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Israeli Scholar Neve Gordon on Israeli Mass Surveillance in Gaza & the Use of AI to Kill Palestinians

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We go to Part 2 of our conversation with Israeli scholar Neve Gordon, professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London and chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for British Society of Middle East Studies. Gordon talks about the “massive surveillance apparatus” Israel has imposed on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the use of artificial intelligence tools to bomb targets despite the high error rate in those systems, and the shock of the October 7 attack by Hamas that killed some 1,200 Israelis. “The state seemed not to be functioning, so most Israelis were in great pain, were in great fear,” he says. “My fear is that most Israelis are still trapped, still stuck in that October 7th moment and unwilling to lift their eyes to see basically the genocide unfolding in the Gaza Strip.”

Watch Part 1 of this interview: Road to Famine: Israeli Law Prof. Neve Gordon on Israel’s History of Weaponizing Food Access in Gaza

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Israel’s continued aerial and ground assault on Gaza killed dozens of Palestinians today, including in the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, in Gaza City and in Rafah, where three-quarters of Gaza’s population have been displaced to. The official death toll in Gaza has topped 33,600, including over 14,000 children, the actual toll expected to be far higher with thousands of people missing and presumed dead under the rubble. More than 76,000 people have been wounded.

For more on Gaza, we turn to Part 2 of our conversation with the Israeli scholar Neve Gordon, professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for British Society of Middle East Studies, author of a number of books, including Israel’s Occupation, co-author of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, co-editor of Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel. He joined Democracy Now! co-host Nermeen Shaikh and I from London last week. I began by asking him about Israeli surveillance in Gaza.

NEVE GORDON: So, every state needs to impose a massive surveillance apparatus on its society — and its largest manifestation is the Central Bureau of Statistics — because in order to manage a society, you need to know a lot about it. You need to know different patterns of occupation, age, gender, race. You need to know their habits and so forth. And so, when Israel enters the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the first thing, or one of the first things, it does is it begins to monitor and survey the population it is managing, which also tells us a lot about its intentions and the fact that it had no intention of withdrawing from Gaza and the West Bank after the war in 1967, because you don’t put in place such a massive surveillance apparatus, where you look at every letter sent, you look at — you go in and see how many refrigerators people have, how many stoves they have, what kind of crops they’re growing in their agricultural fields, everything like that — you don’t put that in place if you’re planning to leave, but you put it in place if you plan to manage the population.

And Israel managed the Palestinian population until Oslo, where basically the Oslo Accords can be understood as the creation of a subcontractor, Palestinian Authority, that it would take over the management of the daily life of the Palestinians. And the PA then creates its own Central Bureau of Statistics. And Israel changes then the kinds of surveillance that it carries out vis-à-vis the Palestinian population, because it is no longer responsible for the life of the Palestinians — the PA is — but now it is responsible for the security of Israel in relation to the Palestinian body. So it surveys the Palestinian body only insofar as it helps Israel ensure its so-called security. And so we see a change in the surveillance apparatus. And we see what I call in my first book a move from a politics of life, a politics where Israel is planting 200,000 or so trees in the Gaza Strip, versus a politics of death, where Israel is uprooting 200-or-so thousand trees in the Gaza Strip.

Now, over time, technologies develop. The military develops new technologies of surveillance. And one friend who works in the Israeli intelligence basically told me, “We can see almost everything in the Gaza Strip, whether it’s through our Zeppelins, whether it’s through our drones, whether it’s through satellites and different devices.” And Israel monitors every little step in the Gaza Strip. Every SIM card in the Gaza Strip is monitored. A lot of times when they say they’re targeting a person, they’re targeting the SIM card. So, what we have is a whole massive apparatus of surveillance that has existed for years for military use.

