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Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too
Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too

Israel Wants to Have Its Ice Cream and Cybersecurity, Too

Originally published in The New York Times

It is never quiet in Israel, but July brought new scrutiny. First, news broke that governments around the world have used spyware purchased from an Israeli cybersurveillance company, NSO Group, to target journalists, human rights activists and politicians. The revelations could implicate the Israeli Ministry of Defense in granting NSO permission to export hacking software that was then used by countries with authoritarian governments to suppress dissent. The scandal topped international news for days, but Israeli officials were instead preoccupied with ice cream. On July 19, Ben & Jerry’s announced it will no longer be available in the occupied Palestinian territories as of 2023. The divestment story (inaccurately characterized as a boycott) diverted attention from the role Israeli technology plays in global antidemocratic practices. Together the stories highlighted two of Israel’s defining national enterprises: high tech and perpetual military occupation.

The Israeli government’s response to the Ben & Jerry’s announcement was swift and voluble. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid insisted the move was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Gilad Erdan, appealed to governors of 35 U.S. states to activate anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions measures against the company.

The Israeli government portrayed itself as the victim of a hostile and unethical move on the part of the ice cream company. As if Israel itself did not partake in any immoral behavior of its own; as if home demolitions, institutionalized discrimination, land expropriation, administrative detention and shooting at unarmed Palestinian protesters were not problematic; as if an Israeli company selling highly controversial technology to authoritarian regimes were not more questionable than an ice cream company denying its pints to customers who live in certain areas.

The uniformity of official reaction in Israel to the Ben & Jerry’s decision reflects an Israeli political consensus — unlike that of the international community — that does not distinguish between Israeli territory within its internationally recognized 1948 borders and the territories it occupied in 1967.

Yet the message Ben & Jerry’s is sending that the territories are not a legitimate part of Israel is not only consistent with international norms but also aligns with some of Israel’s political accords. In 2018, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government signed a cooperation agreement with the European Union that excluded the settlements, without crying anti-Semitism.

Israeli officials, of course, want the world to see Israel as a moral, benevolent and liberal start-up nation, notwithstanding the decades-long occupation. With Mr. Netanyahu out of office, Mr. Lapid has been hard at work to mend Israel’s diplomatic relations around the world.

Israel is a belligerent occupying power with a thriving, offensive cybersurveillance industry.

But while the new government’s tone has slightly changed from that of its predecessor, its position remains the same — as reflected by what the NSO revelations make very clear: Israel is a belligerent occupying power with a thriving, offensive cybersurveillance industry.

Israel is a leading exporter of state-of-the-art surveillance technology such as face recognition, internet monitoring and biometric data collection. (High-tech industry constituted 46 percent of Israeli exports in 2019.) It tests and utilizes these tools every day in the occupied territories as part of its intricate system of control over the movement and lives of millions of Palestinians. In recent years, the Israeli military has installed thousands of cameras and monitoring devices at checkpoints in the West Bank, including facial-recognition software developed by an Israeli company, AnyVision. The director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU of Washington, Shankar Narayan, described such surveillance as “possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces.”

Israel also operates an extensive network of cameras tasked with observing every corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. The city of Hebron, where some 800 Israeli settlers live cordoned off from its 200,000 Palestinian residents, is known in the military as a smart city because of its sophisticated system of data collection that helps field observers monitor the urban landscape from the safety of their control rooms. Israel conducted its last war, in May, with Hamas in Gaza primarily from an underground bunker, relying on intelligence and digital technology to direct its air force on which targets to strike. Many Israeli soldiers and officers who serve in elite intelligence units in the army — for example, Unit 81, known for its covert cybertechniques — have gone on to found cybersecurity start-ups. Roughly 100 veterans of the unit have started 50 companies.

In excoriating Ben & Jerry’s, the Bennett-Lapid coalition is, in effect, defending decades of illiberal policies: military rule of the occupied territories, creeping annexation and a blurred distinction between 1948 and 1967 borders that insists on Israeli sovereignty between the Jordan River and the sea. At the same time, they are implicitly acknowledging that it’s not easy to maintain an enlightened and peace-seeking image (the Abraham Accords notwithstanding) when an ice cream company calls attention to the gap between rhetoric and reality. Nor when a duly licensed Israeli company climbs into bed with some of the most repressive governments on the planet.

The question is what happens now. Israel sees its high-tech sector as a point of national pride, and it constitutes an integral part of its economy and power in the world. It is not clear whether heightened scrutiny will bring consequences for Israel’s actions, either at home in the occupied territories or secreted in mobile phones around the world. Although the United States and other Western democracies have largely come to terms with Israel’s restrictions of Palestinians’ rights, now that some of that surveillance technology is being exported to restrict free speech in other parts of the world, the world is standing up and noticing. Israel is accustomed to having its ice cream and eating it, too. That apparently comes with a price, and not just for Palestinians.