Thursday, October 31, 2019

Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians by Israeli Occupation

The Christian population in the Occupied territories of Palestine has decreased significantly. The most optimistic estimates place the overall number of Palestinian Christians in the whole of Occupied Palestine at less than two percent. However, it is not because of  religious tensions between them and their Muslim brethren. But because of “the pressure of Israeli occupation, ongoing constraints, discriminatory policies, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of lands added to the general sense of hopelessness among Palestinian Christians,” who are finding themselves in “a despairing situation where they can no longer perceive a future for their offspring or for themselves”, as a recent study found. It was conducted  by Dar al-Kalima University in the West Bank town of Beit Jala and published in December 2017. It interviewed nearly 1,000 Palestinians.

Seventy years ago, Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, was 86 percent Christian. The demographics of the city, however, have fundamentally shifted, especially after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in June 1967, and the construction of the illegal Israeli apartheid wall, starting in 2002. Parts of the wall were meant to cut off Bethlehem from Jerusalem and to isolate the former from the rest of the West Bank.
“The Wall encircles Bethlehem by continuing south of East Jerusalem in both the east and west,” the ‘Open Bethlehem’ organization said, describing the devastating impact of the wall on the Palestinian city. “With the land isolated by the Wall, annexed for settlements, and closed under various pretexts, only 13% of the Bethlehem district is available for Palestinian use.”
Increasingly beleaguered, Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem have been driven out from their historic city in large numbers. According to the city’s mayor, Vera Baboun, as of 2016, the Christian population of Bethlehem has dropped to 12 percent, merely 11,000 people.

The Israeli rights group, Gisha, described the Israeli army decision as “a further violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights to freedom of movement, religious freedom and family life”, and, rightly, accused Israel of attempting to “deepen the separation” between Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel’s strategy is predicated on the idea that a combination of factors – immense economic hardships, permanent siege and apartheid, the severing of communal and spiritual bonds – will eventually drive all Christians out of their Palestinian homeland.

Sadly, however, Israel has succeeded in misrepresenting the struggle in Palestine – from that of political and human rights struggle against settler colonialism – into a religious one. Equally disturbing, Israel’s most ardent supporters in the United States and elsewhere are religious Christians.
It must be understood that Palestinian Christians are neither aliens nor bystanders in Palestine. They have been victimized equally as their Muslim brethren, and have also played a major role in defining the modern Palestinian identity, through their resistance, spirituality, deep connection to the land, artistic contributions and burgeoning scholarship.
Israel must not be allowed to ostracize the world’s most ancient Christian community from their ancestral land so that it may score a few points in its deeply disturbing drive for racial supremacy.
To read the full text of the article by Ramzy Baroud, click here: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/10/31/the-ethnic-cleansing-of-palestinian-christians-that-nobody-is-talking-about/

Bosnian Serb ex-soldier jailed for 20 years for burning 57 Muslim civilians

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - A Bosnian court jailed a former Bosnian Serb soldier for 20 years on Wednesday for setting ablaze 57 Muslim Bosniaks, of whom 26 including a two-day-old baby died, near the eastern town of Visegrad early in Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
Radomir Susnjar, 64, known as Lalco, was also found guilty of robbery and illegal detention of civilians, the court said.
The group of Muslim Bosniaks had been seized after an attack on the village of Koritnik and locked in a house that was set ablaze with an accelerant and explosives while Susnjar and other Bosnian Serb Army members shot at it to prevent anyone fleeing.
“The attack resulted in the killing of 25 civilians and a two-day-old baby whose remains were never found,” the court said in a statement.
One civilian sustained serious injuries while others managed to escape.
Susnjar had lived in France for many years before being tracked down and arrested on a Bosnian warrant. He was held in custody there for four years before being extradited to Bosnia last year.
Bosnian Serbs Milan and Sredoje Lukic were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2012 to life and 27 years in prison respectively for the same crimes.
Bosnian Serb forces, helped by the now-defunct Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Serbian paramilitaries, committed atrocities against Muslims in eastern Bosnia early in the conflict as part of their bid to create exclusively Serb territories.
Around 100,000 people died in the war, a large majority of them Bosniaks.
The ICTY, set up to prosecute atrocities committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, closed its doors late in 2017, having tried 161 suspects. Lower-ranking cases have been handled by the Bosnian war crimes court.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Atrocities against Rohingyas: Tula Toli victims ask ICC judges to allow investigation

Crimes committed against Rohingyas in Bangladesh should also be taken into cognizance, say lawyers for 86 victims in a 32-page submission to the ICC

A total 86 Rohingya victims of the Tula Toli massacre carried out by Myanmar military at the end of August, 2017, have asked judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to allow Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor, to launch an investigation into the atrocities against them.

