Israeli Weapons Firms Required to Buy Cloud Services from Google and Amazon

Google and Amazon are both loath to discuss security aspects of the cloud services they provide through their joint contract with the Israeli government, known as Project Nimbus. Though both the Ministry of Defense and Israel Defense Forces are Nimbus customers, Google routinely downplays the military elements while Amazon says little at all.

According to a 63-page Israeli government procurement document, however, two of Israel’s leading state-owned weapons manufacturers are required to use Amazon and Google for cloud computing needs. Though details of Google and Amazon’s contractual work with the Israeli arms industry aren’t laid out in the tender document, which outlines how Israeli agencies will obtain software services through Nimbus, the firms are responsible for manufacturing drones, missiles, and other weapons Israel has used to bombard Gaza.

“If tech companies, including Google and Amazon, are engaged in business activities that could impact Palestinians in Gaza, or indeed Palestinians living under apartheid in general, they must abide by their responsibility to carry out heightened human rights due diligence along the entirety of the lifecycle of their products,” said Matt Mahmoudi, a researcher at Amnesty International working on tech issues. “This must include how they plan to prevent, mitigate, and provide redress for possible human rights violation, particularly in light of mandatory relationships with weapons manufacturers, which contribute to risk of genocide.”

Project Nimbus, which provides the Israeli government with cloud services ranging from mundane Google Meet video chats to a variety of sophisticated machine-learning tools, has already created a public uproar. Google and Amazon have faced backlash ranging from street protests to employee revolts.

The tender document consists largely of legal minutiae, rules, and regulations laying out how exactly the state will purchase cloud computing services from Amazon and Google, which won the $1.2 billion contract in 2021. The Israeli document was first published in 2021 but had been updated periodically, most recently in October 2023.

One of the document’s appendices includes a list of Israeli companies and government offices that are “required to purchase the services that are the subject of the tender from the winning bidder,” according to a translation of the Hebrew-language original.

The tender document doesn’t require any of the entities to purchase cloud services, but if they need these services — ubiquitous in any 21st-century enterprise — they must purchase them from the two American tech giants. A separate portion of the document notes that any office that wants to buy cloud computing services from other companies must petition two government committees that oversee procurement for an explicit exemption.

Some of the entities listed in the document have had relationships with other companies that provide cloud services. The status and future of those business ties is unclear.

Obligatory Customers

The list of obligatory cloud customers includes state entities like the Bank of Israel, the Israel Airports Authority, and the Settlement Division, a quasi-governmental body tasked with expanding Israel’s illegal colonies in the West Bank.

Also included on the list are two of Israel’s most prominent, state-owned arms manufacturers: Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The Israeli military has widely fielded weapons and aircraft made by these companies and their subsidiaries to prosecute its war in Gaza, which since October 7 has killed over 30,000 Palestinians, including 13,000 children.

These relationships with Israeli arms manufacturers place Project Nimbus far closer to the bloodshed in Gaza than has been previously understood.

Asked how work with weapons manufacturers could be consistent with Google’s claim that Project Nimbus doesn’t involve weapons, spokesperson Anna Kowalczyk repeated the claim in a statement to The Intecept.

“We have been very clear that the Nimbus contract is for workloads running on our commercial cloud by Israeli government ministries, who agree to comply with our Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy. This work is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services,” said Kowalczyk, who declined to answer specific questions. “Across Google, we’ve also been clear that we will not design or deploy AI applications as weapons or weapons systems, or for mass surveillance.”

(A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services declined to comment. Neither Rafael nor IAI responded to requests for comment.)

The Israeli document provides no information about exactly what cloud services these arms makers must purchase, or whether they are to purchase them from Google, Amazon, or both. Though the government’s transition to Google and Amazon’s bespoke cloud has hit lengthy delays, last June Rafael announced it had begun transitioning certain “unclassified” cloud needs to Amazon Web Services but did not elaborate.

Google has historically declined to explain whether its various human rights commitments and terms of service prohibiting its users from harming others apply to Israel. After an April 3 report by +972 Magazine found that the Israeli military was using Google Photos’ facial recognition to map, identify, and create a “hit list” of Palestinians in Gaza, Google would not say whether it allowed this use of its software.

“Without such deep and serious process, they can be seen as complicit in Israeli crimes.”

Both Google and Amazon say their work is guided by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which seeks to “to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The U.N. principles, which were endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, say companies must “identify and assess any actual or potential” rights abuses related to their business.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights attorney, told The Intercept that these guidelines dictate that Google and Amazon should conduct human rights due diligence and vet the use of their technology by the Israeli government.

“Without such deep and serious process,” Sfard said, “they can be seen as complicit in Israeli crimes.”

“Spike” Missiles

Rafael, a state-owned arms contractor, is a titan of the Israeli defense sector. The company provides the Israeli military with broad variety of missiles, drones, and other weapons systems.

It sells the vaunted Iron Dome rocket-defense system and the “Trophy” anti-rocket countermeasure system that’s helped protect Israeli military tanks during the ground offensive in Gaza.

Israel also routinely fields Rafael’s “Spike” line of missiles, which can be fired from shoulder-carried launchers, jets, or drones. Effective against vehicles, buildings, and especially people, Spike missiles can be outfitted with a fragmentation option that creates a lethal spray of metal. Since 2009, analysts have attributed cube-shaped tungsten shrapnel wounds in civilians to Israel’s use of Spike missiles.

