Illustration by Lynne Foster
Israeli companies are making a killing off technology perfected over 50 years of occupation
On March 5, Gov. Andrew Cuomo flew to Israel to show solidarity with Jews amidst an uptick in anti-Semitism in New York.
But the trip also doubled as the kick-off for a new project meant to bring Israel and New York closer together.
Inside the opulent King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Cuomo announced the creation of the New York-Israel Commission, an initiative to strengthen the already-robust ties between Israel and the state with the largest number of Jews in the United States.
A key part of the commission will focus on connecting New York law enforcement with Israeli security forces. Cuomo wasted no time in starting that initiative.
An hour after the King David press conference, the New York governor stood outside Jerusalem’s Old City police headquarters alongside Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, marveling at Israel’s ability to keep Jerusalem safe. He said Israeli security forces’ use of technology is “something that we can learn from,” and also said that he wanted New York law enforcement to learn from Israel about combating “lone wolf” terror threats.
The New York cops won’t be alone in learning from Israel. Since 2001, hundreds of American police officers have been flown to Israel, most on the dime of pro-Israel groups, to tour the country and speak with Israeli security forces about how they keep their country safe.
These police delegations, and Cuomo’s praise for the Israeli police, highlight how Israel is seen as a world leader in security. Because of this reputation, Israeli weapons and surveillance companies — a core part of the Israeli economy — have become well-known in far-flung countries. Such companies export billions of dollars worth of armaments and spy tools to virtually every region in the world.
But why are security companies in Israel, as opposed to any other country, so coveted?
“All of the Israeli companies would immediately answer the question: We have actual experience, and we have tested these weapons on human beings,” said Shir Hever, an Israeli researcher and author of the book The Political Economy of the Occupation.
June 5, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a conflict in which Israel defeated Arab armies and captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — the occupied Palestinian territories — as well as the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights. While Israel has since withdrawn from the Sinai Peninsula, it remains the occupying power in parts of the Golan Heights and in all of the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian territories have become a testing ground for new weapons and surveillance tactics which are then exported to other countries.
As the years of occupation ticked by, the Israeli army, border guard and police developed increasingly sophisticated ways to keep Palestinians in check. And Israel has cashed in on its expertise in occupation and policing. Israeli arms and surveillance companies are typically founded by combat and intelligence veterans who have expertise in maintaining Israel’s regime of control in the occupied Palestinian territories. After their military service — which is required for most Israelis at the age of 18 — many young veterans either form or join up with arms or spy companies, trading in on their army service in order to make huge profits by selling weapons of repression.
To critics of Israeli security forces, this process has led to a grotesque outcome: The occupied Palestinian territories have become Israel’s “lab” — a testing ground for new weapons and surveillance tactics that are then brought to other regions bent on keeping their own populations in check. The self-proclaimed “light unto the nations” has instead brought dark tools of repression to many countries.
Israeli exports became particularly coveted around the globe after the Sept. 11 attacks, which led governments — particularly the Bush administration — to spend heavily on the homeland security industry, according to Hever.
“The technology that the Israeli army, police and secret police can boast is surveillance technology, technology of control and riot gear, which became very much in demand after Sept. 11,” he told The Indypendent.
Hever maintains that the allure of Israeli security products has waned in recent years.
“All of this amazing technology, and all of these very expensive gadgets that they’re developing — they don’t do anything, because they do not create security,” Hever said. “That’s mainly the reason for the decline in sales, because customers from various countries in Eastern Europe, they go to these fairs and look at these sophisticated cameras and weapons and ask, is Israel a safe place to live? There’s not a sense of security.”
Nevertheless, Israeli surveillance tools and weapons remain prominent around the world.
Last year, Israel exported $6.5 billion worth of weaponry, making it the seventh-top arms exporter around the world, according to data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In recent years, buyers of Israeli weapons have included India, South Korea, Colombia and Spain, among others. Israel has also come under fierce criticism for selling weapons to states like South Sudan, whose armed forces have allegedly committed war crimes during the country’s civil war, and Azerbaijan, a country run by authoritarians with a checkered human rights record.
Israel has used its 50 years of control over the Palestinian territories to show off its weapons of repression and create a booming arms and surveillance industry. Here are six different countries that have bought Israeli arms and spy tools:
United Arab Emirates
Officially, this Arabian Gulf country and Israel do not have diplomatic relations. Unofficially, the UAE is a customer of Israeli-made surveillance products. Last year, digital security researchers discovered that the UAE had targeted a prominent dissident with sophisticated cell phone malware that would have turned the activist’s iPhone into a walking spy tool with the ability to track his movements and record his calls. The creators of that product were Israeli army veterans whose company was funded by veterans of Unit 8200, Israel’s military intelligence branch.
