The Israeli army is using Palestinians’ cellphone data in its military campaign to monitor the population’s movements within Gaza. Recent New York Times reporting describes this Israel Defense Forces’ initiative after being granted access to military’s surveillance system. The IDF claims the real-time monitoring of over 1 million Gazan cellphones is an attempt to reduce civilian casualties.
Responding to Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks that targeted civilians and killed over 1,400, the IDF has conducted daily airstrikes throughout the Gaza Strip. By Oct. 11, the Israeli Air Force stated it had already dropped a staggering 6,000 bombs, and on Oct. 10, Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari reportedly said, “The emphasis is on damage, not on accuracy.”
The timing of the Times’ report and the journalist’s access may suggest an intentional recalibration of the IDF’s messaging and tone ahead of an anticipated ground offensive into Gaza. 3,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed in the past 10 days, with over 500 killed today in a hospital explosion. Given the current situation in Gaza, what evidence shows the IDF’s expansive monitoring of Gazans is actually reducing civilian casualties?
Cellphone data in Israel’s military strategy
On Friday, Israel told the roughly 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza to evacuate to the south within 24 hours for their own safety. Not far away, in southern Israel, soldiers track the location data of over 1 million cellphones, displayed on a live map of the Gaza Strip. The soldiers reportedly use this data to monitor the movement of residents from northern Gaza to the south.
According to the Times, the data-tracking system showed that around 700,000 of the 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza had relocated to the south by midday on Monday. The Times journalist reported the IDF officers stationed to this control room were calling the remaining 400,000 residents individually to plead with them to evacuate.
The IDF argues this cellphone data is a pivotal tool to gauge civilian presence and adjust military actions accordingly — with neighborhoods turning green to indicate at least 75% of the population had relocated.
Besides the noble goal of reducing civilian casualties, a depopulated urban environment would likely benefit the IDF’s military operations. Conversely, Hamas is encouraging residents to remain in the north, arguing that nowhere in Gaza is safe. However, Hamas’s motivation for residents to remain is likely so their militants could more easily assimilate into civilian populations when necessary.
Implications and reactions
The landscape of warfare has undergone a significant transformation with the advent of technology. In the Israel-Hamas conflict, the IDF’s data-tracking system highlights how digital tools are becoming integral to military strategies. Similarly, the war in Ukraine saw the extensive use of drones, reshaping reconnaissance and combat tactics.
While the Israeli military presents this data usage as a measure to minimize civilian harm, critics voice concerns. The displacement, though intended to ensure safety, has led Gazans into areas still vulnerable to airstrikes. Moreover, the broader ethical implications of using personal data in military operations have raised concerns among human rights advocates. This is especially unsettling in regions like Gaza, which many residents refer to as an “open-air prison.” Such surveillance programs also raise questions about privacy rights and data security. Western democracies largely embrace these rights are fundamental. Yet, they are denied in Gaza due to military necessity.
The Israeli military’s strategy of using cellphone data underscores the evolving nature of modern warfare. As the situation in Gaza unfolds, the global community will closely watch the implications of such data-driven military strategies.