Gaza as Ground Zero for Israel’s Border Technology

More than a node in a global system of border apartheid, Gaza has become ground zero for Israel’s carceral and military technology that is marketed to other states seeking to control their borders. Funded by the United States to the tune of $270 billion in economic, military, and missile defense assistance since its founding, and buttressed by staunch American political support, Israel is unaccountable to Palestinians who survive within its apartheid system. Israel’s carceral technologies and weaponry are developed often in coordination with the United States and tested in the Gaza Strip, which has been described by the Israeli Army as “a great laboratory.”

For seventeen years, the Gaza Strip has been subject to a military blockade by Israeli forces, and the Egyptian army on its southern border. The blockade has effectively created what many human rights organizations have termed an open-air prison, limiting the movement of residents to the 141 square miles (365 square km) of the Strip, and denying them the right of travel outside of it allegedly to protect the security of the Zionist state. In doing so, Israel adopts, like other violently bordered states, a racist understanding of who is considered “dangerous” and should be categorically denied freedoms because of their imagined threat to the identity, resources, or interests of the bordered nation. As Palestinians are subjects of Israel’s testing and a technology of occupation that is exported to the world, their fate is intimately connected to the fate of people elsewhere who are targets of border weaponry and carceral technologies.

Technologies of Oppression

According to a Washington Post report, on October 7 Hamas fighters breached Israel’s border wall with Gaza in at least thirty places. The reaction in the international intelligence and defense community was panic that, as Newsweek put it, “Israel’s High-Tech Border Failure Could Happen in the U.S.” Israel, with one of the most sophisticated border defense systems in the world, was defeated by what western observers considered a “low tech” foe that circumvented its high-end technology, leading to questions about whether automated technology was indeed a replacement for defensive personnel. The concern in the United States stemmed from the fact that much of the technology set-up by Israel to blockade Gaza is the same used by the US government to violently repel unwanted migrants at the southern border, and by many other countries including NATO members to control their territories.

Much of the technology set-up by Israel to blockade Gaza is the same used by the US government to violently repel unwanted migrants at the southern border.

That Israel, a relatively small country, is the global exemplar of military technology is a function of its history. Israel is a state founded in and maintained through violent dispossession of Palestinians. This began with the Nakba, which between 1947 and 1949 forcibly displaced more than 750,000 Palestinians, killed approximately 15,000 people through systematic massacres, and resulted in the Palestinians’ loss of 78 percent of historic Palestine. It continues with regional wars and Israel’s suppression of multiple intifadas, uprisings of the Palestinian people, and with its systemic bombing of Gaza well before October 7. Today Palestinians who are citizens of Israel are second-class citizens, while those living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza live under an apartheid system. Gazans are entirely sequestered.

These conditions have created fertile ground for Israel to distinguish itself as a global pioneer in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for military settings. Israel was one of the top ten producers of arms from 2017 to 2021, the largest by far when accounting for population, and a major player in the global arms market with 2.4 percent of the international market. But these numbers do not account for Israel’s AI industry, which fuels the occupation. For instance, while international law recognizes the right to privacy as a basic human right, Israel experiments with facial recognition technology on Palestinians—technology that is used specifically to control borders. Palestinians require a permit to cross Israel’s many checkpoints. In Hebron, Israeli military personnel were encouraged to take as many photos of Palestinians as they could, which Israel then used to create a database through which it denies or allows movement. Facial recognition technology also became a tool in the continued imprisonment and policing of Palestinians. Checkpoints equipped with turnstiles and dozens of cameras subject any Palestinian who is crossing into Israel for healthcare, work, education, or family to such surveillance.

Perhaps the magnum opus of this kind of technology is on display in Gaza, which Israel has densely packed with innovative tools for surveillance and destruction. Through such technology, Israel monitors the waters to Gaza’s west, denies mobility except through two permitted, highly regulated checkpoints to Gaza’s east, and restricts mobility through the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah to the south from the Kerem Shalom military base. The Rafah border has been closed more days than it is open over the years. In 2015, unauthorized tunnels that were a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza were flooded by Egyptian authorities and the residents of Rafah on the Egyptian side, many of whom were Palestinian refugees, were forcibly displaced.

In 2007, when Hamas took office and the Israeli sequester of Gaza began in earnest, it was already reported that Gaza was the site of automated kill zones designed to control its residents through remote-controlled machine guns, ground sensors, and drones. Over the years, these systems have become more sophisticated. In 2021, Israel spent over a billion dollars on a three- year project to strengthen its isolation of Gaza by land, sea, and air. This included the border fence, built with enough steel to “pave a road from Israel to Bulgaria,” as Israel’s Ministry of Defense proudly announced. But it also includes sophisticated systems of cyber snooping that capture all text messages and calls made within a certain radius, seismic sensors that detect underground drilling, and heat sensors that detect the movement of vehicles or people by water or land. Here too there are robots equipped with automatic weapons that can be fired remotely or by artificial intelligence and drones that fly low over Gazan homes.

