Israel is Turning From a Security State to a Private Security State

TRNN’s Shir Hever discusses his book on the privatization of Israeli security, the role of the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor, and the international impact of Israeli security firms

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome, everybody, to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us here.

We’re about to have a conversation with Shir Hever. Shir Hever is a correspondent for The Real News Network based in Heidelberg, Germany, and covers the Middle East in many other things for The Real News. His latest book is called The Privatization of Israeli Security. And he joins us here in studio in Baltimore. Welcome to Baltimore, good to have you here.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: All right. So let’s just- you’ve written, this book is really connected to your last book in many ways in terms of the changes that happened in Israel since the occupation. But taking a step backwards, there is this whole myth and idea about Israel being this state that has to have a military to secure its presence so Israelis will not be wiped off the face of the earth. Everybody thinks of Israel that way. But your book, in some ways, is where you probe the past and the present and talk about, let’s just begin there. Let’s talk about how the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 changed the entire nature of the military security state. Is that what you’re positing?

SHIR HEVER: Yes. Actually, just when Israel conquered the Palestinian territory, and also the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria, there was a very intense debate within the Israeli government: Are they going to try to rely on the international arms trade in order to get what they need? Or are they trying to be self-reliant and produce everything locally, which would mean creating a military industrial complex on a scale that was never seen before in Israel. And right after the occupation started, the French government announced that they’re going to cut military ties with Israel and employ an arms embargo. And so the Israeli government then said, in this case, we’re going to do everything ourselves. And they made this massive investment to try to create everything from the bullets, to the tanks, to the warships, to the airplanes-.

MARC STEINER: To be built inside of Israel proper.

SHIR HEVER: To be built inside Israel so that the Israeli army will be prepared for the next war, and will be able to control that territory. They failed miserably. All of that attempt to create this industry, none of that actually worked in real life.

MARC STEINER: Why did it fail, why didn’t it work?

SHIR HEVER: Because they didn’t have the engineering capacity for this. Because, in fact, the Israeli arms industry has always been very successful in focusing and specializing on very specific types of equipment, but trying to do everything from scratch meant that they would be facing against Arab armies which are armed with Soviet weapons, which were far better quality and much more advanced technologically. But what the Israelis didn’t understand is that the occupation didn’t make them a pariah state under military embargo from the rest of the world; it actually made Israel a very important player for the United States. And the United States identified Israel because of the occupation as a potential source of profit, by destabilizing the region and bringing in more weapons and fighting proxy wars against the Soviet Union and its allies in the region.

So starting from 1973, six years after the occupation begins, the United States started to give military aid to Israel. And at that moment also, the United States, the Pentagon told Israel, you’re not going to build whatever you want in terms of weapons. You’re going to build only weapons that don’t compete with American arms industry.

MARC STEINER: So a couple of things here, because before we get into how this slides right into the privatization of security in Israel and what that meant, because again, the common mythology here is that the United States has always supported Israel, which it has since 1948. But you say the linchpin of 1967 increased that support, as opposed to questioning Israeli policies, which is also in some ways against the common wisdom.

SHIR HEVER: Yes. But I also think that people tend to have a very wrong picture about what are the relations between the United States and Israel, thinking that the support of the United States for Israel is unconditional, which is not true. It’s a very conditional. And if you look at the arms industry, you can see exactly were the limits of that support. Whenever an Israeli company wanted to to engage in a project that could theoretically compete with the U.S., the friendliness stopped immediately. And Israeli Aerospace Industries, IAI, the biggest state-owned military company in Israel-.

MARC STEINER: Which stands for?

SHIR HEVER: Israeli Aerospace Industries is IAI. They wanted to produce a fighter plane that will compete with the F16, that will be better than the F16. And then you started to see how the Pentagon started to pull all the strings, made sure that this project will crash and burn. The Israeli government spent billions of dollars, and in the end they scrapped it, because they just couldn’t sustain this pressure coming from the United States. You cannot make something that would upset the interests of Lockheed Martin in the U.S., who wants to keep producing their F16s without competition.

Instead all these Israeli companies then started to focus on support modules and compatible components. For example, now Elbit Systems, a private military company in Israel, is producing the helmets the pilots of the F16s can wear. So there is no competition anymore. If you have an F16 you may want to buy the helmet from Elbit. But if you don’t have an F16, you don’t need those helmets.