But what is new, or relatively new — I think it was first put to use in 2021 — is the use of AI system. It’s the kind of feeding of the data that Israel collects through its surveillance system to a machine that uses algorithms then, basically, to create different kinds of networks and to identify Hamas operative or different Palestinian fighters or other issues, because the bottleneck in the different cycles of violence that Israel has had — and as I mentioned, it had five since 2008 — was always the targets, the kill targets, because it would take an intelligence officer sometimes days or weeks to kind of figure out a target. And here you can put the data into the machine, and the machine — as the article in +972 tells us, the machine, within a limited amount of time, can produce 37,000 human targets. Now, the machine itself, the Israelis itself, are set telling us that there’s a 10% error rate even in that machine, even according to Israel, yet that Israel ignored that 10% error rate, and then it just started using this machine algorithms to bomb people in Gaza, as you said.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Neve Gordon, this is the first time that we’re speaking to you since the October 7th attack, so I want to ask you — you’ve just quoted an Israeli intelligence official who told you that, given the extensive surveillance system that they have in place in Gaza, they can see almost everything that happens there. So, in light of that, could you tell us what your initial response was to the Hamas attack in Israel, and then what’s unfolded since? Of course, you’ve said that, and you say in the piece, that the speed and scale of the devastation of Gaza that’s ensued is “unparalleled in history.” So, if you could talk about that?

NEVE GORDON: So, the October 7th attack, as an Israeli Jew, was both horrific and devastating. A former graduate student of mine was killed on that day. A music teacher from my children’s school was killed on that day. His wife was killed on that day. And a friend that we thought was kidnapped was also — turned out to have been killed on that day. And it was a very, very painful moment for me, and it was a very, very painful moment, I think, for most Israelis. And the audience needs to understand that Israel is a small country, and the degree of separation between either a person that was killed or a person that was kidnapped in Israel, the maximum degree of separation is probably one degree. So everyone knew someone or knew someone that knew someone. And there was this kind of immense pain. And alongside that pain, there was also a major fear, because everything seemed to have collapsed. The major IDF intelligence apparatus was not working. The defense system was not working. The fence was breached without any problems. And the whole apparatus of the state seemed not to be functioning. So, most Israelis were in great pain, were in great fear. But also immediately came this notion of revenge, kind of a sense we have to hit back, we have to hit back hard, and so forth. And my fear is that most Israelis are still trapped, still stuck in that October 7th moment and unwilling to lift their eyes to see, basically, the genocide unfolding in the Gaza Strip.

And that’s what we’ve been seeing in the past six months, is this horrific devastation, massive killings of civilians. We have — I mean, Hamas killed 30 Israeli children on October 7th, and that is horrific. Israel has killed close to 15,000 children, not counting those that are under the rubble, since October 7th. We need to understand that figure: 15,000 children have been killed. We have women — thousands of women have been killed. And thousands of innocent men have been killed. Israel categorizes all the men as terrorists, but thousands of these men were not fighters. They were just men that were in their homes with their wives, with their children, and their homes were bombed. And so, we see the massive displacement of 1.7 million people. We see 70% of the Gaza Strip now in basically rubbles. We see systematic attacks on the healthcare, that the healthcare is now — which is the institution responsible for saving lives. It’s now completely shattered. So, it’s all been very devastating for me, as an Israeli Jew, to watch this kind of horrific violence unfolding in the Gaza Strip, with friends and friends of friends, again, dying. It’s not as if I don’t have friends in the Gaza Strip. And then we see the academia and education system. I mean, all the universities have been bombed in the Gaza Strip. We have almost half the schools are either damaged or destroyed. One-third of these schools are irreparable. So, one-third of the children, even after the war, will not have schools to return to. So, it’s just complete devastation, and it’s beyond words at this point.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can comment on the breaking of the establishment consensus, and if it matters, if you think it will lead to the end of the occupation. You wrote years ago, 15 years ago, a book called Israel’s Occupation. But here you are in London. You have Chef Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, seven people killed — one Palestinian, three British men, some part of the special forces — they were protecting the others, did not succeed in doing that — Australian, a Canadian American. In the United States, you have this odd situation where the president talks about being broken-hearted, and at the same time continues to push for massive amounts of military weapons to go to Israel. You have the mass protests in London, where you are, hundreds of thousands marching, and those calling for an end to military support of Israel. How has this shifted over time? And do you think that this has reached a critical mass, that Palestinians are now becoming full-fledged people in the eyes of the world and the establishment governments, and that Israel is the one being questioned?

