Israel: A laboratory for U.S. repression


This article is based on a talk that James Markin gave in Philadelphia on June 24. It has been updated to reflect developments in early July.

In order to understand the links between the United States and Israel you have to understand what Israel is—a settler-colonial regime based on the ideology of Zionism. Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and eventually became fixed on Palestine as a land where they sought to build a Jewish state.

This state was settler colonial in the sense that it was a colony created with the goal of replacing the indigenous Palestinian population with a new Jewish one. This was justified, in part, by pretending that Palestinians didn’t exist, a pretense most famously summed up in the slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” Through the 1930s, the Zionists began to build up their forces, purchasing land from absentee Arab landlords in Palestine and creating military and civil infrastructures.

Then, in 1948 with the backing of the UN, they unleashed their war against Palestine and announced the formation of the Israeli state, which managed to seize control over all of historic Palestine, excluding Gaza and the West Bank. This event became known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes. In a later war in 1967, known by Palestinians as the Naksa or setback, Israel succeeded in occupying both Gaza and the West Bank. Since then, the majority of Palestinians have either lived in exile abroad or under some form of Israeli rule. This has caused Israel to become a testing ground for technologies and techniques of repression as Israel struggles to tamp down on Palestinian popular resistance.

Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Naksa, the United States established very close military ties with the Zionist state, allowing it to become effectively a laboratory for the U.S. military. This alliance has created a very close bond between the U.S. and Israeli military industries. Currently, Israel is the #1 recipient of U.S. foreign military aid. It is also the site of some of the largest U.S. weapons stockpiles outside of North America, just in case the Israeli military needs access to U.S. munitions for an emergency. The IDF also holds a very privileged position among the U.S. client military forces. For example, it was the first in the world, outside of the United States, to be allowed to buy the F-35 Lightning fighter jet. It also was one of the few countries that was allowed to use U.S. military aid to buy weapons made by its own military industry. However, in 2016, President Obama amended the agreement, phasing out that permission and requiring Israel, a junior partner of imperialism, to buy U.S. weapons like other U.S. client states. This new policy forces Israel to effectively test out U.S. military equipment in the field against Palestinian resistance.

Police-exchange programs; Cop City

Police-exchange programs are another way that Israel functions as a laboratory for U.S. repression. These programs were exposed by the Jewish Voice for Peace report in 2018 titled “Deadly Exchange.” According to the report, between 2002 and 2018, thousands of cops participated in these programs. This included both physically traveling to Israel as well as attending seminars and conferences in the U.S. to learn from Israeli police. Such programs are always continually justified in the name of national security, which is a glimpse into their true purpose. In capitalist society, police are the arm of repression by the ruling class against the working class; stopping violent crime is just a side role they perform to justify their existence. By participating in police-exchange programs, U.S. police learn advanced repression techniques that Israel has honed in its oppression of the Palestinian people. The ultimate goal, of course, is to then use those techniques and technologies against the working class in the United States.

What often goes unspoken is that the exchanges go both ways. Israel also adopts techniques developed by police in the U.S. to oppress racial minorities to use against Palestinians. A clear example documented in the “Deadly Exchange” report is how, starting in the 1990s under Police Commissioner Yehuda Vilek, Israel has adopted techniques from the NYPD. The Israeli police particularly admired the notorious NYPD “stop and frisk” policy, which allowed officers to stop citizens on the street and interrogate them while searching for contraband as long as the police had a “reasonable suspicion” of wrongdoing. Research into the policy suggests that, most of the time, this “reasonable suspicion” ended up being nothing more than racial profiling. In 2016, Israel codified a similar policy into law, allowing police to “stop and frisk” based on reasonable suspicion alone. This is a clear example of how police exchange programs sharpen the repression apparatus of Israel as well as of the United States.

Possibly the most notorious of the U.S. police exchange programs is the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). As the movement to stop Cop City has pushed forward in Atlanta, many activists have drawn connections between the construction of Cop City and GILEE, which is based in the same city. The program is funded largely through private donations to Georgia State University but has received special legislative protections such as semi-immunity from FIA requests that make it unique for a GSU program.

Through GILEE, U.S. cops from all over the country can receive training from foreign police and militaries through seminars and briefings as well as traveling to Israel. Although the program is very secretive, an investigation by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) revealed that, among other gems, U.S. cops were taught to inspire fear in protesters by “racking” their guns [dramatically snapping back the slider as if getting ready to shoot] when they take them out of the holster. According to CAIR, this fear tactic has long been used against Palestinian protesters. In response to criticism of the program, GILEE has expanded its foreign partners to include countries beyond Israel such as Egypt and Uzbekistan; however these regimes have their own histories of police terror and violence that make this change anything but reassuring.

