Are global tech giants facilitating Israel’s war on Gaza?

With $1bn+ deals for vital services like cloud computing and AI software, some tech companies have been accused of being complicit in Israel's crimes against Palestinians. The truth is still emerging.

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Are global tech giants facilitating Israel’s war on Gaza?

Israel has enjoyed military, political, and diplomatic support from its allies in its war on Gaza, yet in one often-overlooked area, it has also had support of a different kind that may be just as valuable: technology. Like other armies, Israel's relies on accurate and up-to-date information, often gleaned from vast quantities of available data with the help of sophisticated algorithms that now use machine learning techniques that had not even been dreamed of until recently.

Intimately involved in this new tech landscape are some of biggest names in the sector, including Amazon, Google, and Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The data available online is typically fed into Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, including two important targeting mechanisms, known as Gospel and Lavender, which direct Israeli bombs in the densely-populated territory.

Read more: A look at Israel's AI-generated 'mass assassination factory' in Gaza

Not sitting comfortably

Some staff at tech giants object to what they see as their unwitting facilitation of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza. Staff at Google protested, urging the firm to stop supporting Israel. Google responded by firing 50 of them.

Called Project Nimbus, Google’s $1.2bn deal involves Amazon in the provision of cloud computing and AI software that critics say is used by Israel in the surveillance of millions of Palestinians. Together with data centres and the advanced computer chips provided by other Western firms, this forms the rump of the tech infrastructure that Israel needs to maintain its occupation and wage war.

One of the biggest projects of its kind in Israel, Project Nimbus, began in 2021 and has grown ever since. It uses AI to process huge amounts of data at speed. As part of the deal, the tech giants have had to establish data centres in Israel, rather than in Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands, to ensure that the data and information that flows through them is covered by Israeli law.

Google and Amazon have also complied with Israel’s request to establish local companies to run the data centres instead of using international equivalents. They also allocated local landing sites for the Nimbus project solely to protect data and increase infrastructure resources when there is a surge in data demand or processing needs, thereby increasing the speed of response and effectiveness of decision-making.

This offers Israel a significant advantage in developing its programmes that rely on high-speed data availability and processing. Google defended its position, saying the Nimbus contract was “for workloads running on our commercial cloud” and “not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services”.

Claim and counter-claim

A global tech hub, Israeli politicians worry that big tech firms may bow to consumer pressure and divest from the country over the mounting human rights abuse allegations. Recent judgements by the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice add to the pressure.

There has certainly been a new focus on the moral responsibility tech firms bear, given that their AI systems are now being used to identify targets in Gaza. Some Jewish employees at Google have written to the firm’s top managers urging them not to proceed, calling for the funds to be reallocated to alleviate Palestinian suffering.

However, Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai, who expressed his support for the Israeli state in recent months, argued that Google was a place of work, not a forum for political discussion. The firm has tried to present itself as a supporter of rights and freedoms (including of free speech and freedom of association), offering a workplace in which diversity was welcome, but Pichai’s reply questions whether it still is.

If anything, Google’s engagement with Israel is deepening. News reports suggest that the company’s systems now help automate how targets are chosen. The extent to which these systems are trained to reduce civilian casualties is unknown, as is the extent to which the tech firms have any ongoing involvement during or preceding military operations, but concerns about human oversight are growing.

Meta’s warm embrace

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has also been part of the tech sector’s race to provide support to Israel if recent reports about WhatsApp from Israeli journalists are to be believed. It stems from reporting by Israel’s +972 Magazine and Hebrew-language outlet Local Call, citing corroboration from six Israeli intelligence officers, that conversations between Palestinians through WhatsApp are being used for targeting.

Such reports contradict WhatsApp’s assertions that it provides protection and privacy (via encryption) for conversations. The reports suggest that the information is being fed into the controversial AI programme Lavender. Israel is allegedly using the data to piece together information about Palestinian fighters by tracking their locations and voiceprints to create a voice library. Their coordinates are then sent to the Israeli army for real-time targeting.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed serious concern about Israel’s use of AI to track and identify targets, with AI-driven strikes failing to distinguish between fighters and civilians, leading to the deaths of innocents.

REUTERS/Hatem Khaled
A child looks on as Palestinians inspect a tent camp ripped apart by an Israeli strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, May 28, 2024.

Read more: In Rafah, Gaza's displaced are caught between tanks and tents

Questions of bias

Critics of the company say that Meta has a long record of bias towards Israel, citing claims in 2023 that Facebook’s algorithms were allowing the spread of hate speech against Palestinians, including in both Arabic- and Hebrew-language ads. The ads were removed following complaints that they violated Facebook’s own rules, but many fear that the bias remains since content criticising Israeli actions is routinely labelled as “antisemitic” and removed, with those posting it then banned.

