain) and entering (in order to destroy) Gaza both stem from the same rhetorical move of positioning Gaza as a threat. The logic is as follows: if sequestration of Gaza does not help to thwart or stop whatever the threat may be, then military operations are justified.

There is another way to understand these processes, both of which stem from the fact that even though Israel “disengaged” in 2005, Gaza continues to be an occupied territory. When considering Gaza from the perspective of the role of technologies in the surveillance, control, closing off and destruction of Gaza, it becomes evident that any boundary between the “inside” of Gaza and the “outside” of Gaza is largely non-existent. In other words, Israel is everywhere occupying Gaza: around Gaza, on top of Gaza, and well inside it. The settlers may have left in 2005 but Israeli presence is as sturdy as ever. As I have elsewhere explained, Gazans live under a regime of digital occupation.

Gaza is enclosed both by concrete and high-tech “walls” through a complex set of inclusions and exclusions operating through a variety of practices that render Gaza both a physical and a digital enclave. What exists is a dynamic process in which Israeli territorial control over Gaza continues and increasingly includes the high-tech realm. Israeli technologies of control enclose Gaza along diverse and overlapping geographical scales, which blur any boundaries between them.

First, Gaza is controlled from within “Israel proper” (on the Israeli side of the Green Line). What happens in Gaza is dependent on military command centers tucked away in Tel Aviv, Knesset decisions taking place in Jerusalem, citizen-formed observation hills off Route 232, or military training grounds in the suburbs of Beer Sheva. One of the most important, yet invisible, ways in which any boundary between Israel and Gaza is blurred is that Israeli development and deployment of technologies, whether for military, police, surveillance or other purposes, carry in them the logics of colonialism, apartheid, and occupation. In other words, the underlying logic of occupation defines Israeli technological development and use to begin with for the purposes of being used against Palestinians1. Many technological developments take place in Haifa or the Naqab for example, but they are tested, used, and marketed by their uses in Gaza.

Second, Gaza is technologically controlled from a presumed periphery which includes airspace, maritime space, and what the Israeli military calls “buffer zones” on either side of the 1949 armistice line. Along and within this perimeter numerous control-cum-surveillance technologies are deployed. Unmanned aerial drones, closed-circuit TV cameras, sonic imagery, gamma detection machines, remote-controlled bulldozers and boats, black lights, unmanned miniature robots, electrified fences, electro-optic systems for night vision, aerostat balloons with 360-degree observation coverage, vibration sensors, among a seemingly endless list, are increasingly used for control and surveillance around and above Gaza, from land, sea or air2.The Roeh-Yoreh system (See-Shoot in Hebrew), established in 2009 by a subsidiary of Israel’s largest military and commercial aerospace firm enables operators located in Tel Aviv to use remote-controlled cameras and weapons to surveil and shoot Gazans venturing into the ever-expanding no-man’s-land inside the periphery of the Strip. This already demonstrates the blurred line between what happens inside of Tel Aviv and what is occurring along the perimeter of Gaza: for Israeli technologies, the geographic distance between them is irrelevant.

What began as a few hundred meters of a no-man’s land twenty years ago, eventually grew to encompass a one-kilometer wide area, and with Protective Edge, now extends as far as three kilometers into Gaza

Of course the “buffer zone” itself is a shifting and dynamic entity largely defined and delineated by Israel that is not simply virtual. The creation of swaths of (usually agricultural) land inside Gaza into military zones has required considerable on-the-ground practices by the IDF in razing or destroying structures. What began as a few hundred meters of a no-man’s land twenty years ago, eventually grew to encompass a one-kilometer wide area, and with Protective Edge, now extends as far as three kilometers into Gaza (which is only nine kilometers at its widest). During July and August 2014 for example, the extreme violence wrought onto the areas of Beit Lahiya, Shujaiya, Kuza’a and Rafah, in which large areas were completely demolished (and where the majority of killing occurred), were an expansion of Israel’s “buffer zone.” At the height of the war, this “buffer zone” encompassed 44% of Gaza’s entire land mass.

Third, much of Protective Edge was fought in both traditional, on-the-ground means, and through a range of new technologies. Without much of this technology, Israel would certainly not be capable of waging the kind of damage it does. In fact, this is not simply the case for Protective Edge, but for previous operations large and small – whether Cast Lead in 2008-09 or Summer Rains in 2006. The movement of ground troops is accompanied by a firewall of ammunition that “clears” soldiers’ way in, as well as motion sensors and miniature robots equipped with surveillance and shooting capabilities. Thus technology serves to create and expand Israeli operational spaces inside the Gaza Strip. Wars on Gaza are aerial and hi-tech with the Israeli forces relying on a network of unmanned drones, F-16 fighter jets, helicopters, and laser-guided weapons. Israeli aerial power is also manifested in the dropping of millions of leaflets, jamming of cellular signals, interrupting broadcasting television and radio signals to air its own propaganda, and sending out “warnings” on telephones and through text messages. Israel also electronically jams Palestinian communications: blocking combatants’ and civilians’ ability to relay information about Israeli troop movement, and blocking Palestinians from communicating to the outside world, under the pretext of blocking Hamas’s transmission signals that set off improvised explosive devices. The combination of aerial and digital elements (particularly surveillance drones and cameras, voice scramblers, encryption software, “e-leaflets,” jamming broadcasting, and the use of telecommunications grids to send text-messages and voice mails) are representative of a form of warfare in which combat zones have become contingent upon the control of digital communications. They also represent the blurring of any lines between military action above, around and inside the beleaguered territory, as all of them ‘trespass’ into the Gaza strip, virtually and/or physically.

