What should we think about the Israeli government and companies selling weapons to repressive governments?
Before I get to this question, let me tell you a bit about Steve Wright. He was amazing. For years, he worked at the Omega Research Foundation in Manchester, which investigates the production and trade in military and police technologies. Steve would regularly visit security fairs. These “fairs” are like arms fairs where weapons manufacturers exhibit their products to potential buyers from around the world. At security fairs, the products for sale include surveillance equipment, leg irons and thumb cuffs, sound cannons, and instruments used for torture such as electroshock batons and stun belts.
Steve would visit these fairs, pretending he was a potential buyer, chat up staff at company stalls, collect brochures and covertly take photos. This was a risky activity, especially for fairs in repressive states like Turkey. Steve and I began corresponding in the 1980s. Once, after visiting me in Australia and before leaving for a security fair in China, he left behind all evidence that might indicate his real intentions.
After getting back home to Britain, Steve would provide relevant information to human rights groups like Amnesty International, which ran an anti-torture campaign. If, for example, he found German equipment being used for surveillance or torture in some other country, he would notify German human rights groups. Most companies and governments keep quiet about their trade in technologies used to repress dissent. Sometimes Steve would write articles using a pseudonym.
Sadly, Steve died in 2019. I thought of him and his work when reading a new book by Antony Loewenstein titled The Palestine Laboratory. The subtitle of the book shows the connection: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation around the World. Loewenstein tells a shocking story, backed up with comprehensive referencing.
Israeli military exports
The Israeli government and Israeli companies are major producers and exporters of military equipment and training. There’s nothing all that special about being involved in arms manufacture and sales. After all, this is a huge global enterprise, with the United States, Russia, France, China and Germany being the biggest exporters. What’s surprising is that Israel, with a fairly small population, punches far above its weight — and in the way it pursues arms sales.
Loewenstein documents how Israeli companies export arms to just about any country in the world, including ones whose governments are highly repressive, known for gross human rights abuses. He writes, “The sheer number of dictatorships with whom Israel has had relations is staggering,” and goes on to discuss connections with South Africa under apartheid, Iran under the Shah, Indonesia under Suharto, Romania, Haiti, Paraguay, Nicaragua and others. Among the recipients of Israeli arms are regimes that are officially hostile to Israel, and regimes that have persecuted Jews. You can open just about any page of the book and find damning material. For example, during the dictatorship in Argentina,
“The military junta tortured Jews in its prisons, and declassified documents show that Israel did not seem to care.
Israel knew about the repression from the beginning, but did not express any opposition because it viewed its agenda of getting Argentinian support for its West Bank occupation as more important. It claimed that weapons sales to the junta would help Argentinian Jews, but this was a feeble excuse. Blatant anti-Semitism was ubiquitous across Argentina, special torture techniques were reserved for Jewish women, and Argentinian concentration camps were filled with pictures of Hitler and Nazi emblems.” (p. 38)
It seems that Israeli arms export is not limited by any ethical barriers. This could serve as an example of realpolitik, which means making decisions based on the interests of the state, disregarding morality. The Israeli government uses arms sales as a means of cultivating support among governments throughout the world, despite the use of the weapons against populations. This is common internationally but Israeli leaders seem to have taken it to an extreme level.
That is shocking enough, but there’s another crucial element of Israeli arms sales. A key selling point is that the arms have been “battle-tested.” In Palestine. For decades, the Israeli military has been running operations against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. These are one-sided affairs, with the numbers of deaths and injuries of Palestinians vastly outnumbering those of Israelis. Perhaps this too is a selling point, because many of the customers of Israeli weaponry face no external threats, only internal opposition. The title of Loewenstein’s book, The Palestine Laboratory, references the value to Israeli weapons exporters of the desirable attribute “battle-tested.”
Israeli surveillance exports
But it’s not just weapons. Israeli firms are leading producers of surveillance technology such as facial recognition and spyware for listening in on people’s conversations.
One of the most significant exports is software called Pegasus, which can be used to extract information from the phones of targets. Any government wanting to monitor dissidents is keen to intercept phone communications, especially when they are encrypted. Israeli firm NSO has sold Pegasus to a large number of buyers, including some of the world’s most repressive regimes.
“ … the regime could read activists’ private WhatsApp messages. Arrests and torture were based on details contained in these conversations. How that had occurred was revealed in a 2018 report by Citizen Lab, a Canadian cybersecurity research group, after they uncovered the presence of Israeli company NSO Group Pegasus spyware on activists’ smartphones, a tool that allows the complete capture of all data on the device. It was bought from NSO by the regime in 2016.” (p. 163)
The Israeli government sometimes disowns responsibility, saying it does not control the activities of private firms. Loewenstein provides information to the contrary, showing that surveillance exporting companies are tightly linked to the Israeli government’s security operations.
Once again, Palestine is a selling point. Surveillance of Palestinians, in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and beyond, is pervasive. It occurs via face recognition technology and monitoring of electronic communication, among other means, and enables the creation of detailed dossiers on numerous individuals.
As well as exporting arms, Israel provides a different sort of export: a model of what Loewenstein calls ethnonationalism, a combination of policies and beliefs that support a national group at the expense of outsiders. For Israeli policy-makers, the outsiders are Palestinians. For the European Union, they are asylum seekers fleeing wars and oppression in Africa and elsewhere. For the United States, they are asylum seekers from Central America.
