Israel Police’s new ‘spy balloons’ gives added security to Jerusalem residents


Israel’s aerial optical security technology provides police a “3rd dimension” in efforts to quell Arab rioters
• Skystar 180 aerostat can be airborne for 72-hrs, using its sensitive cameras.
• Imam of Al-Aqsa mosque: “It is practically over the houses. It violates the privacy of people”

The Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff


In the face of Jerusalem’s worst wave of violence in nearly a decade, Israeli police are watching from above in their attempts to keep control in the city.

The Skystar aerostat surveillance system, which the Israeli police recently started using in Jerusalem to track clashes – Photo: AP

Police have been flying surveillance balloons over the city’s eastern sector and Old City — the location of its most sensitive holy sites — to monitor protests and move in on them quickly. They say the puffy white balloons, which carry a rotating spherical camera pod, have greatly helped quell the unrest. But the eyes in the sky are unnerving Palestinians.

“They want to discover everything that’s going on. [They see] who is going, who is coming, who is that person,” said Imad Muna, who works at a local bookstore.

The Israeli company that makes the Skystar 180 aerostat system says the balloons can stay in the air for 72 hours and carry highly sensitive cameras.

Rami Shmueli, the CEO of RT LTA Systems Ltd., said his company gives police a “third dimension” in their quest to quell tensions in east Jerusalem, where they have been clashing regularly with masked youths hurling rocks and firebombs.

“We give them an aerial view of the streets and those people who are throwing stones, we can detect them even if they hide behind buildings or in gardens,” said Shmueli. “When we see them and when we see their activity, we can direct the police forces to their location. And even if they escape we can follow them and make sure that police catch them.”

Over the past month, 11 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks, including last Tuesday’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue that left four worshippers and one policeman dead. Most of the violence has occurred in Jerusalem, along with deadly attacks in Tel Aviv and Judea and Samaria.

The violence has been connected in large part to continuing unrest on the Temple Mount.

The helium-filled balloons were successfully used in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last summer.

While various types of surveillance blimps have been used in the Jerusalem area for years, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a strategic decision was recently made to increase their use as part of a broader effort to incorporate the latest technologies.

He said police currently have four surveillance balloons deployed over Jerusalem, including one that monitors the Old City and its volatile holy sites, and others over Arab neighborhoods that have experienced unrest. Since the aerial deployment, he said there has been a marked decrease in street violence.

“It is tremendously important and gives us a 360-degree view of what is going on,” Rosenfeld said. “Our units can respond a lot quicker, a lot faster and much more effectively.”

The Skystar system is currently also deployed in Afghanistan, Mexico, Thailand, Canada, Russia, in various countries in Africa and was used for security at the World Cup in Brazil, the company says.

The balloons are part of a broad collection of surveillance equipment that includes security cameras throughout the city, including 320 of them in the Old City — as well as undercover units, riot-control forces and intelligence gathering.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, the imam of Al-Aqsa mosque, said Palestinians are well accustomed to the aerial surveillance of mass prayers each Friday. But he said the new surveillance over residential areas is a problem.

“It is practically over the houses. It violates the privacy of people. There are women in the houses and these machines can photograph them,” he said.

Saleem Mohtaseb, a resident of Shuafat, an Arab neighborhood that has experienced frequent unrest, said the cameras have further frayed people’s nerves. “I asked my wife to close the curtains whenever she sees it in the sky. I know many people who have done the same,” he said.

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