Damascus Gate holds historical significance and was once a vibrant hub for social and cultural life among Palestinians in Jerusalem. It served as a gathering place where Palestinians would connect, celebrate, and interact daily. However, now the decision to visit Damascus Gate requires careful consideration for many Palestinians. The site plays host to an epicenter of mass surveillance in occupied Jerusalem. With Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras looming overhead and Palestinians being detained for seemingly innocent actions like sitting on the steps, it comes as no surprise that many no longer feel comfortable at the gate. Nonetheless, the CCTV cameras at Damascus Gate represent a mere fraction of the intricate and ever-present surveillance system that Palestinians in Jerusalem must contend with. Living under the constant gaze of surveillance is a troubling and deeply ingrained facet of the Palestinian experience in Jerusalem.Surveillance has long been a feature of life in Jerusalem. The state of Israel, in defiance of international law, unlawfully occupies East Jerusalem, subjecting Palestinians to conditional residency status. This unjust and illegal system serves as the foundation for Israel’s exercise of control over Palestinians. For decades, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have endured registries, excessive policing, and a permitting regime that severely limits their freedom of movement. Today, these systems of control and surveillance have been fortified with cutting-edge technologies, engendering an unrelenting sense of constant surveillance for Palestinians.Over the past two decades, there has been a steady expansion and substantial investment in surveillance infrastructure throughout East Jerusalem. The Mabat 2000 program, initiated at the turn of the century, initially involved the installation of CCTV cameras within the Old City. However, as time progressed, the number of cameras multiplied, extending their reach beyond the Old City and across all of occupied East Jerusalem. Today, a vast network of over 1,000 interconnected cameras, equipped with facial recognition capabilities, specifically targets Palestinians. This extensive surveillance apparatus operates from a centralized command center, empowering the Israeli police to intimidate and detain Palestinian individuals.
Photo by George Azar.
These cameras have introduced a fresh wave of abuse and oppression. As the government established its camera system, illegal settler groups followed suit by installing their own cameras, often directly outside Palestinian homes. For Palestinians, this intrusion has shattered their sense of safety and comfort within their own dwellings, and can often isolate individuals from their community. One such East Jerusalem resident has filed complaints for over 13 years to get a camera outside her house removed. Yet, the camera remains, and friends no longer come to visit her because they are scared of being surveilled themselves. Another woman, who shared her experience with a researcher from 7amleh, confided that she now lives in constant fear and resorts to wearing her hijab even when inside her own home. At times, she has even decided to sleep in her hijab, demonstrating the complete destruction of privacy and comfort in her home.
In this panopticon of surveillance, Jerusalem has become a troubling testing ground for the surveillance technology industry. Israeli and international firms eagerly forge deals with the Israeli government to experiment with their latest tools and techniques, fine-tuning their designs in the relentless pursuit of a more insidious and efficient product. Once they deem their creations ready, these firms brazenly market their technologies as “field tested” and export their harmful products worldwide, profiting from the oppression of Palestinians.
Digital surveillance has emerged as another tool of control. Social media platforms offered young Palestinians an avenue to share their perspectives and foster increased international solidarity, particularly during the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and political uprisings of May 2021. This led to increased media attention and higher levels of international displays of solidarity with Palestinians than in recent memory. However, the Israeli authorities swiftly responded by detaining numerous young Palestinians on charges of incitement due to content posted on social media platforms. This crackdown not only disrupted their efforts to document human rights abuses on the ground but also instilled a chilling effect on speech. Many young Palestinians have admitted that they no longer feel comfortable sharing their opinions online or that a family member has urged them not to post.
Israel contends that these surveillance systems are implemented to safeguard the well-being of “all residents.” Yet, for Palestinians this claim is utterly outrageous. Cameras seem to materialize overnight, without adequate explanation or justification for their placement. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the notion that the increased surveillance or proliferation of cameras has effectively curtailed attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. In fact, the expansion of surveillance technology appears to correlate directly with the encroachment of illegal settler movements on Palestinian communities. This correlation suggests that surveillance serves as just another tool of the occupation, aiming to dispossess Palestinians of their land.
Living under the constant gaze of surveillance. Photo by Maya Meo.
This multifaceted and complex system blatantly violates globally held understandings of human rights. From the widespread use of facial recognition technologies in public spaces across the city, to the deliberate recording inside people’s homes, the whole apparatus is built as a violation of the right to privacy. Furthermore, the tactics of intimidation aided by the support of surveillance, and the crackdown of speech on social media, provide clear examples of violations to freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. This should be expected, though, as the whole system of surveillance was created to support the illegal endeavor of occupation in the first place.
In conclusion, the Palestinian experience in Jerusalem is deeply intertwined with the specter of mass surveillance. From the iconic Damascus Gate to the broader surveillance apparatus spanning the city, Palestinians face constant monitoring, privacy violations, and the erosion of their fundamental freedoms. Understanding and exposing these realities is essential in unraveling the oppressive mechanisms that uphold the occupation. By shedding light on this story, we can work towards dismantling this egregious surveillance system.