In a 32-page submission to the ICC judges, two legal representatives from London also said that the crimes committed against the Rohingyas in Bangladesh should be taken into account for investigation.

The Tula Toli massacre was a mass-killing of Rohingya people that occurred during a Myanmar army clearance operation in the village of Tula Toli (also known as Min Gyi) in Maungdaw township of Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh–Myanmar border. According to eyewitnesses, Myanmar soldiers carried out the massacre with the support of Rakhine locals, killing at least 200 women and 300 children.

On July 4, the ICC prosecutor requested authorization from a pre-trial court comprising three judges, to initiate an investigation into crimes against the civilian Rohingya population in Myanmar since at least October 9, 2016. 

In accordance with the ICC's legal framework, the victims of the crimes committed against the Rohingya population in Myanmar have the right to submit their views, concerns and expectations, to the judges, who are considering the prosecutor's request. 

Of the 86 Tula Toli victims, 45 are women, 32 are men, and 9 are children (6 girls and 3 boys).

“The scope of the investigation must encompass all potential perpetrators. The Tatmadaw must be the primary focus, but others facilitating their crimes must also be subject to scrutiny. So too must officials of Bangladesh, and the agencies supporting them, whose conduct increasingly resembles ill-treatment designed to effect unsafe repatriation,” said the document obtained by Dhaka Tribune.

“The Court should seek to deter these potential crimes by confirming that they are within the scope of the investigation,” it said.

Gravity is assessed by reference not only to qualitative and quantitative aspects of the acts and their impacts, but also the level of responsibility of likely suspects. Evidence collected by the United Nations fact-finding mission suggests that responsibility rests at the highest levels of the Myanmar military. The crimes were qualitatively and quantitatively horrific. Rohingyas were killed, subjected to extreme physical and sexual violence, and arbitrarily detained based on their ethnicity. Hundreds of thousands were severely harmed, communities were destroyed, and thousands remain in Bangladesh on Tuesday.

History has shown that the cycle of persecution and atrocities against the Rohingyas in Myanmar will not end without accountability. The Tula Toli victims strongly support the opening of an investigation, even if cooperation challenges cause significant delays in the issue of warrants and/or arrest of suspects. An investigation is important because it creates the possibility of accountability; if there is no ICC investigation, individual criminal responsibility will remain impossible. 

Similarly, the issue of arrest warrants is of value even if arrests are delayed or never occur, because it provides recognition that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that an individual has committed a crime within the court’s jurisdiction.

The interests of justice require the scope of the investigation to be broad. The Tula Toli victims emphasise that while criminal accountability is vital, it is not the only form of “justice”. Justice also entails acknowledgment of the extent of the crimes, and proactive deterrence of future ones, so as to ensure that the victims can live now and into the future in safe and humane conditions, free from persecution.

The submission of the victims also mentioned restrictions Rohingyas are facing in the camps in Bangladesh, including on freedom of movement. Deprivation of education and other rights, lack of access to telecommunication, and relocation to Bhasan Char were also mentioned.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Why did Microsoft fund an Israeli firm that surveils West Bank Palestinians?