The newest nation on earth has been embroiled in civil war since the end of 2013. Israeli arms dealers have reportedly supplied the South Sudanese government with rifles and rockets, despite South Sudan’s government being accused of crimes against humanity.
Azerbaijan has spent about $5 billion on products from Israeli arms companies in recent years. These have reportedly included drones, radar systems and rifles. Azerbaijan is an authoritarian country that routinely arrests dissidents and has been accused of torturing members of the opposition. It is also engaged in a low-intensity war with Armenia.
Israeli dealers notoriously sold arms to a pro-government Hutu militia during the 1994 genocide that largely targeted the Tutsi ethnic group. Paul Kagame, the current president, has forged a close relationship with Israel. Ironically, he’s a Tutsi — the group that was targeted by Israeli-armed Hutu forces.
The Colombian government has long bought Israeli weapons. And Israeli weapons dealers were also caught up in a scandal in the early 1990s, when the U.S. Senate found evidence that Israeli mercenaries gave paramilitary assistance to Colombian drug cartels. More recently, Colombia bought products from Israeli spy companies Verint and NICE. Colombia has used those products to institute a mass surveillance apparatus.
Russia is the main supplier of weapons to this former Soviet bloc country. But in November 2014, the group Privacy International revealed that Uzbekistan had bought surveillance systems from Verint and NICE. The products were given to an Uzbek security agency known for the torture and monitoring of Uzbek citizens.
Israeli spy tools are also coveted globally. With 27 surveillance companies headquartered in Israel, the country has the fifth largest for-profit surveillance sector in the world, according to Privacy International, a watchdog group that tracks the surveillance industry.
Israeli companies have sold spy products to countries like Colombia and Uganda — and even Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, a country Israel has no official relations with.
“Israel’s spy unit is now the largest in its armed forces, and military conscription is mandatory, meaning that surveillance capabilities developed and used [while in the army] can be packaged and exported abroad, for profit,” said Edin Omanovic, a researcher at Privacy International. “There doesn’t appear to be any consideration of human rights when it comes to these exports in Israel, which is highly concerning given that surveillance tools can and have been used around the world to target journalists, activists and opposition members and undermine privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights, and can be used to effectively crush democratic and progressive movements.”
Israeli surveillance tools have also been used by the U.S. security state. Cellebrite is one Israeli-owned company popular among U.S. law enforcement. The corporation’s phone hacking technology — it has the ability to bypass iPhone password locks — has been bought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service and Customs and Border Protection.
On the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. subsidiary of Israeli-owned Elbit Systems has supplied surveillance towers. Then there’s Magal Security Systems, an Israeli company that installed surveillance tools alongside Israel’s separation barrier, the mixture of walls and fences that snakes into the West Bank and cuts off Palestinian areas from Israel proper. Now, Magal wants to supply President Trump with fiber-optic tools to strengthen his proposed border wall with Mexico.
Trump’s Border Wall Beckons. . .
Since Donald Trump proposed building a border wall alongside Mexico, corporations have jumped at the chance to fulfill the president’s wish. While many of these corporations are American, one company that has sold itself as a partner is based nearly 6,800 miles away, in Israel.
Magal is an Israeli surveillance company that has supplied intrusion detection systems along Israel’s separation barrier, a mix of walls and fences that juts into the West Bank to keep Palestinians out of Israel. Magal built what it calls a “smart fence” around the Gaza Strip, complete with motion detectors and video and satellite monitors. In addition, the corporation has won contracts to supply security systems to eight separate Israeli settlements — Jewish communities built on occupied Palestinian land that are illegal under international law.
The corporation has also won contracts in India, China, Thailand and Greece, among others.
Now, Magal is looking to bring its business to the U.S.-Mexico border, where it would join another Israeli company — Elbit — which has already placed surveillance towers on the militarized frontier. On Jan. 31, company representatives presented its FiberPatrol product at a homeland security conference in Virginia where U.S. officials were in attendance. FiberPatrol is a Magal-made system that places fiber-optic sensors in walls or fences that can detect movement and breaches.