Last December, a Human Rights Watch report titled Meta’s Broken Promises highlighted what it alleged to be the firm’s bias against Palestinians on Facebook and Instagram, citing 1,050 posts removed for supporting Palestinian human rights. The authors said that only one instance involved speech inciting violence—the other 1,049 were “peaceful content” calling to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians.

Meta’s policies and practices “have been silencing voices in support of Palestine and Palestinian human rights on Instagram and Facebook in a wave of heightened censorship of social media” since 7 October 2023, HRW said.

Meta defends itself

Meta responded to HRW outlining the actions it took in emergencies such as Israel's war on Gaza since October, acknowledging the higher levels of hate speech and incitement on its platforms from all sides. It said it also initiated temporary measures to keep users safe and “mitigate the risk that our platforms could be used to further exacerbate tensions”, including “lowering the confidence level at which we automatically take action”.

Meta said this was done “to address a persistent spike in potentially hateful comments” but that it acknowledged that “there could be unintended consequences, like inadvertently limiting harmless or even helpful content”. The size of the company’s task is huge, and it uses machine learning to help. To illustrate the point, a staggering 795,000 pieces of content in Arabic and Hebrew were removed from Facebook and Instagram in the three days after 7 October.

Earlier this year, Meta said it was rewriting its publishing policies, and potentially expanding the posts it deletes if they use the term ‘Zionist’. In an email seen by media outlets, a spokesman said that “while the term ‘Zionist’ often refers to a person’s ideology, which is not a protected characteristic, it can also be used to refer to Jewish or Israeli people”.

Palestinian supporters say the accusation of antisemitism has been widely used in the current conflict to shut down any discourse supporting the Palestinian cause, whether online or in-person, such as in debates and discussions at universities and schools.

Scott Olson/AFP
A protest encampment on the University of Chicago campus on May 4, 2024, against Israel's war on Gaza. Students are calling for the university to divest from companies complicit in the war.

Read more: The demonisation of students exposes hypocritical stances

Military-commercial overlap

Knowing the value of technology, Israeli officials have rolled out the red carpet to firms such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Intel, and Oracle, fostering close partnerships between the tech giants, Israeli tech start-ups, and the government. Along the way, Google bought Israeli navigation app Waze, Meta bought Israeli companies Onavo and, Hewlett Packard bought Israeli cybersecurity firm Axis, and Apple bought Israeli 3D sensing technology company PrimeSense to help develop its watches, phones, and TVs.

The tech giants even stepped up their support for Israeli firms because of the war. At the end of March, Israeli business news site Globes reported that since 7 October, “11 Israeli venture capital funds were founded to provide a response to the urgent needs of start-ups experiencing financing difficulties because of the war” including one “supported by Google Support Fund”.

High-tech industries are crucial for the Israeli economy, whose tech-literate workforce is sought after by the big multinationals, hundreds of which have offices and research centres there. Intel’s new $25bn factory in southern Israel, due to open in 2027, is the largest single investment ever made in the country.

Inside Israel’s NSA

Israel’s system of national military service is mandatory for all Israelis over the age of 18. The brightest brains often end up working in the Israel Defence Forces’ secretive Unit 8200, responsible for Israel’s signals intelligence. It is one of the world’s most powerful surveillance agencies, comparable to the US National Security Agency (NSA) or Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Its head, Yossi Sariel, helped write Israel’s AI strategy.

In his 2021 book, Sariel describes an AI-powered “targets machine”, describing the target recommendation systems that the IDF is now known to have been using in Gaza. Sure enough, Unit 8200 is now known to have developed Lavendar, the AI system used to identify Palestinian fighters in Gaza. All six of the Israeli intelligence officers who spoke to journalist Yuval Abraham for the joint +972 Magazine report with Local Call said that Lavender had played a central role in the war by identifying potential “junior” operatives to target.

Four of the sources said that, at one stage early in the war, Lavender listed as many as 37,000 Palestinians to target. In summary, Israel is determined to make sure it has the best weapons and most up-to-date technology to help it to victory in Gaza and ensure its security in the Middle East.

Being an attractive tech hub creates an environment to foster further development, meaning the country and its military are well-placed to benefit from advances. The war in Gaza has shown that Israel’s partnership with tech giants has helped it acquire what amounts to a lethal weapon: information used to track and identify Palestinians and the technology to reach them as it sees fit.

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