By Olivia Solon (NBC News)
Microsoft has invested in a startup that uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms.
AnyVision, which is headquartered in Israel but has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore, sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, Better Tomorrow. It lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or a smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.
According to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed "Google Ayosh," where "Ayosh" means occupied Palestinian territories and "Google" denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.
The American technology company Google is not involved in the project, a spokesman said.
The surveillance project was so successful that AnyVision won the country’s top defense prize in 2018. During the presentation, Israel’s defense minister lauded the company — without using its name — for preventing “hundreds of terror attacks” using “large amounts of data.”
Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship or voting rights but are subject to movement restrictions and surveillance by the Israeli government.
Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution – ACLU's Shankar Narayan
The Israeli army has installed thousands of cameras and other monitoring devices across the West Bank to monitor the movements of Palestinians and deter terror attacks. Security forces and intelligence agencies also scan social media posts and use algorithms in an effort to predict the likelihood that someone will carry out a lone-wolf attack and arrest them before they do.
The addition of facial recognition technology transforms passive camera surveillance combined with the list of suspects into a much more powerful tool.
“The basic premise of a free society is that you shouldn’t be subject to tracking by the government without suspicion of wrongdoing. You are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The widespread use of face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked no matter what they do all the time.”
“Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution. It’s hard to see how using it on a captive population [like Palestinians in the West Bank] could comply with Microsoft’s ethical principles,” he added.
When NBC News first approached AnyVision for an interview, CEO Eylon Etshtein denied any knowledge of "Google Ayosh," threatened to sue NBC News and said that AnyVision was the “most ethical company known to man.” He disputed that the West Bank was “occupied” and questioned the motivation of the NBC News inquiry, suggesting the reporter must have been funded by a Palestinian activist group.
In subsequent written responses to NBC News’ questions and allegations, AnyVision apologized for the outburst and revised its position.
“As a private company we are not in a position to speak on behalf of any country, company or institution,” Etshtein said.
Days later, AnyVision gave a different response: “We are affirmatively denying that AnyVision is involved in any other project beyond what we have already stated [referring to the use of AnyVision’s software at West Bank border checkpoints].”
AnyVision’s technology has also been used by Israeli police to track suspects through the Israeli-controlled streets of East Jerusalem, where 3 of 5 residents are Palestinian.
By Olivia Solon
Microsoft has invested in a startup that uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, in spite of the tech giant’s public pledge to avoid using the technology if it encroaches on democratic freedoms.
AnyVision, which is headquartered in Israel but has offices in the United States, the United Kingdom and Singapore, sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system, Better Tomorrow. It lets customers identify individuals and objects in any live camera feed, such as a security camera or a smartphone, and then track targets as they move between different feeds.
According to five sources familiar with the matter, AnyVision’s technology powers a secret military surveillance project throughout the West Bank. One source said the project is nicknamed "Google Ayosh," where "Ayosh" means occupied Palestinian territories and "Google" denotes the technology’s ability to search for people.
The American technology company Google is not involved in the project, a spokesman said.
The surveillance project was so successful that AnyVision won the country’s top defense prize in 2018. During the presentation, Israel’s defense minister lauded the company — without using its name — for preventing “hundreds of terror attacks” using “large amounts of data.”
Palestinians living in the West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship or voting rights but are subject to movement restrictions and surveillance by the Israeli government.
Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution – ACLU's Shankar Narayan
The Israeli army has installed thousands of cameras and other monitoring devices across the West Bank to monitor the movements of Palestinians and deter terror attacks. Security forces and intelligence agencies also scan social media posts and use algorithms in an effort to predict the likelihood that someone will carry out a lone-wolf attack and arrest them before they do.
The addition of facial recognition technology transforms passive camera surveillance combined with the list of suspects into a much more powerful tool.
“The basic premise of a free society is that you shouldn’t be subject to tracking by the government without suspicion of wrongdoing. You are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Shankar Narayan, technology and liberty project director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The widespread use of face surveillance flips the premise of freedom on its head and you start becoming a society where everyone is tracked no matter what they do all the time.”
“Face recognition is possibly the most perfect tool for complete government control in public spaces, so we need to treat it with extreme caution. It’s hard to see how using it on a captive population [like Palestinians in the West Bank] could comply with Microsoft’s ethical principles,” he added.
When NBC News first approached AnyVision for an interview, CEO Eylon Etshtein denied any knowledge of "Google Ayosh," threatened to sue NBC News and said that AnyVision was the “most ethical company known to man.” He disputed that the West Bank was “occupied” and questioned the motivation of the NBC News inquiry, suggesting the reporter must have been funded by a Palestinian activist group.
In subsequent written responses to NBC News’ questions and allegations, AnyVision apologized for the outburst and revised its position.
“As a private company we are not in a position to speak on behalf of any country, company or institution,” Etshtein said.
Days later, AnyVision gave a different response: “We are affirmatively denying that AnyVision is involved in any other project beyond what we have already stated [referring to the use of AnyVision’s software at West Bank border checkpoints].”
AnyVision’s technology has also been used by Israeli police to track suspects through the Israeli-controlled streets of East Jerusalem, where 3 of 5 residents are Palestinian.
One of the company’s technology demonstrations, a video obtained by NBC News, shows what purports to be live camera feeds monitoring people, including children and women wearing hijabs and abayas, as they walk through Jerusalem.
AnyVision said this did not reflect an “ongoing customer relationship,” referring to the Israeli police.
When AnyVision won the prestigious Israel Defense Prize, awarded to entities found to have “significantly improved the security of the state," the company wasn’t named in the media announcement because the surveillance project was classified. Employees were instructed not to talk about the award publicly.
However, NBC News has seen a photo of the team accepting the prize, a framed certificate that commends AnyVision for its “technological superiority and direct contribution to the prevention of terror attacks.”
Image: AnyVision
A slide taken from a leaked AnyVision sales presentation, explaining how its face recognition technology can track individuals across a city.AnyVision
AnyVision said it does not comment on behalf of “other companies, countries or institutions.”
“Many countries and organizations face a diverse set of threats, whether it is keeping students and teachers safe in schools, facilitating the movement of individuals in and out of everyday buildings, and other situations where innocents could face risk,” the company said in a statement. “Our fundamental mission is to help keep all people safe with a best-in-class technology offering, wherever that threat may originate.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined to comment on "Google Ayosh" or AnyVision’s receipt of the Israel Defense Prize.