MARC STEINER: So this is an interesting confluence of events. So we have the occupation starting in 1967 of Palestinian land on the West Bank and Gaza. And that coincides with the Israeli military manufacturing industry not being able to sustain itself because of American industrial opposition to that American policy. So that’s also not written about very much. I mean, that, this particular juncture and what it means. So what did it mean, then, how did that lead to the privatization of what was then basically a state-controlled industry, a kind of a socialist model? I mean, how’d that process happen?

SHIR HEVER: I think the key is Palestinian resistance. Palestinians play a role in this story. They’re not just passive population under military occupation. They have resisted the Israeli occupation in many different ways. And the Israeli government initially thought that their military superiority will allow them to continue to focus their struggle against Arab states. Against Syria, against Egypt, against Jordan. And for that they need the best airplanes and tanks, and so on.

What they didn’t quite anticipate and didn’t quite understand is that that era is now over, and now they’re going to be full-time employed in controlling a civilian population, running after children n alleys of the narrow streets of Nablus or Gaza, making massive arrests of civilians, using weapons against unarmed protesters. That’s what the Israeli military is all about today. This is what they are experts at. They haven’t fought a real war in 45 years, a conventional war. And that transformed everything about the Israeli military. And this is really where the privatization comes in, because the commanders of the Israeli army used to be the living, breathing heroes of Israeli culture.

MARC STEINER: Because of the wars they fought.

SHIR HEVER: Because of the wars they fought. It used to be often said that Israel is not a state with an army, but rather an army with a state; that the minister of defense is a more important position than the prime minister, because when the Army says something, you cannot contradict it. The army always has the final say. And those larger than life heroes, like Moshe Dayan, who was associated with the victory of ’67, these people used their military credentials and their glory from the wars to also say their opinion on civilian matters; what the education system should look like.

But suddenly you have all these generals who don’t really have any war credentials. They’ve never been in danger. They attained their experience fighting civilians, repressing people, torturing people, arresting people. And there is no glory in that. And so they start to lose face, also in the eyes of the Israeli public. The Israeli public feels that this is humiliating when Palestinians are able to have some kind of successful resistance. When Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old girl, slaps an Israeli soldier in the face- the soldier is armed, but because there are so many cameras the soldier decides not to shoot her. And the Israeli army was, the Israeli public was furious, furious at the army.

MARC STEINER: Because they didn’t shoot her.

SHIR HEVER: Because they didn’t shoot her. But of course, it doesn’t take a war hero to shoot a 16-year-old girl. And that’s where you see the soldiers at an impasse. They don’t know what to do anymore. And they cannot become the leaders of the state as they used to. You don’t see as many ministers and prime ministers who were former generals or mayors. What you see now is that these people, if they have any chance of a second career after their military service, it’s usually in the arms industry, or in the security industry. And so they start up their own companies, and that’s where privatization comes into the picture.

MARC STEINER: So how did this, talk about the transition that has taken place since 1967 and after the ’73 war, in terms of privatization, which is the last major war they fought. We can talk a bit about Lebanon early ’80s when that war took place, but it wasn’t as massive as the war in ’73. So what was that transition like? What is, how has, materially, the privatization occurred? I think the key year of that is 1993, because then you have one of Israel’s most glorious generals, Yitzhak Rabin, being prime minister of Israel, saying, I don’t want my army to be chasing children down alleys and making arrests. I want the soldiers to train for war, and somebody else has to do the dirty business for us. And he famously said to his own cabinet, we need somebody to take care of things without the intervention of human rights organizations and without the Supreme Court.

And so Rabin, with this in mind, engages with the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, to start negotiating some kind of Palestinian autonomy and he makes an agreement with Yasser Arafat that the Palestinian Authority will have security operations. Not to make the Palestinians secure, but to make Israelis secure from Palestinians. And that’s Yasser Arafat’s job and the Palestinian Authority’s job, is to make these arrests. And you could see that the same checkpoints that used to be manned by Israeli soldiers are now still operating, but it’s Palestinian police operating them. And still people are breaking into homes and making arrests in the middle of the night. But it’s Palestinian police doing that.

And just look at the number of prisoners in Israeli jails. The number was about 11,000 in 1993. Then the Oslo process starts, the Oslo agreements come into effect, and the number dropped to 6000. Where are the other 5000? In Palestinian prisons. So that’s, that is what I call privatization of security.

