Amid the horror of Israel’s escalation of violence in May 2021, from the bombing of Gaza to lynch mobs of Israeli settlers assaulting Palestinians, another, less conventional weapon in the Israeli arsenal also piqued the interest of the international media: so-called “skunk water.”
Skunk water — a concoction of chemicals smelling of sewage and rotting corpses that causes intense nausea, violent gagging and vomiting — was developed by the Israeli company Odortec for “crowd control” in the West Bank. More recently it was also used against the Palestinian families resisting expulsion from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.
The story of skunk water reveals the way Israel’s arms and security industry has itself become an intrinsic part of the apartheid regime. “Israeli arms manufacturers do not even have to invest in marketing their weapons,” writes Yara Hawari at Al Jazeera, “news channels running footage of brutal attacks by the Israeli army do the job for them.” This tactic has proven useful, and since the introduction of skunk water in 2008, several police departments across the US have already bought it or expressed interest.
So, while Israel’s attacks on Palestinians are motivated by the extreme racism and settler colonial mindset that lie at the root of the Israeli state, it is also clear that its structural oppression is highly profitable for the apartheid regime. The Israeli state and its military enterprises show how savage capitalism and settler colonialism intertwine. Through its arms exports, Israel is shaping the coercive dimensions of states everywhere, bringing the politics and methodology of occupation to its allies abroad. States buying military and security products from Israel are therefore both complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and consciously importing its brutal politics of coercion and repression.
Israel is one of the world’s most militarized and securitized countries, spending 5.6 percent of its GDP on the military. Israel is also the eighth largest arms exporter in the world, accounting for 3 percent of the global total over the past five years, making it the eight largest arms exporter in the world.
Israel has made itself central to the international arms and homeland security industry by exporting cutting-edge military equipment, technologies and tactics to other countries. Israel exports to an estimated 130 countries worldwide, but as the Israeli anti-militarist activist Sahar Vardi explains, it is impossible to find a full list of those countries because Israel releases no official information about its arms exports apart from its reports to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.
Some of Israel’s clients include past and present dictatorships and human rights abusers; including apartheid South Africa, the military junta in Argentina, the Serbian army during the Bosnian genocide, and Rwanda in the years leading up to the 1994 genocide. More recently, Israel has sold arms to South Sudan and the military junta in Myanmar. Countries like Morocco, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and others have begun using Israeli spyware against journalists and political opposition.
Besides arms, Israel also exports policing and surveillance technologies to repressive regimes and “liberal” democracies alike. Internationally, Israel stands out as a leader in everyday surveillance and control and its cutting-edge counter-insurgency and population control efforts. As Maren Mantovani and Henrique Sanchez argue:
In a globalized world, any analysis of militarization and repressive ideologies, methodologies and technologies has to take into account the dynamics of import and export of these concepts and tools across borders. One of the world’s most prominent exporters of ideology and technology of repression is undoubtedly Israel.
Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the regime of apartheid it maintains serves as a testing ground for the development of weapons, security systems, means of population control and tactics. Without it, Israel would be unable to compete in the international arms and security markets. It gives credit to its status as a major military power.
The occupation allows Israel to try out new military and security hardware on the Palestinian population before exporting them. Israel’s largest military and security company, Elbit Systems, which markets itself as a supplier of the Israeli Defense Force, saw its profits increase by 6.1 percent in July 2014 alone, at the peak of Israel’s previous assault on Gaza. Elbit Systems sells security systems and weapons to the USA, Brazil, India, the Philippines and Azerbaijan, among many others. The company markets its products as “battle-tested” and claims “outstanding capabilities” based on “operational experience gained through tens of thousands of operational sorties by the IDF.” In other words, they boast about the way their technologies have been tested on the Palestinian population, to improve the degree and speed of killing and maiming.
In the aftermath of the 2014 bombing, the CEO of Israeli arms manufacturer Meprolight was equally blunt about profiting from war: “After every campaign of the kind that is now taking place in Gaza, we see an increase in the number of customers from abroad.” He added, “Of course, we are marketing abroad aggressively, but IDF operations definitely affect marketing activity.”
The US played a pivotal role in the emergence of Israel’s arms and security industry. Since President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, every US president has reiterated the US’ commitment to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” This is a core Israeli concept defined by Ben Gurion stating that Israel can only ensure its existence if it can defend itself militarily. The US has sought to ensure the survival of its key ally in the Middle East by arming it directly as well as enabling it to create its own military industry.
With US support, Israel’s military and security sector has boomed. In 2017, the Israeli Ministry of Defense issued 29,655 export licenses to 1,546 private companies and independent traders. In 2020, Israel’s defense export deals totaled $8.3 billion, the second-highest figure ever, making up about 15 percent of its total exports. The same year, Israel allocated $2.508 per capita, or 12 percent of government spending to defense.