Use of these missiles in Gaza continue, with military analysts saying that Spike missiles were likely used in the April 1 drone killing of seven aid workers affiliated with World Central Kitchen.

A view of the destroyed roof of a vehicle where employees from the World Central Kitchen (WCK), including foreigners, were killed in an Israeli airstrike, according to the NGO as the Israeli military said it was conducting a thorough review at the highest levels to understand the circumstances of this "tragic" incident, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Deir Al-Balah, in the central Gaza, Strip April 2, 2024. (Photo by Yasser Qudihe / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP) (Photo by YASSER QUDIHE/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)
The destroyed roof of a vehicle where World Central Kitchen aid workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike, in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on April 2, 2024.
Photo: Yasser Qudihe/Middle East Images via AFP

Elta Systems, a subsidiary of IAI, is also named in the document as an obligatory Nimbus customer. The firm deals mostly in electronic surveillance hardware but co-developed the Panda, a remote-controlled bulldozer Israeli military has used to demolish portions of Gaza.

Israel Aerospace Industries, commonly known as IAI, plays a similarly central role in the war, its weapons often deployed hand in glove with Rafael’s.

IAI’s Heron drone, for instance, is frequently armed with Spike missiles. The Heron provides the Israeli Air Force with the crucial capacity to persistently surveil the denizens of Gaza and launch airstrikes against them at will.

In November, IAI CEO Boaz Levy told the Jerusalem Post, “IAI’s HERON Unmanned Aerial Systems stand as a testament to our commitment to innovation and excellence in the ever-evolving landscape of warfare. In the Iron Swords War” — referring to Israel’s name for its military operation against Hamas — “the HERON UAS family played a pivotal role, showcasing Israel’s operational versatility and adaptability in diverse environments.”

Project Nimbus also establishes its own links between the Israeli security establishment and the American defense industry. While Nimbus is based on Google and Amazon’s provision of their own cloud services to Israel, the tender document says these companies will also establish “digital marketplaces,” essentially bespoke app stores for the Israeli government that allow them to access a library of cloud-hosted software from third parties.

According to a spreadsheet detailing these third-party cloud offerings, Google provides Nimbus users with access to Foundry, a data analysis tool made by the U.S. defense and intelligence contractor Palantir. (A spokesperson for Palantir declined to comment.)

Google began offering Foundry access to its cloud customers last year. While marketed primarily as civilian software, Foundry is used by military forces including U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.K. Royal Navy. In 2019, the Washington Post reported the U.S. Army would spend $110 million to use Foundry “to piece together thousands of complex data sets containing information on U.S. soldiers and the expansive military arsenal that supports them.”

The Israeli military extensively uses Palantir software for targeting in Gaza, veteran national security journalist James Bamford reported recently in The Nation.

Palantir has been an outspoken champion of the Israeli military’s invasion of Gaza. “Certain kinds of evil can only be fought with force,” the company posted on its social media during the first week of the conflict. “Palantir stands with Israel.”

War Abroad, Revolt at Home

That Project Nimbus includes a prominent military dimension has been known since the program’s inception.

In 2021, the Israeli Finance Ministry announced the contract as “intended to provide the government, the defense establishment and others with an all-encompassing cloud solution.” In 2022, training materials first reported by The Intercept confirmed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense would be a Google Cloud user.

Google’s public relations apparatus, however, has consistently downplayed the contracting work with the Israeli military. Google spokespeople have repeatedly told press outlets that Nimbus is “not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.” Amazon has tended to avoid discussing the contract at all.

The revelation that Google’s lucrative relationship with the Israeli state includes a mandated relationship with two weapons manufacturers undermines its claim that the contract doesn’t touch the arms trade.

“Warfighting operations narrowly defined can only proceed through the wider communications and data infrastructures on which they depend,” Lucy Suchman, professor emerita of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University, told The Intercept. “Providing those infrastructures to industries and organizations responsible for the production and deployment of weapon systems arguably implicates Google in the operations that its services support, however indirectly.”

Project Nimbus has proven deeply contentious within Google and Amazon, catalyzing a wave of employee dissent unseen since the controversy over Google’s now-defunct contract to bolster the U.S. military drone program.

“Why are we pretending that because my logo is colorful and has round letters that I’m any better than Raytheon?”

While workers from both companies have publicly protested the Nimbus contract, Google employees have been particularly vocal. Following anti-Nimbus sit-ins organized at the company’s New York and Sunnyvale, California, offices, Google fired 50 employees it said participated in the protests.

Emaan Haseem, a cloud computing engineer at Google until she was fired after participating in the Sunnyvale protest, told The Intercept she thinks the company needs to be frank with its employees about what their labor ends up building.

“A lot of us signed up or applied to work at Google because we were trying to avoid working at terrible unethical companies,” she said in an interview. Haseem graduated college in 2022 and said she consciously avoided working for weapons manufacturers like Raytheon or large energy companies.

“Then you just naively join, and you find out it’s all the same. And then you’re just kind of angry,” she said. “Why are we acting any different? Why are we pretending that because my logo is colorful and has round letters that I’m any better than Raytheon?”

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