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Shir Hever: The Israeli military industrial complex rakes profits from preparations for a confrontation with Syria, while social problems and the occupation remain unaddressed

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Tuesday, Israel carried out a joint missile strike with the United States in the Mediterranean Sea.

Now joining us to discuss all this is Shir Hever. Shir is an economist studying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories for the Alternative Information Center, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to publishing alternative information and analysis.

Thanks for joining us, Shir.


DESVARIEUX: So, what was your reaction to the strike? And can you just elaborate for our viewers what are the intentions of the Israeli government as you see them?

HEVER: This strike was actually of a missile that is supposed to imitate the kind of rockets or missiles that could conceivably be fired from Syria against Israel in case of a war or against other targets.

The way that this is covered in the news right now is that both the Israeli military and the U.S. military have somehow believed that they could just do a normal routine sort of test using those missile, in order to study its trajectory and so on, and that the launch would not be detected and will not contribute to the tension in the area, especially considering the speculations about an attack by the United States against Syria in the near future.

I think there is a possibility that both military commands have simply got it wrong and had no idea that this test or exercise will draw so much attention. But I think there’s also some merit to the speculation that the Israeli army is currently very frantically trying to create evidence that it needs to prepare and it needs more budgets in order to prepare itself for a face-off against Syria.

So what are the interests of the Israeli government? The Israeli government does–actually, the most rational rational approach is to stay out of the situation in Syria, the civil war. The Israeli government knows that any kind of Israeli involvement would in the long run be against the interests of Israel and could put Israeli civilians and soldiers at risk. But on the other hand, the Israeli government tends to be drawn into these conflicts because of a lot of political interests.

And what we see now is that Netanyahu and his loyal ministers are trying to juggle several balls at once. They’re trying to get the public to support their continued policies which emphasize security at the expense of social projects and social spending. And at the same time, they’re trying to avoid creating the impression that they’re heading towards a complete disaster and trying to drive the country off a cliff by starting wars that they’re not able to finish.

Now, I think, from the point of view of Netanyahu, he’s actually already achieved his goal, because Netanyahu was–I don’t think he wants war between Israel and Syria. Maybe he doesn’t mind so much that U.S. soldiers will bloody themselves and bloody Syrian civilians, and that doesn’t necessarily worry him so much. But it certainly wouldn’t be very good for him if Israel will enter an armed conflict in which it cannot achieve its strategic goals.

But at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure inside Israel to try to improve the social situation, to try to reduce social inequalities and to increase public spending. Israel is the highest spender in the world on military and security in terms of the proportion of its GDP, so there has been a campaign for years to try to reduce the defense budget.

But because Israel’s defense budget is so large, it has created around itself a whole community of the Israeli elite, of generals and officers and people in the arms industry, which is–this is their livelihood, this is their source of income. And a cut to the Israeli defense budget is something that they’re very much concerned about.

In this sort of internal political struggle in Israel, it has finally been achieved with a new government, which has just recently come into power, to reduce the defense budget by $1 billion. That’s a marginal reduction, actually. It’s a small amount compared to the total size of the defense budget, which is over $20 billion. But nevertheless, it was a certain precedent that it is possible to cut the defense budget and use that money for other purposes.

With the current crisis in Syria, the current civil war, and the chance that it will also affect Israel, the government has been able to undo all of this political process that has taken years and cancel the reduction of the defense budget. That means this billion dollars will go back into the defense budget and will be cut from education programs, from health programs. And in order to justify this, it’s very important to get the Israeli public into a state of fear.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about that fear. There was a recent poll that came out. The latest figures coming out say that about 40 percent of Arab Israelis are saying that they see the Assad regime retaliating against Israel if the United States does decide to strike Israel, and a number reaching up to 46 percent for Jewish Israelis. What do you make of that poll?

HEVER: It shows that possibly Netanyahu has been successful in getting the people, the public into a state of panic.

Every ten years or so there is a threat of a chemical attack against Israel. And this started with the Gulf War of 1991, in which all Israeli citizens were issued gas masks in order to protect themselves from a possible chemical attack. No chemical attack has actually come. Two people have died because of anxiety because they were expecting a chemical attack.

But the massive industrial project of outfitting the entire population with these masks to protect them from a possible chemical attack has become an aspect of the Israeli military-industrial complex.

The thing about these masks and these–. It’s not just a mask; it’s also a kit that contains toxins, very dangerous toxins, actually. But in the case of nerve gas attacks, these toxins are supposed to act as a counter agent.

And the thing about these kits is that they have a short lifespan. And in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq again, the kits that were issued in 1991, most of them were no longer valid, no longer workable. So once again the state had to very quickly, frantically organize the production and distribution of another set of kits to the population. These things cost a lot of money, and there are companies that make a very good profit from that.

And now we see, ten years later, when the kits that were issued in 2003 no longer relevant, no longer usable, that there’s a lot of talk in the Israeli media about whether there are enough kits, whether they should be distributed again and produced in mass again.

And I think that’s why the issue of a chemical attack was so important to the Israeli government.

This is something that we’ve seen up to now, up to 100,000 people in Syria that were killed in the civil war. But Netanyahu has actually put a lot of pressure on Obama to say that chemical weapons would be a red line. This was the language that Netanyahu used. Later, Obama accepted this language word for word and said chemical weapons is the red line. And now this is the continuation of the story, where we see how the United States is now getting ready to attack because this red line has been crossed, as if the lives of people who were killed by other means are not as valuable.

But, of course, the importance of the chemical weapons is that it caters to a very specific aspect of the Israeli military-industrial complex that produces the kits.

But in order to get people to be convinced yet again to outfit themselves with these kits to protect themselves from chemical attack, it’s very important to create an atmosphere of fear. Israelis who have any kind of memory–well, I have this memory because I lived in Israel during these last two wars and lived through this craze of everyone has to have their kit with them at all times–children would take these kits with them to school and so on–is something that the public has to envision, that a chemical attack might be coming any moment. This is something that actually has a lot of very negative side effects, psychological side effects, because the people become really afraid, even though there is actually no evidence that chemical weapons would be pointed at Israel at all.

And I think that for Netanyahu this kind of fear is what would justify increasing the defense budget, which is something that’s very important for his coalition and for his allies within the top military brass, getting a lot of contracts for the Israeli weapon companies, especially those companies that are producing those kits, and also distracting from the whole issue of the social conditions in Israel, which are in a state of collapse and in crisis and very high inequality, and the predictable and obvious failure of the Israeli government to make any headway in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, because now peace talks have resumed again. But I think everybody knows that Israel is not willing to make any offers that it didn’t offer before, meaning that there’s no chance to end occupation and no chance to resolve the reasons for the conflict and the repression of Palestinians based on these talks.

But in order to convince the public that Netanyahu is not completely incompetent, he needs people to believe that they need a strong leader who is more concerned about security issues. And that’s why the instability in Syria has already served its purpose for Netanyahu.

DESVARIEUX: Really important points there, Shir. Thanks so much for joining us.

HEVER: Thanks. Yeah.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.