Microsoft's investment

NBC’s investigation, which builds on reporting from Israeli business publication TheMarker, comes at a time when Microsoft is positioning itself as a moral leader among technology companies, a move that has shielded the company from sustained public criticism faced by others such as Facebook and Google. The company’s investment in AnyVision raises questions about how it applies its ethical principles in practice.
“Microsoft takes these mass surveillance allegations seriously because they would violate our facial recognition principles,” a Microsoft spokesman said.
“If we discover any violation of our principles, we will end our relationship.”
“All of our installations have been examined and confirmed against not only Microsoft’s ethical principles, but also our own internal rigorous approval process,” AnyVision said.
In June, Microsoft’s venture capital arm M12 announced it would invest in AnyVision as part of a $74 million Series A funding round, along with Silicon Valley venture capital firm DFJ. The deal sparked criticism from human rights activists who argued — as Forbes reported — that the investment was incompatible with Microsoft’s public statements about ethical standards for facial recognition technology.
While there are benign applications for facial recognition, such as unlocking your smartphone, the technology is controversial because it can be used to facilitate mass surveillance, exacerbate human bias in policing and infringe on people’s civil liberties. Because of this, several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley in California and Somerville, Massachusetts, have banned the use of the software by the police and other agencies.
In a December 2018 blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith said, “We need to be clear-eyed about the risks and potential for abuse” and called for government regulation of facial-recognition technology. He noted that it can “lead to new intrusions into people’s privacy” and that when used by a government for mass surveillance can “encroach on democratic freedoms.”
Image: Brad Smith
Microsoft's president Brad Smith has called for government regulation of facial-recognition technology and noted in a December 2018 blog post that it can "lead to new intrusions on people's privacy" and "encroach on democratic freedoms"Chona Kasinger / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Microsoft also unveiled six ethical principles to guide its facial recognition work: fairness, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, notice and consent and lawful surveillance. The last principle states: “We will advocate for safeguards for people’s democratic freedoms in law enforcement surveillance scenarios and will not deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk."
Microsoft said that AnyVision agreed to comply with these principles as part of M12’s investment and secured audit rights to ensure compliance.
"We are proceeding with a third-party audit and asked for a robust board level review and compliance process. AnyVision has agreed to both," a Microsoft spokesman said.
Microsoft declined to explain how, exactly, it defined these principles or how it verified AnyVision’s compliance prior to investing.
“They seem to believe they can have their cake and eat it, that ethical principles just exist in the abstract and don’t have to engage with real-world politics. But their technologies do, which means that they do,” said Os Keyes, from the University of Washington, who researches the ethics of facial recognition.

'Our mission is to help keep people safe'

Several former AnyVision employees, who did not want to be named because they had signed nondisclosure agreements and feared retaliation, told NBC News that the company did not adhere to Microsoft’s ethical standards.
“Ultimately, I saw no evidence that ethical considerations drove any business decisions,” one former employee said.
They also described a cut-throat culture, where the pressure to sell technology to corporate, government and military clients overrode moral questions around the application of the technology.
All of the former employees NBC News spoke to said they left because of broken promises over bonuses and other compensation and ethical questions over how the technology was being marketed and used in practice.
“There’s a certain amount of ‘fake it until you make it’ with startups but let’s just say their definition of the truth is quite a bit more flexible than mine,” one said.
Another suggested that AnyVision may have made similar misrepresentations to investors like Microsoft.
AnyVision told NBC News that it reviewed all of its customers and use cases for compliance with Microsoft’s ethical standards and found nothing in violation. It did not provide any specific details about the compliance process.
“While we are working very hard to meet and beat our commercial KPIs (key performance indicators), it is never at the expense of ethical considerations,” AnyVision said.
AnyVision said that staffing changes were a difficult but expected part of being a “rapidly growing startup.”
“Fundamentally our mission is to help keep people safe, improve daily life and do so in an ethical manner,” Etshtein said.