“We have the right product and we have the experience in Israel that helps in showcasing our product,” Magal CEO Saar Koursh told Bloomberg in January.
It can only help that Magal is Israeli. President Trump has repeatedly cited Israel’s walls as a model for the United States to adopt.
“Walls work — just ask Israel,” Trump said at a May 18 press conference when asked about his proposed barrier.
It’s unclear if Trump’s wall will ever be built, though Magal could conceivably still win contracts to implant sensors into the already existing maze of fences and walls that sit on the southern U.S. border.
But even if Magal doesn’t get to help create Trump’s wall, they’ve already benefited from the president’s rhetoric: Since the November election, company stocks have soared nearly 50 percent.
But it is not just the federal government that sees Israel’s prowess in fighting terrorism and migration as a model to adopt. State and city agencies do as well — and among the 50 states, New York has perhaps the closest relationship with Israel’s security state.
One example of how New York has forged ties with Israel’s surveillance state lies on Roosevelt Island, the patch of land located between Manhattan and Queens. Construction of a new university there is coming to a close in anticipation of the school’s opening this summer. But most people passing by the site probably don’t know about the controversy behind the building of this new university — and its ties to Israel’s war industry.
In December 2011, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Cornell University and its partner Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had won a bid to build a state-of-the-art science and engineering campus on the island. It has been heralded as a job-creating tool to usher New York City’s economy into the future and brand the city as a center of technology. Powered by more than $785 million in private and city funds, Cornell Tech promises to be a hub for science and technology students and research. University classes are currently housed at Google’s New York City headquarters.
But the choice of Technion as a partner was controversial from the start. Technion is at the heart of Israel’s academic-military-industrial complex. The university, located in Haifa, Israel, is a feeder school to arms and surveillance companies like Elbit and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and has active partnerships with both companies, which are key players in Israel’s war industry. Elbit is a main supplier of surveillance systems and creator of drones, while Rafael is well-known as a producer of missiles. And Technion has developed technology for the Israeli military. Technion, working alongside the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), created an unmanned robot bulldozer to raze Palestinian homes in the occupied territories and has been at the forefront of developing new drone technology. The university also runs programs that teach students how to market Israel’s military industry around the world.
For now, it is unclear whether Technion’s partnership with Cornell means the new Roosevelt Island campus will also become a hub for the creation of military technology. But the mere fact of Technion’s presence in New York has outraged activists.
“Cornell University has partnered with The Technion Israel Institute of Technology, an institution of higher education that develops technologies which are used actively to advance the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” said film scholar Terri Ginsberg, the author of Visualizing the Palestinian Struggle and a former member of the group New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership, which is no longer active. “Cornell University is implicated not only in ethnic cleansing — already an immoral act — but in enabling its profitability, also immoral, for the purposes of fostering social repression on an international scale.”
As the Cornell-Technion partnership takes root, New York City and state law enforcement continue to forge ties with Israeli security forces through delegations to Israel.
The New York police delegations to the country have been sponsored by pro-Israel Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Framed as a way to learn from the Israeli army, police and intelligence services about how to combat terrorism, these New York cops meet with high-level Israeli officials and tour sites both in Israel and in West Bank settlements. Proponents of these trips say U.S. law enforcement learn how Israel protects its residents from militant attacks.
The New York Police Department has forged a particularly close relationship with Israel. In September 2012, the NYPD stationed an officer at a police station in central Israel. According to Maariv, the Israeli newspaper that first broke the story, the NYPD made the move because “Israeli police is one of the major police forces with which it must maintain close work relations and daily contact.”
The most striking, and controversial, aspect of how the NYPD has learned from Israel has to do with its post-9/11 surveillance program targeting Muslims. From 2003-2014, the NYPD instituted a program that sent members of its intelligence division out to map Muslim communities throughout the Northeast, infiltrate mosques and record conversations among Muslims — including those not suspected of any crime. According to the Associated Press reporters who broke the story, the NYPD modeled its program on Israel’s surveillance operations in the occupied West Bank. Thomas Galati, the former head of the NYPD Intelligence Division, traveled to Israel with the ADL in 2010, though it’s unclear what, exactly, he discussed or learned from his Israeli counterparts.
Cuomo’s New York-Israel commission promises to continue the tradition of New York cops learning from Israeli security services. But local and national resistance to these programs also promises to grow.
