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Harnessing Open-Source Intelligence for Palestinian Liberation
Through a process of collecting, analyzing, and sharing publicly available content online, open-source intelligence (OSINT) OSINT analysts are exposing critical intelligence once monopolized by state authorities. Indeed, the decentralized nature of the OSINT process offers a potentially unique opportunity for the marginalized and oppressed to challenge the narratives presented by governments and mainstream media in pursuit of truth and justice. However, while OSINT sharing gives journalists unparalleled insights from the ground and provides activists with new tools for accountability and mobilization, authoritarian regimes are quick to co-opt the new technologies for their own repressive purposes. Colonized Palestine is a case in point.
This policy brief contextualizes the Palestinian struggle for liberation amid the global rise of OSINT. In doing so, it explains how OSINT has been leveraged both as a liberatory tool to hold Israel accountable for its war crimes and human rights violations, and as a means of further oppression by promoting false Israeli narratives. The policy brief recommends several steps that Palestinians, their leadership, and their allies should take in order to harness OSINT’s potential as a tool for liberation and mitigate the risks posed by those determined to weaponize it.
On May 11, 2022, Israeli forces shot and killed renowned Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was reporting on their raid in the occupied city of Jenin. News of Abu Akleh’s assassination, along with footage of the moment Israeli forces opened fire, spread rapidly across social media. Prior to the resurgence in OSINT, widespread recognition of the truth surrounding Abu Akleh's murder would have rested on the outcome of an Israeli investigation of its own military. Today, OSINT gives Palestinians an invaluable tool: the joint investigation carried out by OSINT teams around the world into Abu Akleh’s murder proved a remarkable feat considering Israel’s ongoing violations of Palestinians’ digital rights and its crackdown on human rights groups.
However, glaring issues continue to put OSINT’s liberatory potential at risk. Firstly, the investigation into Abu Akleh’s murder showed that Palestinians continue to depend in large part on the good will of OSINT analysts abroad who enjoy unrestricted access to the online infrastructure on which they depend—infrastructure often denied to Palestinians. Secondly, Israeli OSINT analysts are attempting to suppress efforts to expose the truth by serving as purveyors of hasbara—Israeli state-led propaganda aimed at concealing Israeli crimes and distorting the reality of its military occupation and apartheid policies.
Indeed, many OSINT accounts like Aurora Intel, Israel Radar, and ELINT News source much of their information uncritically from the Israeli military, overreporting acts of armed resistance by Palestinians, and underreporting more pervasive Israeli structural violence. As a result, instead of the objective sources of information these accounts claim to be, they end up propagating Israeli hasbara, distorting the public narrative, and covering up the regime’s war crimes.
In theory, Palestinian OSINT analysts should be able to counteract Israeli disinformation campaigns by presenting the truth to a global audience. But under the Israeli regime’s brutal military occupation, even life on the internet for Palestinians is characterized by suffocating surveillance and obstructive barriers to access. Furthermore, the Israeli regime’s highly developed technology sector has given it valuable soft power and an unparalleled relationship with leading social media giants. This means Palestinians must once again rely on the international community to hold Israel accountable for censorship and privacy violations.
OSINT alone will not stop Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, nor ensure accountability. However, by exposing Israel’s crimes to the world, OSINT can be used as a liberatory tool in the pursuit of transparency, deterrence, and justice. Fundamentally, Palestinians should be able to access the internet reliably wherever they are. Human rights activists and organizations, Palestinian leadership, and UN member states must support the official establishment and ratification of internationally recognized laws that enshrine access to the internet as a human right. They should leverage these laws as a framework to demand the Israeli regime relinquish its control over Palestinian internet infrastructure.
Furthermore, Israel must be held accountable for targeting reporters, citizen journalists, and human rights groups. Activists in the US should contact their representatives to demand the passage of HR 9291, which calls for an investigation and report on Israel’s assassination of Shireen Abu Akleh.
Palestinian OSINT analysts and citizen journalists should be given access and funding for training and digital security courses that will allow them to more effectively leverage OSINT collection methods towards human rights, while maintaining their own safety and security. Finally, advocates should also support Palestinian-led OSINT initiatives like the Al Haq and Forensic Architecture lab with additional funding and resources. Doing so would enhance the flow of information, reduce the adverse impact of disinformation, and protect Palestinian citizen journalists from retribution by Israeli regime forces.