NEVE GORDON: Well, we’re not yet where Palestinians have become full-fledged people in the eyes of the world. And we can see that very clearly through the attack on the World Central Kitchen, because, on average, every day, an aid worker has been killed in Gaza since the war began, but it becomes an international issue that all the political elite is discussing only when the aid workers are foreigners. So that shows us the deep-rooted racism that still exists.

However, there is a massive change. I’ve been at it for maybe 40 years now, and there is a massive change. And the massive change is that the Palestinians have managed to globalize their struggle. And civil society, from Sri Lanka and India to the United States through Europe and Africa, is with the Palestinians. And the civil society around the globe are horrified what they’re seeing, and have been now for the past half-year, particularly here in London with these massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people, have been telling the political elite, “Hey, you’re not seeing what’s going on.” And it seems that, finally, after six months of the kind of devastation that I was describing before, this is having some kind of impact on the political elite. And so, we see different — as you mentioned earlier in the program, we see different countries now questioning the weapons trade with Israel. We see that happening in Spain. We saw a ruling in the Netherlands. We see now the law professors and judges in the U.K. protesting the trade and saying that it’s illegal. And we see slowly the political elite changing their voice. But it’s slow. It’s too slow. And what I would suggest is that civil society just needs to continue going out there and creating these thousands of stories of protest every day, until the political elite begins hearing what we have to say.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Neve Gordon, is there any indication of even an incipient change in civil society in Israel? We’ve seen these massive, unprecedented protests, but, of course, those are against Netanyahu, not about a ceasefire in Gaza. But what do you hear about what the situation is on the ground in Israel, how people are thinking of what happened on October 7th and how this war will end?

NEVE GORDON: So, building up to October 7th, there were weekly protests for 35 weeks in a row, with hundreds of thousands of people going to the street against the judicial overhaul and against Netanyahu. That’s about half the Jewish population was against Netanyahu, and half the Jewish population was for Netanyahu. Come October 7th, and the glue that kind of glued these two camps together was revenge. And they wanted revenge against the Palestinian people. And so, the protests dissipated.

We see now the protests reemerging in the past few weeks, with about something around 10,000 people now protesting against Netanyahu. That’s about, I would say, 10% or less than what we saw before October 7th. Then we have protests for the return of the hostages. And so, you’ll get about 2,000, 3,000 people going to those protests. And then the ceasefire protests are sometimes with a hundred or 200 people. And it’s, frankly, often very dangerous to take part in those protests. People can be violent against you in the streets and so forth.

We see at the same time right-wing organizations scanning the different petitions Israelis are signing, looking at what they’re signing, and if an Israeli will sign a petition for a ceasefire or against arms trade with Israel, these right-wing organizations will go — if it’s, let’s say, a lecture in a university, will go to the students and mobilize the students against the lecture, so students ask the university to suspend or fire the professor. And we’ve seen several faculty members across the country being fired. We’ve seen it across the country. Mainly the people that have been targeted are Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also several Jews have lost their jobs due to basically empathy with the Palestinians and call for a ceasefire.

So, the situation in Israel is that the freedom of speech, for example, that I enjoyed when I lived in Israel, has been really curtailed, contracted. And things that people could easily say before October 7th, it’s very difficult to say today, sometimes even very dangerous to say them, and particularly if you’re a Palestinian citizen.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Gordon, I know you have to go soon, but I wanted to ask you about Prime Minister Netanyahu saying he’s going to ban Al Jazeera. Now, it’s not as if Israeli Jews are big aficionados of Al Jazeera, but the significance around the world of what it means? We saw this, you know, at the time, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld talking about Al Jazeera as a terror network. That’s when Al Jazeera was covering the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And we see it again now. You talk about what Israelis see versus what Palestinians are experiencing, the horror of the devastation of Gaza. Yet Al Jazeera is perhaps one of the only global networks that brings the voices of Palestinians and Israeli officials to the Arab world, in a way we do not see in the United States, even with CNN, with MSNBC, rarely interviewing a Palestinian. If you can talk about what the significance of this is?

