Eye in the Sky New Aerial Surveillance Systems and the Jerusalem Light Rail

Flash report | Mar 2015

During the summer of 2014, unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance balloons secured the route of the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR) around the clock. For many years, the JLR was portrayed as an island of coexistence in a divided city. However, in reality, Israeli and international security companies are involved in the formation of a new surveillance apparatus around the light rail.

Background

The Jerusalem Light Rail is the first of several lines included in Jerusalem’s planned mass-transit system. The rail (also known as the Red Line) became fully operational in December 2011. Since then, its trams carry some 130,000 passengers a day, along a 13.8 kilometer route from West Jerusalem to the settlement of Pisgat Zeev in occupied East Jerusalem, crossing the Green Line and the Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina.

The Israeli Ministry of Transportation contracted the CityPass consortium to establish and operate the Jerusalem Light Rail for 30 years. This consortium is composed of three Israeli shareholders – The Ashtrom Group, IIF (Israel Infrastructure Fund) and Harel Insurance Investments – as well as the French multinational group Veolia Environnement. Through its subsidiary Transdev, Veolia Environnement has a 5% share in CityPass and full ownership of Connex Jerusalem, the company that operates the light railway.

The railway’s route was devised in order to connect the illegal settlements built on the occupied Palestinian land of East Jerusalem with the Israeli territory of West Jerusalem. The construction of the railway itself involved the expropriation of occupied land that was not done for the benefit of the occupied population, and hence contradicts international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The United Nations Human Rights Council described the Jerusalem Light Rail as infrastructure servicing settlements and condemned the decision to operate it in contravention of international law and UN resolutions. The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) has taken legal action against Veolia in a French court of law.

The Summer of 2014
The violent events that took place during the summer of 2014 quashed the normalization efforts surrounding the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR). In July, sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and burned to death by three Israelis. The response of the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to Abu Khdeir’s tragic murder included attacks on the light rail in the neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina and the destruction of three JLR stations. In the coming months, stone throwing, which became a daily practice, caused severe damage to 40% of the CityPass trams. The damaged trams were removed from service, tickets were no longer being sold at the Es-Sahl station in Shuafat and the light rail’s schedule was disrupted by multiple delays.

The Israeli authorities began a wave of arrests in East Jerusalem neighborhoods; between July and October 2014, almost 900 Palestinians were arrested. The Jerusalem Municipality unprecedentedly decided to use new aerial surveillance systems, in urban areas and over a civilian population. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat contracted two Israeli companies, RT LTA Systems and Bladeworx, to aerially monitor the light rail’s route. The experience gained by the two companies during this surveillance pilot program is now being used as part of their marketing strategy.

Corporations

RT LTA Systems
RT is an Israeli developer and manufacturer of surveillance and reconnaissance balloons. In the summer of 2014, the company supplied the Jerusalem Municipality with five surveillance balloons, as part of the security apparatus of the Jerusalem Light Rail. The model used in East Jerusalem was the SkyStar 180. Three of these balloons were equipped with high-quality, network-connected video cameras, which streamed images in real time to police forces on the ground. The other two balloons were decoys used for deterrence. One of the balloons was positioned over Shuafat and another over the settlement neighborhood French Hill.

The company’s activity in East Jerusalem was not its first involvement in occupation-related commercial activity. RT’s chief client is the Israeli army, and the company’s first prototype was developed according to the army’s specific requirements. Today, the Israeli army’s combat-intelligence collection unit uses the SkyStar 180 and 300 aerostats to gather tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The aerostats are provided to the army under a multiyear leasing contract with the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

The SkyStar made its operational debut in Gaza in 2006; during the Cast Lead incursion into Gaza in 2009, RT teams operated two systems; and by the 2014 attack on Gaza (Operation Protective Edge), the Israeli army operated 13 RT balloons.

Bladeworx
Bladeworx is an aeronautics company specializing in UAV aerial photography. The company holds a commercial license from the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority, the first of its kind in Israel, to operate miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It is also the first Israeli civil company authorized to use UAVs for surveillance and crowd-control proposes.

In July 2014, the company was contacted by Barkat in order to assist the Israeli authorities in their efforts to suppress the protest in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Soon after, Bladeworx, the Israel Police and the Jerusalem Municipality began to work together. In this framework, a unit of six “Phantom” UAVs – unmanned mini quadrotor helicopters made by DJI (see below) – equipped with video cameras for daytime and thermal imaging for nighttime was patrolling the route of the Jerusalem Light Rail around the clock for an entire month.

Bladeworx’s UAV operators were deployed on the rooftop of a police station in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat and in the streets of the nearby Beit Hanina neighborhood under police protection, while the UAVs hovered over the light rail’s route. The UAVs transmitted compressed HD videos and images to the headquarters of the municipality and police. In an interview, the company’s founder stated that “this is the first time anywhere a UAV system is being employed to patrol a train line.”

During that summer, the company posted photos on social networks presenting its activity in East Jerusalem, under the hashtag “Bladeworx at the state’s service.”

Israeli companies weren’t the only ones to contribute to the operation of the new surveillance system around the Jerusalem Light Rail. Bladeworx’s activity in East Jerusalem was based on the technology of the Chinese company DJI; DJI’s Phantom UAVs were a necessary component of the aerial patrols along the rail.

DJI – Dajiang Innovation Technology
DJI is a Chinese company headquartered in Shenzhen, which manufactures commercial UAVs. The company is most known for its Phantom, an unmanned mini quadrotor helicopter, which has become popular among aerial photographers. DJI UAVs are commonly used in the areas of filmmaking, agriculture, search and rescue, energy infrastructure and surveillance.

DJI’s Phantom UAVs were used by the Israeli army and Bladeworx for surveillance and crowd-control proposes in occupied East Jerusalem and in the West Bank. As noted above, in July and August 2014, Bladeworx operated a unit of six Phantoms over the Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina. DJI UAVs transmitted HD videos and images to the to the headquarters of the municipality and police.

In 2014, DJI Phantom quadcopters were also used several times by the Israeli army during the suppression of demonstrations in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank. It should be noted that the occupied Palestinian territories are often used as a lab for testing crowd-control technologies, in order to label them as “proven effective” for marketing abroad. See the Who Profits report for further information on this practice

Aftermath

As is frequently the case in the occupied Palestinian territories, extreme measures used against the Palestinian population in times of emergency tend to become routine. By the end of October 2014, Jerusalem Mayor Barkat announced the establishment of a new aerial surveillance unit under the Emergency and Security Department of the Jerusalem Municipality. The unit’s staff will include former soldiers, who served in aerial surveillance units in the Israeli army. According to the municipality’s press release, this unit will monitor demonstrations, mass gatherings and incidents of stone and Molotov-cocktail throwing, and it will provide intelligence to Israeli security forces. The unit will also gather information about violations of the Israeli Planning and Building Law, thereby facilitating house demolitions and forced displacement. At the initial stage, the new unit will use the five RT surveillance balloons, but additional technologies are expected to be added in the future.

Over the years, the Jerusalem Light Rail was portrayed as a symbol of coexistence, an image used by the Israeli government and Jerusalem Municipality in order to normalize the occupation of East Jerusalem and to market Jerusalem as a cosmopolitan city and tourist destination. The events of summer 2014 exposed the JLR’s role in the reinforcement of Israeli sovereignty over occupied East Jerusalem and turned out to be an opportunity to tighten control over Palestinian neighborhoods. The main beneficiaries of the formation of the new surveillance apparatus around the light rail are Israeli and international security companies, which gain not only a long-term source of income but also free access to an outdoor test field with a civilian population.