Campaigners warn Israel’s facial recognition bill a threat to Palestinians

A controversial Israeli government-sponsored bill that will allow the use of facial recognition technology in policing risks further abuse of Palestinian rights, according to rights groups

Israel’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation has voted to approve the bill, which privacy rights campaigners have warned would lead to “more violations” against Palestinians by the ultranationalist right-wing government.

Submitted by the country’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, and justice minister, Yariv Levin, the bill is being described as a government effort to tackle crime in Arab communities.

If passed, it would allow Israeli police to install facial recognition cameras and collect biometric data from individuals in public spaces across the country, particularly in Palestinian towns and cities in Israel.

It would grant police the right to activate the cameras without judicial warrants or oversight, according to 7amleh (The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media).

The surveillance system, according to 7amleh: “Would therefore pave the way for the exploitation of personal information for the purpose of blackmailing citizens and violating their privacy.”

Likewise, Adi Mansour, a lawyer at a Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel, described the bill as an attempt to: “Grant abusive powers to law enforcement bodies under the false pretext of fighting crime.”

“Instead of permitting more violations of privacy and other rights through means of surveillance that also encompass a threat of further deepening a culture of racial profiling, Israeli authorities should consider trying to solve crimes with the extensive powers they already hold,” Mansour told MEE.

Meanwhile, Anna Bacciarelli, associate tech director at Human Rights Watch, stated the bill should be thrown out.

“It is a significant threat to human rights and gifts the Israeli government unprecedented powers to surveil and profile absolutely everybody who walks down the street,” Bacciarelli said, speaking to MEE.

“The government is right that facial recognition tech should be regulated, but this powerful technology should be banned from public spaces, rather than green-lighted for widespread use,” she pointed out.

“Facial recognition tech poses a huge risk to privacy, non-discrimination, and assembly rights, and is only likely to supercharge existing structural discrimination, particularly against Palestinians in Israel,” she added.

In a statement, Al-Meezan, an independent, non-partisan Palestinian human rights organisation based in the Gaza Strip, said the approval of the bill would lead to further infringement of the privacy of Palestinians under the pretext of preventing crime.

“Operating biometric cameras to recognise the faces of people in public places is not only to fight crime, but the danger here is that everyone becomes monitored in all their movements and residences by the security services,” al-Meezan added.

On the other hand, the approval of the bill was welcomed by Israel’s police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, who described it as: “A life-saving tool, without which the Israel Police would not be able to deal with criminal terrorism, murder incidents, and assassination attempts in the Arab sector.”

Shabtai also said to his senior command staff at their weekly meeting that the bill represents: “A balance between the need to preserve human life and the importance of protecting individual rights.”

Following the bill’s approval, Ben Gvir described it as “accurate and balanced”.

“At a time when the number of murders in Arab society is rising… cameras that recognise faces are very important,” Ben Gvir stated, adding, “We will do everything to prevent the improper use of cameras, and for this, we have established a prison sentence, and limited use to serious cases.

The controversial national security minister has a history of controversial remarks about Palestinians, most recently in August when the US State Department condemned remarks in which he suggested that some of his rights were more important than those of Palestinians.

“My right, and my wife’s and my children’s right to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria, is more important than the right to movement for Arabs,” noted Ben Gvir, using Jewish nationalist terms for areas of the occupied West Bank, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 after he was asked about the increasing tensions in the West Bank.

But the bill has not been without its critics in Israel.

Writing for the non-partisan, independent Israel Democracy Institute, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based think-tank, wrote that the use of AI-driven facial recognition technology would equip Israeli police with “military tools”.

They added that existing biases meant the technology could disproportionately target minority groups and that it could cast a “chilling effect,” including among those “exercising their political rights—out of fear of surveillance”.

In the Israeli parliament, Labor MK Gilad Kariv described the new bill as “extreme,” and unsuitable for any “progressive democracy”.

“This is doubly true in relation to a country that has not updated its privacy protection laws in 40 years, and whose police is undergoing a political takeover by nationalist forces,” Kariv said, adding, “This bill cannot be separated from the judicial coup, and we will oppose it with the same strength we oppose the other laws of the coup.”

Rights groups have already warned about the use of existing facial recognition technology by Israeli authorities to target Palestinians.

According to a recent report by Amnesty International, Israel is intensifying the utilisation of facial recognition technology in the occupied West Bank as a means to monitor Palestinians and restrict their mobility, a development that Amnesty has referred to as “automated apartheid”.

In occupied East Jerusalem, Israeli authorities are expanding a comprehensive surveillance network across the city, employing an extensive facial recognition system known as Mabat 2000.

This system enables Israeli authorities to closely monitor protesters and maintain constant surveillance of Palestinians as they carry out their daily routines.

The rights group stressed that the Israeli military employs the “Wolf Pack” system, aimed at creating a database containing profiles of every Palestinian residing in the West Bank.

Simultaneously, in Hebron, Palestinians are compelled to stand in front of fenced checkpoints where cameras scan their faces.

A software program called “Red Wolf” utilises a color-coded system to provide Israeli soldiers with information on whether Palestinians should be allowed to pass, subjected to interrogation, or detained.

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