AnyVision's military ties

AnyVision, which launched in 2015 with what it claimed to be a “world-leading face recognition algorithm,” has close ties to Israel’s military and intelligence services. It counts former head of Mossad Tamir Pardo among its board of advisers. Amir Kain, who was director of the Defense Ministry’s security department from 2007 to 2015, is AnyVision’s president. Several current employees did their national military service at elite cyberspy agency Unit 8200, equivalent to the NSA or the United Kingdom's GCHQ.
The company’s core product is designed to pick out the faces of multiple suspects in a large crowd, monitor crowd density and track and categorize different types of vehicles, according to promotional materials. AnyVision has described this system as “nonvoluntary” because individuals do not need to enroll to be detected automatically. The company claims to have deployed its technology across more than 115,000 cameras.
AnyVision has publicly acknowledged one of its projects in the West Bank — the provision of facial recognition technology at 27 of the checkpoints Palestinians must use to cross into Israel. Migrant workers place their ID cards on a sensor and stare into a camera that uses face recognition to verify their identity. AnyVision said in an August blog post that the technology “drastically decreases wait times at border crossings” and provides an “unbiased safeguard at the border to detect and deter persons who have committed unlawful activities.” This screening is not used at the separate West Bank checkpoints Israelis drive through.
In 2007, based on conversations with former Israeli officials, Harvard University researcher Yael Berda estimated that the Israeli government had a list of about 200,000 potential terrorists in the West Bank that it wanted to monitor — about a fifth of the West Bank’s male population at the time — as well as a list of 65,000 individuals deemed to pose a criminal risk. Both lists included people suspected of specific offenses, as well as people considered worthy of scrutiny for other reasons — for example, criticizing Israel on Facebook or living in a village where Hamas is popular.
“It’s not limited to people suspected of actual militancy or training or anything,” said Berda, who has written a book about the bureaucracy of Israel’s occupation.
The IDF declined to comment on how many people it has under surveillance in the West Bank currently.
“There has never been a surveillance technology that hasn’t disproportionately impacted already marginalized communities,” Narayan said. “And it’s still unclear whether a perfectly unbiased face surveillance system can coexist with democracy.”
AnyVision has a second product, called SesaMe, that offers identity verification for banking and smartphone applications.
Beyond its work with the Israeli government, the company has sold its facial recognition software to casinos, sports stadiums, retailers and theme parks across the U.S. AnyVision demonstrated, but said it didn’t sell, the technology to Customs and Border Protection in Arizona as a modular component for a surveillance truck. It also approached high schools after mass shootings, including one in Santa Fe, Texas, to offer facial recognition technology as a means to keep children safer.
The company’s technology was tested in Russia at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport in 2018, but AnyVision said it had terminated all activity there. Nigerian security company Cyber Dome told NBC News that it sold AnyVision’s technology to local corporate customers. AnyVision denied this.
AnyVision’s executives considered the West Bank to be a testing ground for its surveillance technology, one former employee said.
“It was heavily communicated to us [by AnyVision’s leadership] that the Israeli government was the proof of concept for everything we were doing globally. The technology was field-tested in one of the world’s most demanding security environments and we were now rolling it out to the rest of the market,” he said.
“Israel was the first territory where we validated our technology,” Etshtein said. “However, today more than 95 percent of our revenue is generated from end customers outside of Israel.”
Human rights and civil liberties groups were concerned about what they saw as the use of Palestinians as guinea pigs for surveillance technology exports.
The ACLU’s Shankar Narayan described the practice as “very troubling but far from new.”
“One of the dirty little secrets of AI and face recognition is that in order to make it more accurate, there is this hunger for datasets. So many entities have engaged in what I would say were unethical practices with regards to getting more datasets,” he said.
Palestinian activists questioned the use of face recognition at the border checkpoints
“Strengthening the checkpoints with face recognition means more sustainability for the occupation,” said Nadim Nashif, executive director and co-founder of 7amleh, a nonprofit that advocates for Palestinian human rights. “Palestinians want full rights like any other human being without being restricted in their freedom of movement.”
He added that it was sad that big American companies like Microsoft publicly talk about human rights compliance at a “declarative level” but then invest in companies like AnyVision “without thoroughly checking or restricting their operations.”