But of course at this point I have to say something, because the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat didn’t plan on this happening this way. I don’t think that Yasser Arafat was saying to himself, oh jolly, how I want to be a contractor for the Israeli occupation. They said, OK, this is our path to independence. We have to do this for a couple of years. But according to the Oslo Agreements, 1999 we will have a permanent agreement, which means an independent Palestinian state. And then we can make our own rules and we can take care of our own security. But that never happened.

MARC STEINER: But you also write- the privatization also has to do with the dismantling of the industrial complex inside of Israel that’s tied to this, and private companies and businesses buying the Israeli military industry, as well as serving as security. Is that all part of this as well.

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. Well, part of it is when you start to convince the Israeli government to give jobs and to give contracts to these retired generals who started private companies, you start to change the whole structure of the military industrial complex. And it’s no longer part of the state which is intended to promote the ideological long term policies or strategies of the government. It becomes a for-profit industry. And when it’s for-profit, then it’s a whole different set of considerations. And when you, when the customers of Israeli companies want to know what can you offer us that we cannot buy elsewhere- there are other countries that export weapons all over the world. Israel is not the biggest weapons exporter. Right now it’s about number 10, actually, but at its peak it was number five. Which is, which is a lot for such a small country. But still, the United States sells more weapons than all the other countries combined.

But when customers say to Israel, what can you do that others cannot? Then they say we have an expertise, because we have experience. But our experience is not in fighting wars. Our experience is in controlling civilian populations. So that changes the whole structure. And in fact, the Israeli military industry is no longer famous for things like the Uzi rifle, which-.

MARC STEINER: One of the most famous weapons in world history.

SHIR HEVER: Well, maybe after the Kalashnikov. But yeah, OK.

MARC STEINER: Kalashnikov, that’s right. Absolutely. The AK-47’s much more famous than the Uzi. And probably a better weapon, but that’s not the point.

SHIR HEVER: Yes. Well, these weapons were actually facing each other in the war of ’73 and the Kalashnikov was superior in every way. That’s-.

MARC STEINER: Same thing happened in Vietnam.

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. Yes. And so, so- but the Uzi is no longer produced in Israel at all. Israeli companies don’t make it anymore. Instead they’re making drones, and they’re making surveillance equipment, and they’re making homeland security products. And so this is how things change. And one of the biggest Israeli arms companies decided that they will make more money if they move to Wall Street and be traded on the Nasdaq, and sell technology that President Trump can use to build a wall with Mexico. And so after Trump was elected, their stock price skyrocketed.

MARC STEINER: So as my mother would say, we used to say, the thought plickens. So the growth of this, I mean, there’s a lot of juxtapositions here. I was looking at the book, and if we had another hour or two I would get into a lot deeper things here. But it seems that you have the desocialization, in terms of socialism, of the industrial base of Israel around this weapons industry, being mostly state-owned at one point, or state-controlled. The Palestinian occupation and the relation with the Palestinian Authority changed the nature of security in Israel. Changed the nature of the military in Israel. Which changes the nature of the Israeli state in its relations with the world. So when does this play itself out? I mean, how does this roll out on the world stage in the next four or five, six, ten years on the world stage?

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. I think there was a stage after September 11, which coincided with the Second Intifada in Israel-Palestine where the Israeli companies started to talk about the lab; seeing the Palestinian territory as the lab for producing technology for repression. And they, and that is when Israel really started to to reach this peak position of the fifth-biggest arms exporter in the world in the early 2000s, because they became the capital of the homeland security sector of the world. Even though the US was the biggest exporter of weapons, but Homeland Security was an Israeli brand.

MARC STEINER: And still growing.

SHIR HEVER: In the early 2000s, yes. So it does play on the world stage, because you start to see these Homeland Security products being adopted by countries like India in Kashmir; adopted by Brazil in the favelas; they’re being adopted in East Europe along the border with Russia. And they’re also adopted in the United States. And the United States takes these technologies to Iraq, to Afghanistan-.

MARC STEINER: And to our inner cities.