Both the police programs and the military industrial relationships between the U.S. and Israel allow repressive techniques and technology to be tested on Palestinians before they are used in the U.S. The Jewish Voice for Peace report gives one compelling example—skunk spray. This foul-smelling liquid was invented by an Israeli military company in the early 2000s and used heavily by Israeli forces against Palestinians. Nowadays, the American supplier of the spray, Mistral Security, sells it to U.S. police departments for use against “border crossings, correctional facilities, demonstrations and sit-ins.” However, the connections between the U.S. and Israeli repressive apparatuses can also backfire on the ruling class. Take, for example, the story of U.S.-manufactured tear gas, which has been long used against Palestinian protesters. During both the 2014 and 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, Palestinians used social media to offer protesters against police violence in the U.S. advice on how to deal with the gas grenades. This experience clearly shows the concrete benefits of linking up the struggles against state repression internationally.

Israelis attack Jenin

The struggle in Palestine against Zionist colonization is going through a critical moment as we speak. The historic main organ of Palestine struggle, the PLO, has become largely defunct since the Oslo Accords in 1993, leaving a vacuum in organization for Palestinian liberation both within Palestine and in the diaspora. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which was created during the Oslo Accords to govern over Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, has likewise entered into a sustained crisis. In 2006, after the ruling party, Fatah, lost the PA elections, the PA lost control over Gaza to the rival party, Hamas. Since then, a status quo emerged in which Israel carried out direct bombing campaigns against Hamas-ruled Gaza and relied on the PA to help it police the West Bank.

However, over the last two years, tired of the PA’s open collaboration with the forces of Israeli repression, new forces have emerged in the West Bank to challenge the PA, especially in the northern cities of Jenin and Nablus. One such group, the Lion’s Den, received mass popular support, despite only managing to kill one or two Israeli soldiers before most of its leaders were killed or arrested. While small new militia groups such as Lions Den were easy for Israel to defeat, they represent an inspiring new moment of mass rejection of the leadership of the PA by ordinary Palestinians, especially among the youth.

In response to this crisis of the PA, Israeli repression has become more and more aggressive in both the West Bank and Gaza. Last year, Israel put the city of Nablus under siege for months. This year, Israel unleashed another bombing campaign against Gaza in May. However, that was not enough for Israel. In early July it launched a bombing campaign on the small northern city of Jenin. This attack was the first bombing campaign in the West Bank since the second Intifada, 20 years ago. However, the bombing of Jenin was a prelude to an all-out attack on the city’s famous refugee camp, starting on July 3. Backed up by drone strikes, between 1000 and 2000 Israeli troops descended on the cramped refugee camp. They fought building to building against Palestinian militia forces, using armored bulldozers and explosives to make holes in walls and widen streets. When the smoke had cleared, at least 13 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were dead, hundreds of Palestinians were injured, and the camp was left in utter ruins. Those on the scene also reported that the IDF attacked medical infrastructure, including by launching tear gas grenades into the main hospital complex.

The attack on Jenin has only more severely damaged the reputation and standing of the PA. Ordinary Palestinians are furious at its complete inaction, leaving Jenin to be defended by largely teenage militia members.

While these militia groups are certainly brave and their struggle to defend Jenin against Israel is righteous, the existing formations are severely outmatched when they come up against the might of the Israeli military, backed by the United States. While the formation of independent militias like the Jenin Brigade and Lion’s Den might be inspiring because they represent both a break with the failed strategy of the PA leadership and the heroism of the Palestinian resistance, ultimately only mass organization of the Palestinian working class, supported by the broader Arab masses of the region, has the strength to defeat Israel and its imperialist patrons.

Now that the power and control of the PA has begun to collapse, it is time to turn to mass organization. The potential of this approach was demonstrated during the summer of 2021. That summer, the Palestinian population of “Israel Proper” launched a general strike alongside a mass popular uprising. This revolt threw Israel’s repressive apparatus into severe crisis. What is necessary is to build on that experience and rebuild a successor to the PLO that can organize mass uprisings across the West Bank, Gaza, and “Israel Proper” under one banner.

The working class in the United States cannot be aloof to this struggle. As has already been established, the United States is deeply complicit in the crimes of the Israeli state. The U.S. backs Israel to the hilt; after the attack on Jenin, the Biden administration declined to condemn the crimes against the Palestinian people, instead reiterating its support of “Israel’s right to defend itself.” This is why it is critical for the U.S. working class to support the Palestinian struggle; otherwise by default we would be complicit as well.

The primary international movement of solidarity with Palestinians has been focused on the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel since Palestinian civil society and labor organizations initiated it in 2005. U.S. workers must push for their unions to endorse the BDS call and refuse to do any work that aids the Israeli war machine. More concretely, workers in military industry and logistics should rally their coworkers to refuse to load up weapons for the use of the IDF. Outside of the workplace, it is also important to organize a mass fightback against the cop exchange programs that mutually reinforce the repressive power of the U.S. and Israeli police forces. Only by the power of international class solidarity can workers damage Israel’s ability to wage its war of obliteration against Palestine.

Photo: Residents begin to clean up Jenin after the pull-out of Israeli troops on July 5. (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

Leave a Reply