In April, Jewish Voice for Peace (JUP), a pro-Palestinian group with local chapters around the country, announced the launch of their Deadly Exchange campaign — a push to bring attention to, and halt, police partnerships between the U.S. and Israel. JVP plans to educate and organize activists in various cities to call attention to these partnerships by way of protests, teach-ins and walking tours of cities to point out institutions that participate in law enforcement exchange programs with Israel.
The New York chapter plans to focus on the NYPD’s relationship with Israel, as well as Cuomo’s recently announced program to intensify New York law enforcement’s links with Israeli law enforcement.
Sagiv Galai, a member of JVP’s New York chapter, noted that the New York governor’s office had said the purpose of New York-Israel law enforcement cooperation will be to “share best practices and benefit from each other’s experience.”
“‘Best practices’ in this context have been developed under a belligerent military occupation replete with human rights violations, from extrajudicial killings to administrative detentions,” he told The Indypendent.
How the Occupation Ends
For 50 straight years, Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza have endured the indignities of occupation. They’ve waited in line for hours at Israeli army checkpoints, witnessed house raids and arrests, and buried their youth killed by the occupying army.
What will it take for the next 50 years to be different?
This is a complicated question, and the answer is subject to the whims of geopolitics, people power and the unexpected turns of history. Still, we can say there are two key things that must happen for 50 years of occupation to end, which would be a major step toward ending the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which encompasses the occupation but also includes Israel’s denial of Palestinian refugee rights and discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
The first step toward ending the Israeli occupation is U.S. pressure. The United States gives Israel over $3 billion in annual military aid, protects Israel in the United Nations from international censure and is a large trading partner with the Jewish state.
U.S. pressure has worked in the past. For instance, when President Jimmy Carter threatened to cut off U.S. military assistance to Israel in response to the 1977 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis withdrew their forces.
Forcing the U.S. to enact the pressure needed to withdraw from occupied Palestine, though, is not an easy task. It will take a sustained protest movement in the United States to shift the terms of the Israel debate and take aim at larger forces that also propel U.S. support for Israel: the power of the arms industry and U.S. entanglement in the Middle East. American weapons companies profit from U.S. military aid to Israel, since most of that aid boomerangs back to arms companies when Israel buys U.S.-made weapons. And Israel acts as the eyes and ears for the U.S. in the Middle East, feeding crucial intelligence to their American counterparts that helps the U.S. prosecute its wars in the region.
Changing this state of affairs is a mammoth task. But there are growing movements seeking to change U.S. policy on Israel. There’s the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to use economic pressure on Israel, and a sometimes overlapping, albeit distinct, movement of young American Jews seeking to stop Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation, a support that provides moral and ideological backing for Israel no matter what the state does.
While changing U.S. policy is crucial to the project of ending the Israeli occupation, it is likely not enough. Palestinians on the ground also have to create their own leverage to impose costs on Israel’s occupation. When Palestinians have revolted in the past, Israeli concessions followed. The First Intifada from 1987-1983 led to direct peace talks between Palestinian leaders and Israel for the first time.
Today, the Palestinian political scene is ossified and divided. And Palestinian youth interested in fighting the occupation have to first deal with their own leaders — the Palestinian Authority, which cooperates with Israel to crack down on violent and nonviolent resistance to Israel. Palestinian resentment of the Palestinian Authority, however, is growing by the day among those fed up with allowing Israel to carry on its occupation cost-free.
The occupation’s continuity is not inevitable. While current conditions are not ripe for a Palestinian uprising against their own leadership and Israel, they may be in the near future. And if that happens in combination with American pressure on Israel, the occupation may begin to crumble. That would spare the world of having to commemorate the 75th or 100th year of Israeli occupation, an anniversary people of conscience have no interest in seeing.
Galai said that the campaign is not arguing that Israel has introduced racism and human rights violations to American policing. Rather, the Deadly Exchange campaign is targeting nonprofit groups, like the ADL and JINSA, for normalizing Israeli counter-terrorism practices and trying to frame them as a model for American counter-terrorism campaigns.
He added that the campaign is a way for Jewish groups to mobilize against pro-Israel organizations that promote Israel’s model of counter-terrorism and security.
“It’s an opportunity for progressive Jewish organizations in each of these cities to come out against the conservative national security policies that organizations like JINSA are vocalizing,” Galai told The Indy. “We will be there on the streets, protesting and resisting, building those relationships and building solidarity which will hopefully make the campaign more resilient in the long-term fight against racist policing in the Trump era, where Islamophobia, racism and law-and-order discourse has re-entered the mainstream.”