EU admits teaming up with Israeli police enables mass surveillance

Israel’s racist police force is participating in at least 10 EU research projects (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

David Cronin

The Electronic Intifada  /  January 7, 2022

The European Union funds research involving Israel’s police despite admitting that it may be used for spying purposes.

Over the past few years, a project named Roxanne has been examining how criminals can be identified with the aid of speech recognition technology and visual analysis.

Material intended for public consumption presents the EU-financed project – costing $8 million – as benign. However, serious ethical issues have been raised when it was discussed behind closed doors.

Internal EU documents obtained under freedom of information rules confirm there is a risk that Roxanne’s results will be used for mass surveillance.

An “ethics check” on the project conducted during 2020 refers to plans that personal data will be shared between the EU and Israel. The data collected during the project will incorporate “special categories” such as details on the genetic traits, “health, sexual lifestyle, political opinion, religious or philosophical conviction” of individuals, according to that paper (go to: EU admits teaming up with Israeli police enables mass surveillance | The Electronic Intifada)

The surrounding questions have become even more pertinent since the “ethics check” was carried out. Painstaking investigations by human rights groups proved last year that Israel’s Pegasus spyware is being used more widely than was previously known to monitor campaigners and journalists in various countries.

Israel’s police and its public security ministry are among the participants in Roxanne.

A condition of their involvement is that all data they export to the EU should be collected lawfully.

Providing assurances of legal behavior is apparently deemed sufficient – for the purposes of EU “ethics checks” – to demonstrate that privacy issues are being treated seriously.

In the real world, an Israeli assurance is completely worthless.

Institutionally racist

Israel’s police are seeking new powers that would allow greater surveillance without requiring warrants. A key proposal is that cameras in public places could be used to match people’s faces with details found on police databases.

Such a recommendation should in itself disqualify Israel’s police from Roxanne, which pays lip service to the principle of “privacy awareness.”

There are, of course, numerous other reasons why Israel’s police should not be benefiting from EU science grants.

One major reason is that Israel’s police are institutionally racist.

A recent Human Rights Watch report on Lydd, a city within Israel also known as Lod, contains a vivid example of police racism.

The report describes how police fired tear gas and stun grenades at a protest by Palestinian citizens of Israel in Lydd last May. Yet in some cases when Jewish extremists attacked Palestinians in the same city that month, the police either stood by or failed to protect Palestinians from harm.

Israel’s police and public security ministry both have their headquarters in East Jerusalem, which has been under military occupation since 1967.

Doing business with them should, by definition, be off limits for the European Union, which is nominally committed to avoiding action that would lend the capture and colonization of East Jerusalem any legitimacy.

There are strong indications that Israel has not been entirely candid with administrators in Brussels.

Documents for the Roxanne project give an address inside Israel as the official contact for the public security ministry. If Brussels officials consulted the ministry’s website, they would learn that its main offices can be actually found on Clermont-Ganneau Street in East Jerusalem.

I emailed the European Commission, which manages Horizon 2020, asking if it would take action over the Israeli public security ministry’s operations in East Jerusalem.

A European Commission spokesperson claimed that research projects undergo a “rigorous ethical evaluation” and “no allegations on the misuse” of Horizon 2020 grants “have been substantiated so far.”

I followed up that claim by enquiring if the European Commission disputes the assertion that Israel’s public security ministry appears to have been dishonest about how its headquarters are located in East Jerusalem. The spokesperson replied that “this is not a question for the Commission.”

When I expressed puzzlement at that response – arguing that the question was patently relevant as the EU has long expressed its views on Jerusalem’s status – the spokesperson acknowledged that I was right. The spokesperson nonetheless dodged the question by merely quoting EU guidelines drawn up in 2013.

Those guidelines stipulate that “Israeli entities” receiving EU grants “must have their place of establishment within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.”

“I have nothing to add,” the spokesperson said.

Expert in oppression

The involvement of Israel’s police and public security ministry in Roxanne and another EU-funded project called Law-Train has sparked protests from the Palestine solidarity movement.

More protest is needed. Israel’s police and its public security ministry have been admitted into at least eight other projects under Horizon 2020, the EU’s current research fund.

Among them are two border surveillance initiatives: Andromeda and SafeShore. As border surveillance has become synonymous with cruelty toward refugees, questions must be asked about the precise role being played here by Israel’s racist police.

A particularly troubling aspect of all this cooperation is that boasts made by the Israeli police are seemingly taken at face value.

An EU-funded project called Shuttle is building a database of blood, gunshot residues, hair and saliva. Israel’s police force is taking part and will “contribute its experience as a forensic expert [and] technological leader,” according to the Shuttle website.

There is no acknowledgment that Israel is actually an expert in oppression.

By awarding research grants to Israel’s police, the EU is rewarding a force that detains Palestinian children, terrifies entire families by invading their homes and opens fire on worshippers in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.

The EU’s hypocrisy seems boundless.

Shortly before Hisham Abu Hawash ended his hunger strike earlier this week, EU diplomats proclaimed themselves “seriously concerned” about his health.

The diplomats were not concerned enough to demand that the EU stop cooperating with Israel’s public security ministry – the government department overseeing the prisons, where Abu Hawash and many other Palestinians are locked up without charge or trial.

In December, an agreement was signed so that Israel can benefit from the EU’s next research fund. Named Horizon Europe, the fund has an overall budget of approximately $110 billion.

Predictably, the EU promoted the new agreement by celebrating how its cooperation with Israel has supposedly brought great advancements in medicine and environmental protection. Just as predictably, there was no mention that the cooperation is a cash cow for Israel’s racist police.

David Cronin is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada; his books include Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel and Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation