Israeli Soldiers Are Snatching Palestinians’ Phones and Punishing Them for Having Photos of Gaza

People in the West Bank are increasingly afraid to read, write or speak about the war.

by Daisy Schofield

20 December 2023

Israeli troops gather at the scene of a security incident near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, 20 December 2023. Photo: Reuters/Mussa Qawasma

Last month, 17-year-old Ahmed’s phone was seized and searched by Israeli soldiers, after he left it briefly unattended while working on a building site near his home in the West Bank. “[They] found pictures of people in Gaza, and the bombing in Gaza,” the teenager – who asked that we did not use his real name for fear of retaliation by the Israeli army – told Novara Media. “They started accusing me of belonging to Hamas.” He explained to the soldiers that the images had been sent to Whatsapp groups he is in and downloaded automatically. But despite Ahmed’s explanation – and his pleas – Israeli forces proceeded to tie his hands and feet and to blindfold him, before taking him to a detention centre.

“They took turns beating me for an entire night,” Ahmed said, adding that he wasn’t allowed to eat or drink, and was kept handcuffed and blindfolded. “All night long, I asked them why they arrested and beat me, but they did not answer and continued to beat me.” In the morning, Ahmed was dumped by the soldiers miles from his home, fractured and bruised. His phone was never returned.

Israel has ramped up surveillance and clamped down on free speech in the West Bank since 7 October. Alongside heavily restricting Palestinians’ movements by placing the area under lockdown, it has sought to criminalise their thoughts too.

On 8 November, Israel’s parliament, The Knesset, passed an amendment to its counter-terrorism law that added “consumption of terrorist materials” as a new criminal offence. Experts have warned that the law will enable unprecedented new levels of surveillance. 

“We have not heard of any cases of arrests of extremist Israeli settlers for spreading incitement, hate speech, and violent speech against Palestinians,” said digital rights defender Mona Shttayeh. “It is only happening to Palestinians. And this surveillance against Palestinians is happening to those who speak up against Israeli authorities, or criticise the war in Gaza.” 

According to Shttayeh, what happened to Ahmed has become common practice since 7 October. “Accessing information is a fundamental human right, and Palestinians are deprived of that right – whether it’s by punishing people for having pictures of what’s happening in the Gaza strip, or the telecommunication blackouts in Gaza,” said Shttayeh. 

Since his arrest, Ahmed said he has been afraid to even speak about Palestine in public spaces, let alone post on social media. According to Shttayeh, this is the intended effect of heightened surveillance and censorship: to suppress freedom of expression and stop the spread of information. “These practices are increasing self-censorship,” she said. “[And they are] leading Palestinians to delete some messaging and news applications off their phones when they travel between cities.”

Palestinians living in the occupied territories have long been subject to multiple levels of surveillance, from brutal interrogations at checkpoints to unannounced raids on their homes. Vast networks of CCTV cameras line the streets in Hebron and East Jerusalem. These CCTV cameras don’t just monitor individuals in public spaces; many of them point into people’s homes, leaving Palestinians constantly exposed. 

Earlier this year, Amnesty published a report into how facial recognition is being used extensively by the Israeli authorities to support their continued oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank. In Hebron, faces are scanned at checkpoints using a software known as “Red Wolf”, which uses a colour-coded system to tell soldiers whether to let a person pass, to stop them, to question them or to arrest them. Another strand to this is “Blue Wolf”, a smartphone app powered by a massive database of Palestinian’s personal information, which one former Israeli soldier once described as the “Facebook for Palestinians”. There is a commercial purpose to this as well, with Israel using the West Bank as a testing ground for its surveillance technology, before exporting to nations around the world

Israel claims that it uses surveillance as part of its counterterrorism efforts. However, as Ubai Al-Aboudi, executive director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development – a human rights organisation based in Ramallah – points out, it is often human rights defenders who are targeted. Al-Aboudi has been subject to a travel ban by the Israeli authorities since 2022, which prevented him from attending a UN meeting in Jordan last year. “[Bisan] built up a reputation of providing critical, accurate research,” Al-Aboudi said. “[The Israeli forces] want to stop this.”

In 2021, Al-Aboudi learned that he was one of six Palestinian human rights defenders whose devices had been hacked with Pegasus – spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group which can take total control of an individual’s mobile phone. “It was a complete violation,” he said. Last week, it was reported that Israel’s government intends to amend the law in order to grant its general security service power to conduct secret searches of computers and mobile phones without the knowledge of their owners using software similar to Pegasus.

The fact that Hamas was able to carry out its attack on 7 October undetected amid such high levels of surveillance has left some analysts scrambling to figure out where Israel’s security service went wrong. But Al-Aboudi says that blindspots in Israel’s surveillance were always inevitable. “They cannot maintain control of seven million Palestinians. That is a fact,” he told Novara Media. “And when they are treating all Palestinians as security threats, then of course they will not have any means to deal with the true security threats.”  

Al-Aboudi believes that Israel’s attempts to quash pro-Palestinian sentiment will only “create more and more dissent among people towards Israel’s actions”. Shttayeh agrees that in trying to scare Palestinians into silence, Israel is, at least to some extent, doomed to fail. “We can see examples of people confronting censorship [on social media] whenever the content has been taken down by, for example, changing certain words, and how those words are written.”

Despite having faced enormous violations of his privacy and restrictions to his freedom, Al-Aboudi doesn’t see staying silent as an option. “As a Palestinian, you’ll never have a sense of safety or a sense that you have rights,” he said. “I also know that if we do not raise our voices, the situation will be much worse. So this is what we’re trying to do; to raise our voices, in order to have a better future for ourselves, and our children.”

Daisy Schofield is a freelance journalist.

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