NEVE GORDON: So, as you said —

AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention how many journalists have been killed in Gaza.

NEVE GORDON: Exactly. So, Israel has killed over a hundred journalists in Gaza. And why are journalists being targeted? Because journalists channel information to the world outside. And the Al Jazeera, since October 7th, has been probably the best global network, the best network, that has managed to cover at least part of the horrors that are taking place in the Gaza Strip, and managed to confront Israeli policymakers and discuss these issues. And Israel does not want the world to see what is going on.

A lot of commentators have said this is the first genocide that the world sees taking — unfolding in front of their very eyes. And I think that is something to think about. And I think that Israel has begun thinking about it. It knows the kind of violence that it’s carrying out. It knows that Al Jazeera has managed to get this violence out there into the world. I’m sure other networks are also looking at what Al Jazeera is doing, and using some of its information. And Israel wants to put a stop to this information so it can carry out the kind of crimes that it’s been carrying out, without it being seen by such a great audience.

So, there is a systematic attack, both inside Israel, in terms of the Facebook, the social media pages of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, that are getting information from Gaza and kind of amplifying it to the world. There is the — we have to remember, there’s the internet blackouts that Israel has put on the Gaza Strip. And there’s the targeting of journalists. And I think the banning of Al Jazeera is just another step in a whole series of steps about how do we manage to restrict the information from getting out of the Gaza Strip so the world won’t see what we’re doing, the kind of — the eliminationist project that we’re carrying out, we, as Israelis, are carrying out in the Gaza Strip.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Gordon, just before we end, if you could tell us how you think this war will come to an end, the status of the negotiations, what’s likely to happen, what will it take for a ceasefire to be declared, for a prisoner exchange to take place?

NEVE GORDON: I think we’re in a major bind here. I think Netanyahu, as many people have already said, has a vested interest in maintaining and sustaining the war, because the minute the war ends, Netanyahu will have to go back to the Israeli public, and they will demand accountability, not only accountability for the three corruption trials that he’s undergoing, but, more importantly, for accountability for October 7th and for the hostages and so forth. So Netanyahu has this kind of vested interest of continuing this war, and maybe even creating a geopolitical crisis that extends far beyond Israel, that goes to Lebanon. We saw the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Syria the other day, and so forth.

I think he will be willing for a short ceasefire to carry out a hostage exchange. And I really, really hope that that happens very soon and that the hostages are released, and that all the Palestinian political prisoners that are being held in Israel are also released.

But if I understood your question correctly, I think you’re also asking about the bigger picture. What about the day after? And I think the problem is not Netanyahu. The problem is the Israeli regime. And I think that if Gantz enters into power or anyone else, not much is going to change under the sun. I think what we need to aspire for is a real change in the regime.

People are chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” So, now, from the river to the sea, there’s millions of Palestinians that are not free. And the way I would imagine the kind of future I would aspire for Israel would be, yes, from the river to the sea, everyone will be free, meaning that we’ll have a state there where both all the Palestinians, the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, are all citizens of that state, the Jews that are now there will be citizens of that state, and it will be a Jewish — a kind of a state for all its citizens, and not a state, a regime, where Jewish supremacy, as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem calls it, is the kind of paradigm through which the regime carries out its legislation, its policies and practices.

So, I think a lot will have to be done. There was a great piece in The New York Times the other day by Tareq Baconi, calling on policymakers to abandon the two-state solution. I think Tareq Baconi is right. I think the situation in Israel — and Israel admits to it — that it controls the area from the river to the sea. And so the situation is that there is one state. The one state is a settler-colonial apartheid state. And our project now is how to democratize it.

AMY GOODMAN: Israeli scholar Neve Gordon, professor of international law and human rights at Queen Mary University of London, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for British Society of Middle East Studies and chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for British Society. He is the author of several books, including Israel’s Occupation, and co-author of Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, co-editor of Torture: Human Rights, Medical Ethics and the Case of Israel. To see our full interview with Neve Gordon, you can go to democracynow.org.

A happy birthday to Anna Özbek and María Inés Taracena!

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Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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