The dehumanizing impact of this closure and control is hard to overstate. Half of Gaza’s population is made up of children, and every child born in the last seventeen years was born behind this wall that holds their freedoms, their health, their growth, as antagonistic to the Israeli state, their lives as expendable for the sake of Israel’s alleged security. Throughout the years, Israeli authorities have restricted the import of food and caloric intake of Palestinians. They retain complete power over all water resources. Gaza’s healthcare system has long been crippled by the blockade, and long been unable to withstand the ongoing assaults on it by Israeli authorities over the years. The reproductive impacts are immeasurable—in Gaza even before this genocide, access to healthcare including for children and mothers was arbitrarily restricted. Gazans report horribly “miserable and dehumanizing” treatment at the Erez border crossing, verbal and physical abuse, and denial of passage. All this while Israeli attacks on Gaza have not abated since 2008, killing thousands including children. The obliterated families project showed that one-fourth of the 2,200 Palestinians killed in Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza were children, with 1,000 other children permanently disabled.

The impact of these technologies is not apparent just at the border of Gaza or the West Bank. They also are used by governments globally to control their populations. Surveillance technology is particularly deployed to control people who are racialized, othered, and dehumanized in border zones, as the following section elaborates.

Battle-Tested, Border Ready

In 2019, President Donald Trump stated that “[a] wall protects. All you have to do is ask Israel. They were having a total disaster coming across and they had a wall. It’s 99.9 percent stoppage.” It was unclear whether he was referring to the separation wall within the occupied West Bank, an emblem of Israeli apartheid, the barrier on the southern border of Israel built to deny entry to African migrants, or the carceral “Iron Wall” keeping Gazans in.

Israel’s Iron Wall defense system in Gaza and the Iron Dome were funded and developed jointly with the United States.

What Trump’s statement failed to recognize is that Israeli border technology has long been used on the US-Mexico border. In fact, Israel’s Iron Wall defense system in Gaza and the Iron Dome, a network of radar detectors and missile launchers intended to intercept missiles over Israel, were funded and developed jointly with the United States through agreements that began under the Obama administration and continue today. Journalist Jimmy Johnson was the first to coin the term “Palestine-Mexico border” to describe this cooperation and the mimicry that results. Both borders use autonomous surveillance towers, drones, and seismic sensors to detect tunnels, and the United States is testing robots like the Jaguar robots, equipped with automatic weapons, that Israel remotely controls or automates to support its Iron Wall in Gaza.

It is not just the United States and Israel that use this co-sponsored border technology. European border zones, which notoriously feature a policy of pushbacks—the illegal and immoral removal of people from their waters (and even land) who are seeking asylum—also rely on this surveillance technology. For example, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, commonly known as Frontex, relies on Israeli-manufactured drones to monitor “every sea craft involved in any form of irregular or illegal activities at sea.” Frontex also uses surveillance towers that capture people’s cell signals; migrants regularly report turning off or abandoning their phones to avoid detection.

But Israeli border technology is not used only by wealthy countries in the West. It also is being deployed today by the Dominican Republic against Haiti due to declining conditions in the latter and rising anti-Haitian sentiment on the island. The wall being built on that border will be the world’s second longest, behind only the US wall along the border with Mexico. In 2023, Israel approved the marketing of technology to more than 100 countries globally, and the marketing of drones to 145 countries. And in the same year, Israeli companies saw a 25 percent increase in the number of countries to which they sold intelligence systems. While the Israeli government claimed to be careful as to who received the weaponry, at least a third of the countries were notorious violators of human rights.

Facial recognition technology developed and tested in the West Bank is reportedly being used in 43 countries.

But beyond these uses, Israeli technology, developed and tested on Palestinians, is also used inside countries to monitor people and prevent their movement—another form of bordering. For instance, facial recognition technology developed and tested in the West Bank is reportedly being used in 43 countries in places like malls, sports venues, and office complexes. Police in the United States, widely criticized for their arbitrary use of deadly force against people of color, train with the Israel Defense Forces and use Israeli intelligence technology to break into locked iPhones.

Technologies of Genocide

Today, as we witness a genocide of Gazans and rampant violence and arrests in the West Bank, it is important to remember that irreverence for Palestinian human life is a longstanding fact of the occupation. The assault on Gaza, which has left approximately 26,000 people dead to date, more than10,000 of them children, is not a departure from this history of border technology, but a continuation of it. Despite Israel’s technological advancement and its access to precision munitions, some 40-45 percent of the bombs that Israel drops on Gaza are reportedly “dumb bombs,” or unguided and untargeted munitions. Israel, in an attempt to limit casualties among soldiers, relies more often on drones to deliver bombs in Gaza. During the war Israel reportedly uses small drones for indoor and underground operations and larger, explosive-laden ones. For instance, it was a drone attack that hit Al-Amal hospital in Khan Younis last January 19.

In the killing of Palestinians by remote control, Israel’s tech sector is deeply implicated. The Israeli economy is taking a hit to the tune of $220 million a day as a result of the war. Many Israeli soldiers currently serving in Gaza are reservists who work in the technology sector. Still, even as the Israeli economy suffers, defense companies like IMCO Group, subcontracted to produce video and electrical sub-systems for armored personnel carriers being used in Gaza, saw its stock price more than double since October 7.

The Israeli arms industry, and Israel-produced AI geared toward surveillance and military use, is important to investigate not only for its lucrative use in Israel, which profits from the occupation and all military violence, but also because it is exported across the world. Palestinian lives and freedoms are deemed expendable by an occupier that is funded in the billions by its powerful American ally to test technologies that sit in moral grey zones. Once these technologies exist, they are subject to global use, whether by “democratic” countries surveilling and denying people seeking asylum at their borders, or by autocracies against their own citizens. The continuation of the Israeli occupation in Palestine imperils Palestinian lives, and the lives of many people around the globe, particularly those who attempt to leave home in search of better futures.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Opachevsky Irina