It also includes weapons.
“At the Evros land border with Turkey, Greece uses deafening long-range sound cannons to scare refugees. Although only the size of a small TV set, it emits sounds as loud as an airplane or shotgun blasted right next to the ear. It can cause permanent hearing damage. Greece purchased the devices from US company Genasys, and they have been deployed by law enforcement officers around the world.” (p. 112)
This example reminded me of Steve’s work. In “Looming struggles over technology for border control,” we wrote, in the abstract,
“New technologies under development, capable of inflicting pain on masses of people, could be used for border control against asylum seekers. … We focus on taser anti-personnel mines, [and] also outline several other types of ‘non-lethal’ technology that could be used for border control and raise human rights concerns: high-powered microwaves; armed robots; wireless tasers; acoustic devices/vortex rings; ionizing and pulsed energy lasers; chemical calmatives, convulsants, bioregulators and malodurants. Whether all these possible border technologies will be implemented is a matter for speculation, but their serious human rights implications warrant advance scrutiny.”
It seems Israeli exporters are now at the forefront of border-control technology. It comes along with an endorsement that might be called “occupation-tested.”
Controlling the narrative
Just when you think Loewenstein has provided sufficient damning material, there’s more. Israeli government actions have led to concern not just among the Palestinians but more widely, in international circles, as exemplified in the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to support Palestinian rights. Israeli exports of weapons and surveillance technology serve to counter this by winning diplomatic support from autocratic regimes. There’s another dimension: discrediting and harassing critics.
An important battleground is the media, both mass media and social media. Prominent critics can expect to be criticised online, sometimes harassed. Loewenstein documents the attempts by supporters of the Israeli government to censor or discredit critics.
“When Palestinian homes in the occupied East Jerusalem area of Sheikh Jarrah were slated for removal by Israel in April 2021, activists found that posts with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah were disappearing from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Twitter accounts were suspended and Facebook posts removed. Graphic warning labels were placed on text-only Instagram posts and live streams from Sheikh Jarrah were made inaccessible.” (p. 183)
This illustrates how Western tech companies serve Israeli government agendas.
A key rhetorical technique is to label any criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic, in other words as anti-Jewish. This is a powerful technique because there is a great deal of anti-Semitism in the world today, following a long history of hostility to Jews, including pogroms and, most notoriously, the Holocaust, in which Nazis systematically murdered millions of Jews during World War II. This history is important in several ways. It provides a rationale for defending a Jewish state. It generates sympathy for Jews as victims of one of the most horrendous crimes in history. And it serves as a way to associate any criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism.
This raises a more general issue. When a group is subject to a crime, generating sympathy, at what point does it become acceptable to criticise the group for its own actions? In Rwanda, there was a genocide in 1994 targeting the Tutsi minority population. It was only brought to an end by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which defeated the Rwandan government that was leading the genocide. Paul Kagame, commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has been president since 2000; it is more difficult to criticise his government because of what was done to the Tutsis.
Steve and I collaborated on an article examining the tactics associated with the export and use of torture technology. The same sorts of tactics are readily observable in relation to Israeli technology exports. Consider some methods to reduce public outrage over these exports, and counter-methods to increase outrage.
1. Cover-up and exposure. The Israeli government and companies operate behind the scenes as much as possible, so few members of the public know about their production and trade in weapons and surveillance equipment. Loewenstein’s book is a prime example of the counter to cover-up: documenting the exports.
2. Devaluation and validation. The Israeli government, and many Israelis, denigrate Palestinians, for example labelling them terrorists, and treating them as a subject people by extensive surveillance, destruction of property and attacks. Critics of the government are called anti-Semitic. In contrast, Loewenstein and others treat Palestinian human rights as important as anyone else’s.
3. Interpretation struggles. The Israeli government regularly lies about its military exports and, when there are abuses, blames companies. Loewenstein exposes lies and the falsity of blaming companies. He points out double standards internationally, for example Western governments’ condemnation of Russian attacks that kill Ukrainian civilians but silence about Israeli attacks that kill Palestinian civilians.
4. Intimidation and resistance. Defenders of the Israeli government threaten and harass critics. Some of these critics persist despite attacks. Loewenstein is one of them.
The Palestine Laboratory is a powerful exposé of the Israeli arms and surveillance export industry. It is relentless in providing facts and figures about unsavoury deals, showing Israeli leaders as seemingly indifferent to the harmful uses of its technology exports, even against Jews in other countries, so long as this serves the interests of the Israeli state.
Loewenstein’s exposé is powerful but can also be demoralising. On a positive note, he reports on the efforts of a range of critics of Israeli policies. For greater hope, you can turn to accounts of Palestinian resistance, especially nonviolent resistance, for example Souad Dajani’s Eyes without Country, Marwan Darweish and Andrew Rigby’s Popular Protest in Palestine, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta’s Refusing to be Enemies, and Mary Elizabeth King’s A Quiet Revolution.
Despite Israeli government efforts to build international support, Loewenstein reports that public opinion in much of the world is turning against it due to awareness of the oppression of Palestinians, which is increasingly seen as a form of apartheid. How long Israeli military exports can continue to win friends among rulers worldwide and stave off a reckoning over human rights abuses remains to be seen.
Brian Martin, email@example.com
Thanks to Anita Johnson, Olga Kuchinskaya and Andrew Rigby for valuable comments.