SHIR HEVER: Yes. Absolutely. And then you see U.S. police forces go into Israel to have training courses in security, in counterterrorism. But what they learn in these courses is how you see civilians as targets; as when you look at somebody you look at that person as a potential terrorist. And of course these courses play a very big role in the rise of police violence in the United States, and the use of live ammunition in cases where were a simple arrest would suffice, or even, or even less than that. So the militarization of police of the United States is also a result of those courses that Israeli companies are providing. So this plays out in the world stage.

But let me maybe jump a little bit ahead, and say that let’s look what happened since 2014; 2014, when Israel invaded Gaza and killed over 2000 Palestinians was where the Palestinians continue to resist. And the Israeli military and technological superiority didn’t succeed in deterring Palestinians. They were dying and getting injured in large numbers, but they didn’t give up. And the Israelis were very frustrated by that. The invasion of Gaza lasted 51 days. During those 51 days, the Israeli economy suffered greatly. Of course, the Palestinians suffered more. But tourism stopped.

And so this means the Israeli arms companies started to have problems selling their equipment, because their customers in India, in Brazil, in Poland and elsewhere were saying, why would we buy this technology if it doesn’t fulfill the very basic promise of ending resistance? Palestinians are still resisting. And they are still resisting today. So actually, from 2014 and on we see a gradual decline in the arms exports of Israeli companies.

MARC STEINER: So you kind of go through the book here, towards the end of the book you begin to almost in conclusion take a semi-optimistic note. I wouldn’t call it a really optimistic note, but a semi-optimistic note. How is that possible?

SHIR HEVER: The key is the Israeli security elite, this group of generals that have been disgraced and lost face. They used to run this country in a very organized and rational way. They were very effective in developing strategies of repression against Palestinians. But they’ve lost their ability to influence Israeli politics. Again and again they come into conflict with the Israeli populist right. This populist right, the Israeli version of the, of the Bannons and Trumps and Boltons, are people who don’t really want to make long-term plans and strategies. They want to have victories now. They want to have victories of honor and prestige. And the result of that is that they play into the hands of the Palestinian resistance organizations, which are able to predict their behavior.

And the Great March of Return in Gaza is a very good example of that. Palestinians knew exactly what’s going to happen and how they can get into the international attention: With a nonviolent march towards the fence surrounding Gaza, and get public attention. And the Israeli military immediately fell into disarray and to problems of discipline, because the officers were saying, you have to use restraint. Don’t use lethal force. But the soldiers said, if we use restraint, we feel humiliated. Why should we recognize the right of Palestinians to live? We want to use lethal force. And the Israeli government is very worried that they don’t control the Army anymore.

And that makes me optimistic, because when the Israeli army is transformed into a mob, into a raging mob; when the Israeli soldiers become vigilantes that decide they make their own orders and shoot whoever they want, of course the violence is terrifying, but it’s not as effective. And you cannot control another population with a mob. You don’t have strategy, you don’t control the territory and the population anymore. And so the Israeli populist right is actually fighting a losing war against the Palestinians, who become more and more organized. They know what they want, and they march towards their freedom. And the Israelis are just fighting a losing battle, trying to delay the inevitable end.

MARC STEINER: So you might call it a dystopian optimism.

SHIR HEVER: But I think we’ve seen that happen in other places as well. We’ve seen that, because Israel-Palestine is a colonial situation, and colonialism always collapses upon itself eventually. And it could collapse in a very bad way like it did in places like Algeria, where eventually the resistance forces rely on violence so much that even after they gain their freedom the violence continues. But it could also be the example of South Africa, where the resisting forces actually focus on the nonviolent resistance as much as possible. There’s always violence. And there was in South Africa. But when the ruling class, or the ruling parties, lose their ability to control the situation, they have no choice but to turn to democracy in order to preserve their minority rights. And then you can really have a political solution rather than a military solution. And that is not something I call dystopian.

MARC STEINER: And I don’t either. That’s what I wanted to get to before we conclude this, because I want to make sure the optimistic look, it’s really an important one that is wrapped up in the frightening realities that Israel and Palestinians face, and the Palestinians face.

We’ve been here talking with Shir Hever, who is a correspondent for The Real News Network. He’s based in Heidelberg, Germany, and we’re lucky that he’s Baltimore with us and could do this face-to-face, rather than by Skype. His book is The Privatization of Israeli Security. Really well worth the read, really good writer. And you’ll enjoy this book as I’ve enjoyed reading it and enjoyed this conversation. And Shir, good to see you.

SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us.