Low- and High-Tech Control

It is not simply in times of war or IDF operations however that Israeli technologies function to control Gaza and blur the boundary with what can be considered inside or outside Gaza. A host of technologies from internet connections to population database registries translate into Israeli presence inside Gaza, on a daily basis.

The host of technologies of control and surveillance (and often kinetic violence) that operate inside the Gaza Strip – identification systems, biometric ID cards, digital databases, political assassinations, collaboration systems, among others whether low- or high-tech – problematize the difficulty and hypocrisy of pegging the beginning or end of Gaza/Israel. They also render obvious that mechanisms of control and surveillance exist through the disruption of everyday life. For example, spatial monitoring along with population control mechanisms, even presumably benign ones such as official statistics and national censuses, have been central aspects of Israeli surveillance practices vis-à-vis Palestinians for decades. The social construction of spaces and categorization of Palestinians has been ongoing. This bespeaks of a longer, and by no means uniquely Israeli, history of governing subjugated populations by different kinds of regimes through which the interaction between colonizer and colonized becomes mediated and abstracted, and where (state) violence is shifted mostly away from direct infliction of bodily harm to one of concealed force.3

Even technologies that are not “in their nature” about control and surveillance are dictated by the logic of occupation. Most pernicious is perhaps the example of telecommunications, which includes internet, landlines and cellular phones. In fact, telecommunications permits Gazans a certain freedom of communication, but is equally a space of control and surveillance (and economic profit for Israel) and a space which technologically encloses Gaza.

Even a call between Khan Younis and Rafah for example is routed through Ashqelon

The entire underlying structure of telecommunications inside Gaza is enclosed.  The allocation of bandwidth; the placement, number, and strength of internet routers or telephone exchanges; the range of cellular signals and the equipment used; and decisions about which new technologies are permissible or not are all limited by Israeli restrictions. All calls within Gaza (on Palestinian networks no less) are physically wired through Israel so that even a call between Khan Younis and Rafah for example is routed through Ashqelon. Internet access is permitted, but all traffic is routed through switches located outside the Gaza Strip, and all decisions about speeds of access are ultimately Israeli decisions. Cellular telephony is permitted – and also must touch the Israeli backbone – but advances to mobile technologies are not (such as 3G, access to online banking, GPS and mapping services).

Like much else about the Gaza Strip, telecommunication infrastructures are limited by Israeli policies which attempt to surveil, control, contain and enclose. Israel further shuts down Gaza’s telecommunications for various reasons – whether halting signals because a drone is passing overhead, or digging up the fiber-optic cable while undertaking construction around the Nahal Oz checkpoint (where the only fiber-optic cable connecting to Gaza is buried), or because Palestinian companies are unable to pay Israeli providers due to the dire economic conditions in the Strip instituted by Israel. Telephone and broadcast signals are jammed and hacked into by the IDF – most obviously when the IDF sends text messages or makes phone calls warning of impending bombs, but not only then. In fact, the entirety of the Palestinian telecommunications network is an Israeli military issue: for example Paltel and whatever Israeli firm it is dealing with must coordinate their operations with the IDF and the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip. Consider an Israeli official’s statement about the laying of cables into Gaza in Summer 2012: “the whole operation was treated and run like a military operation.”

Whether from downtown Tel Aviv, from the ever-expanding “buffer zone” or deep inside Gaza City, Israel’s occupation has not ended; it has been adapted to include the digital spectrum. The case of Gaza demonstrates how digital networks are designed processes integral in the production of space. Over decades, and more so since disengagement, the Gazan landscape has transformed to facilitate surveillance and control systems, all of which problematize the very notion of Israel not being present in Gaza.

Israeli mechanisms of control and surveillance easily flow over, under, into, between any physical and virtual boundary. The same is obviously not true for Gazans: their border is hard, mostly impassable, ever-present, and everywhere. While such a border functions to limit and confine Gazans within a given boundary, it is also the space that Israel (re)organizes in accordance with its principles and practices of control, surveillance, and violence. This manifestation demonstrates how Israel penetrates the everyday practices, economics, politics, and architectures of Gazan life. The occupation continues by any other name. Gaza for all intents and purposes is a real territorial “penitentiary,” but also a high-tech one.

Helga Tawil-Souri is a media scholar whose work focuses on issues of spatiality, technology, and politics in the Middle East. The bulk of Helga’s scholarship analyzes cultural and technology in everyday life in Palestine/Israel. She is currently an Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication in New York University. 

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1 See Neve Gordon, Israel’s Occupation. University of California Press, 2008.

2 On high-tech surveillance and control mechanisms see “The Israeli Arsenal Deployed Against Gaza During Operation Cast Lead” Journal of Palestine Studies 38, no.3 (2009), pp.175-191

3 See Zureik, Elia, David Lyon, and Yasmeen Abu-Laban, eds. Surveillance and control in Israel/Palestine: Population, territory and power. Taylor & Francis, 2010