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Amazon Is Investing in AI-Assisted Apartheid in Palestine

Since 2014, Amazon has been pouring billions into Israel, contributing to illegal settlement programmes and the relentless surveillance of Palestinians. Israel’s dystopian end goal: to compile biometric profiles and security ratings for every resident of the West Bank.

Photo by Mohammed Abed / AFP via Getty Images

‘Where is Ahmad?’ Israeli military forces demanded after boarding a bus from Ramallah headed towards Jerusalem.

They were looking for me.

I was on a religious pilgrimage to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, but as a Palestinian dual national with a Palestinian ID, I cannot visit areas of occupied Palestine without a special permit called a Tasree7, which takes several months to obtain. After locating me on the bus, Israeli forces violently removed me; an armed soldier then scanned my face and the personal information on my passport, and told me the information will be ‘permanently recorded’ in their system and used against me if I attempt to make the journey again.

My treatment was not unusual. Israel’s apartheid state is being sponsored by tech giants, with artificial intelligence (AI) and other surveillance technologies used to deepen the long-standing repression of Palestinians. In the 2021 Operation Guardian of the Walls, which saw Israel bombard the Gaza Strip with air strikes, leaving 1,000 Palestinians displaced and 256 dead, ‘AI was a force multiplier’, according to an Israeli official. In the years since, companies like Amazon have powered what a recent Amnesty International report dubbed ‘automated apartheid’. Amazon announced recently that it would invest another $7.2 billion in Israel through 2037 and extend its web services to the country.

The company claims the benefactors of Amazon Web Services (AWS) will be Israeli entrepreneurs and businesses. In reality, the primary winner will be the military. AWS will expand Project Nimbus, which provides the cloud service ecosystem for Israel, primarily serving the country’s military. (Google also invests in Project Nimbus.)

The project will allow Israeli forces to obtain and retain data on Palestinians and surveil them with facial recognition, clamping down on the right to protest and making Palestinians warier of, say, appearing at a demonstration. Even if they aren’t detained at the protest itself, Palestinians know that the numerous watchtowers and checkpoints will capture their faces and that they could be arrested later or banned from visiting certain sites. Amnesty International’s report found that protests outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate plummeted after various watchtowers and cameras were erected.

The ties between Israel and Amazon run deep. As of 2019, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) had converted 80 percent of Amazon’s aircraft fleet from passenger to cargo use. Buoyed by Amazon’s investment, IAI is implementing autonomous ‘robo-snipers’ and drones across Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The implications for Palestinians at any of the more than 100 checkpoints across the West Bank are frightening. Human error or miscalculation in murdering Palestinians beats highly intelligent technology that does not give a second thought to the commands it receives.

In two West Bank refugee camps, for instance, turrets armed with a lens and a gun look out over protests. Using AI to identify targets, soldiers — safely removed from the fracas — can simply press a remote to shoot stun grenades, tear gas, or sponge-tipped bullets.

Israeli soldiers haven’t distinguished themselves as paragons of morality in their role as occupiers. But further isolating soldiers from the potentially lethal implications of their decisions can only produce more brutality. As a spokesperson for the rights group B’Tselem told the Associated Press last year, ‘Israel is using technology as a means to control the civil population.’