Companies are drawing from the military knowledge cultivated in a context of prolonged occupation, which is then turned into a product and sold to the rest of the world. The Israeli military even encourages high-tech workers and employers to use the knowledge gained during military service to build their own start-ups. Close collaboration between security enterprises and the state is crucial for Israel’s security and surveillance industries and creates a culture of revolving doors: a senior position in the army will open doors to a position in a national security company.
The Israeli military has also become a key player in the global cyber technology market, much of which focuses on population surveillance and control.
Research from The Guardian, El País and Citizen Lab, the cybersecurity institute of the University of Toronto, concluded in 2020 that pro-independence Catalan politicians had been spied on through Pegasus, a program created by NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli technology company. Two years earlier, Citizen Lab had warned that Pegasus was in use in more than 45 countries, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all countries known for their persecution of human rights activists. Citizen Lab also revealed NSO Group’s role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
NSO Group claims it sells its products to governments to fight “terror and crime,” but as the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory to Prevent Extremist Violence has pointed out, this blanket statement means little given the lack of consensus on what terrorism is and the way the term is misused politically to condemn dissent and weaken respect for human rights. The use of security narratives is typical of governments seeking to justify their actions or refute accusations about their questionable human rights records. Israel resorting to this discourse to persecute Palestinians is not unique.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was a health, and not a security crisis, it has not stopped Israel from seeking to sell its security technologies for the tracking and surveillance of populations. In August 2020, the Israeli army was given a high-profile role in the country’s fight against the coronavirus. The NSO Group advertised its services to monitor the COVID-19 health crisis and control population movements around the globe. And now Israel is even marketing its technologies to deal with the social consequences of the pandemic.
A tender by the International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Israeli Ministry of Defense argued that states would need to control and repress populations due to economic devastation as a result of COVID-19. It offered potential buyers its biometric data collection technology, human and vehicle tracking systems, facial recognition, license plate monitoring, cellular and cyber-surveillance, as well as information blocking and interception software that it has further fine-tuned during the pandemic. The only countries excluded from the offer were Iran, Lebanon and Syria.
As long as states are buying and selling military equipment and technology from and to Israel, they are not only implicitly approving Israel’s settler-colonialist state and financing its military industry but are also actively reproducing its repressive measures.
Following a recent civil society campaign, the European Union ended its contract with Israel’s drones produced by Elbit Systems to control migrants seeking refuge, but pressure continues to push the EU to rescind two further Frontex contracts with Elbit Systems. During Obama’s presidency in 2014, Elbit Systems landed a $145 million contract to install a “virtual wall” of 24/7 surveillance towers in the US border zone of southern Arizona, including on indigenous Tohono O’odham Nation land. Even though Biden is defunding the physical wall built by the Trump administration there are no signs that Biden will cancel the so-called “smart” wall that Elbit Systems is helping to build.
We see similar — and in some cases even stronger — collusion between Israel and many far-right regimes: India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Colombia’s Ivan Duque have all supported Israel’s policies. Not only are these far-right leaders impressed by the efficiency of Israel’s military and security apparatus in repressing opposition and resistance, they are also ideologically aligned and in favor of building strong military relations with Israel.
India is currently the single largest importer of Israeli weapons, receiving nearly 50 percent of Israel’s defense equipment and technology exports. The Modi government also recently amended India’s citizenship law, expediting it for non-Muslims from neighboring countries, closely mirroring Israel’s “law of return.” Abrogation of Kashmir’s special status paves the way for Israel-style settlements in the valley. In 2019, the Indian consul-general to New York City, Sandeep Chakravorty, even cited Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as an example of what India is hoping to achieve in Kashmir.
There are strong ideological affinities between Zionism and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, an Indian independence activist and Hindutva’s ideological father was inspired by Nazi Germany and the Zionist movement in advocating for India to become a Hindu ethnocratic state that treated Muslims like Black people in the United States of his time.
Close economic ties go hand in hand with sharing military know-how, including military training with Israel, crowd control techniques, dissent control strategies, intimidation of human rights defenders, strategies for judicial and extrajudicial mechanisms of torture and disappearance.
Colombia, for example has received support from Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency for decades, and relations between Israeli mercenaries and far-right paramilitary groups have been proven in court. A bilateral working group on political-military dialogue has been established between the Colombian and the Israeli government, which according to the Colombian Ministry of Defense “is not only to exchange knowledge and technology, but also intelligence information and doctrines.”
