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Palestinian Forum Highlights Threats of Autonomous Weapons

Forum Tackles Digital Rights Abuses Against Palestinians

Two guns sit atop a guard tower along with surveillance cameras overlooking the Aroub refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, October 6, 2022.  © 2022 Mahmoud Ilean/AP Images

In late May, I addressed a panel on the militarization of digital spaces – specifically on how Israeli authorities use surveillance technologies to deepen systemic discrimination against Palestinians. I warned that the use of autonomy in weapons systems was a dangerous part of this trend and highlighted the urgent need for an international legal response.    

This panel was part of this year’s Palestine Digital Activism Forum, hosted by the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, also known as 7amleh. More than 1,500 participants from local and international civil society organizations met to discuss the digital rights challenges faced by Palestinians and activists working on the Palestinian cause.

Amnesty International’s new report, “Automated Apartheid,” details the extensive use of facial and biometric recognition technologies by Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank to facilitate their commission of the crime against humanity of apartheid against Palestinians.

Similar surveillance tools fuel discrimination against communities of color globally. As my co-panelist Mona Shtaya from 7amleh said, “Palestinians are living under a state of surveillance in which the occupiers benefit from the occupation by testing tactics and software on Palestinians, which will be exported later on worldwide.”

In addition to their use of invasive surveillance technologies and monitoring of Palestinian cyberspace, Israeli authorities are also developing autonomous weapons systems. These trends, globally reflect a slide towards digital dehumanization, and in the case of Israel this means of Palestinians. Israeli authorities have developed and used drones, loitering munitions, and remote-controlled gun turrets, like the Smart Shooter recently installed in Hebron and Bethlehem. A senior Israeli defense official said recently that authorities are looking at “the ability of platforms to strike in swarms, or of combat systems to operate independently, of data fusion and of assistance in fast decision-making, on a scale greater than we have ever seen.”

Incorporating artificial intelligence and emerging technologies into weapons systems raises a host of ethical, humanitarian, and legal concerns for all people, including Palestinians. Campaigners have called for the adoption of a treaty containing prohibitions and restrictions on autonomous weapons systems, which many countries, including Palestine, have joined.

Autonomous weapons systems could help automate Israel’s uses of force. These uses of force are frequently unlawful and help entrench Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. Without new international law to subvert the dangers this technology poses, the autonomous weapon systems Israel is developing today could contribute to their proliferation worldwide and harm the most vulnerable.

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