Israeli army instructors have moreover provided training in counter-terrorism and combat techniques to soldiers of the Special Forces Division of the Colombian Army, and many Israeli companies operate in Colombia including Elbit Systems, IAI and NSO Group – Elbit has been involved in leading workshops at seminars of the Colombian army. In a recent call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Duque, the former was full of praise for Colombia’s murderous regime: “Ivan, your leadership in the fight against terrorism sets an example for the rest of Latin America.”
Brazil is moving ahead to “Israelize” its policies and adopting more of its practices. For example, when the former Minister of Defense of Israel says that there “are no innocent people in Gaza” this is echoed by the Brazilian government that labels every Black person in the favelas who is assassinated during police raids a “drug trafficker.”
Gizele Martins, activist and community communicator from one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas says: “The central objective that Israel and other allied governments like the one in Brazil pursue is the control over the impoverished population in order to gain land, to colonize their lives, to dominate the land and the culture. I see this project advancing rapidly here in Rio de Janeiro. To achieve this plan, the world’s elites work together, and Israel and its weapons and practices are very useful for these governments.”
In the US, the Deadly Exchange campaign has highlighted the longstanding collaboration between the US and Israel in police training through exchange programs that bring together police, ICE, border patrol and FBI from the US with soldiers, police, border agents and other security personnel from Israel. The “worst practices” of discriminatory and repressive policing are shared in these programs, which include racial profiling, mass spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders. These exchanges are organized by a range of governmental and non-governmental actors including the neo-conservative Jewish Institute on National Security of America (JINSA), the Anti-Defamation League and even Birthright.
The Israeli military industrial complex is spreading death and repression across the globe. Israel’s 73-year-old regime of apartheid, settler-colonialism and occupation also underscores the connections between international feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, queer, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles on the one hand and the global connections between the opponents of progressive values and basic human rights on the other. Those who want to deny women the control over their own bodies are the same who support ethnic cleansing in Palestine and oppose BDS; those who do not allow people seeking refuge to stay in Europe are the same who deny the existence of climate change.
The crimes Israel commits against the Palestinian people do not stay in the occupied territories. They are transformed into knowledge which is then sold so that Israeli and international companies can profit from them. As US Congresswoman Cori Bush stated, “The fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected. We oppose our money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma.”
As long as Israel profits from repression, the violence against Palestinians will continue. A ceasefire in Gaza has not ended Israeli apartheid repression and colonial brutality to all Palestinians. Even though Israel’s violence only occasionally surfaces in international media, Palestinians endure brutality on a daily basis.
They are part of the ongoing Nakba, Israel’s ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians which has now lasted 73 years. They are part of a racist and colonial project aimed at expelling, repressing and subduing the Palestinian people. They also constitute apartheid, a description Palestinians have long articulated, which is now supported by Israeli and international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch.
This understanding of the Palestinian struggle as a fundamentally anti-racist and anti-colonial effort, has brought movements from across the world together for Palestine in intersectional solidarity. In recent weeks, we have seen a huge display of such solidarity and there is a shared feeling that something has shifted. Many who did not dare speak up about Palestinian rights before have taken a stand against Israeli apartheid. The success of the general strike on May 18 is proof of increased unity between Palestinians, whether they are citizens of Israel or living under siege in Gaza, despite the many years of Israel trying to divide and conquer the Palestinian people.
But as the people of Gaza try to rebuild their lives after untold devastation and in the context of an ongoing siege, we can be sure that Israel will once again market its security and military industry, which, as Yara Hawari said, has been on full display on every TV screen across the globe recently.
The media gushing over the efficiency of Israel’s “Iron Dome” is testament to this. Already in 2017, the UK bought an Israeli defense system known as the Sky Sabre, based on technology developed for the Iron Dome, to help defend the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas off the coast of Argentina. It will not be long before government representatives pour into Israel to buy the latest “combat-proven” Israeli weapons and technology for their own wars on neighbors or their own people.
Since 2005 the Palestinian-led, nonviolent and antiracist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has called on the international community to take action until Israel respects Palestinian rights. More and more groups such as trade unions, artists and student organizations are taking a stand on Palestinian rights. Pension funds and companies have decided to divest from Israeli apartheid.
Civil society can and must put pressure to end Israel’s impunity. Like with apartheid South Africa, it will not be until Israel is isolated politically, economically and culturally that it will be obliged to end its apartheid regime. Given that Israel is also a linchpin in the exporting of repression of dissent elsewhere, BDS as an intersectional and anticolonial tool can also contribute to end ties with oppressors all over. That is why an urgent boycott of Israel is needed, for the sake of Palestinian people — and for all of us.
TNI’s 10th State of Power report explores the history, structures and changing dynamics of the military, policing and homeland security in the world today and outlines emancipatory visions and ideas to end the violence of the state.