Palestine is a laboratory for the global arms trade

Israel’s continued violent occupation of Palestine fuels war profiteering. Its arms manufacturers benefit and the country holds an established position as an authority on repressive policing.

Israel’s recent bombing of Gaza left at least 248 Palestinians dead. The Israeli military said its air strikes were in retaliation for Hamas firing rockets that killed 12 people in Israel. The casualties in Gaza, caused by tactics such as dropping bombs on apartment buildings, were overwhelmingly civilians. 

There is a stark asymmetry in the violence, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries attacking a dense urban environment. 

Israel justifies using destructive weapons on crowded residential and commercial buildings by claiming that Hamas, which governs the crowded Gaza Strip, uses people as human shields. This cynically omits how the 1.6 million people living there have nowhere to run as the Israeli occupation controls their borders.

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As journalist Gideon Levy wrote in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) respond to political violence from Hamas with excessive and sadistic overreaction. Israeli forces killed 2 310 Palestinians during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, with research by the United Nations showing that at least two-thirds were civilians, and nearly 200 people protesting against the continued occupation and dispossession of Palestine during the Great March of Return in 2018.

Israel claims to be acting in self-defence, while violently denying basic autonomy and humanity to Palestinians.

Lucrative occupation 

As the main client state of the United States in the Middle East, Israel is armed to the teeth with American weapons. Internally, politics under Benjamin Netanyahu* continues to become increasingly right-wing and extremist, providing an ideological justification for a brutal occupation. As Israeli Knesset member Osef Cassiff said recently, Netanyahu is a “pyromaniac psychopath” who is starting a war to distract attention from the serious corruption charges he currently faces. 

But the occupation has itself become a lucrative goldmine for Israeli arms and military technology manufacturers. Despite being a relatively small country, Israel is now the world’s seventh-largest arms dealer. Weapons systems and tactics developed and tested against Palestine and neighbouring countries are exported throughout the world.

It is the largest supplier of arms to India and its brutal occupation of Kashmir. According to information uncovered by Israeli human rights activists, it has armed security forces involved in ethnic cleansing in Serbia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

This trade is not new. In the past, Israeli security forces trained and traded with repressive regimes in apartheid South Africa, Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The South African police continue to use the R5 assault rifle modelled on the Israeli Galil gun against protesters, including at the 2012 Marikana massacre.

20 May 2021: People inspect the rubble of a residential building hit by Israeli air strikes in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. (Photograph by Mohammed Zaanoun/ Getty Images)

In more recent years, the continued occupation has allowed the Israeli state to market itself as an expert in suppressing political protest and angry civilians. Police officials from US cities such as Ferguson made trips to research repressive policing in Israel. During the Ferguson uprising in 2014, police officers responded to protests with military equipment. According to Jeff Halper, the author of War Against the People: Israel, Palestine and Global Pacification, “people in Ferguson have been ‘Palestinianised’”. In turn, Israel regularly uses US-made tear gas against protesters in Gaza. 

The occupation allows Israeli companies to develop and test high-tech forms of political control and population suppression. As the Yotam Feldman-directed documentary The Lab (2013) shows, occupied Palestine is not just an open-air prison for its inhabitants but also a laboratory for state violence against civilians globally. 

Feldman interviewed people such as former Israeli industry minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who said brazenly: “If Israel sells weapons, they have been tested, tried out. We can say, ‘We’ve used this for 10 years, 15 years.’”

War against civilians 

The Palestinian experience highlights how contemporary warfare is overwhelmingly targeted at civilian populations. War is often associated with conflicts between state militaries, but most victims of fighting are unarmed and not wearing uniforms. As scholar Mary Kaldor has shown, at the beginning of the 20th century, 85% of casualties in war were soldiers. By the late 1990s, 80% of casualties were civilians, along with millions of refugees displaced by conflict.

The global arms trade has fuelled the butchery of unarmed women, men and children. The British subjugation of Africa was accomplished through the barrel of the Maxim machine gun, which allowed small groups of settlers to decimate resistance from colonised people.

Colonial bloodshed returned to Europe in the apocalyptic conflicts of World War I and II. Arms dealers such as Basil Zaharoff, whose notoriety for selling to all sides in conflicts earned him the moniker Merchant of Death, enabled these wars.

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Private interests continued to fuel wars and squander resources on building the machinery of death after 1945. Along with the nuclear arms race, the Cold War saw millions of civilians die in Korea and Vietnam from bombs and small arms. 

The profiteering of US arms manufacturers was so brazen that in 1961, then US president Dwight Einsenhower – hardly a pacifist or radical himself – gave a speech in which he warned that a new “military-industrial complex” had emerged, which thrived off perpetual war.

As the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s, the arms industry repurposed itself for a new era of open-ended conflicts. These were supposedly a new kind of conflict in which governments fought against threats such as drug cartels – the “war on drugs” – and religious extremists. These new wars were often defended as necessary to the defence of liberal values and human life, but in practice they increased violence against and the control of civilian populations. 

23 May 2021: An aerial view of destroyed residential buildings in Beit Hanoun after 11 days of Israeli air strikes. (Photograph by Ali Jadallah/ Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Al-Qaeda attacks of 2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” were a commercial boom for arms manufacturers and private militaries, but disastrous for civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel was able to capitalise on these occupations by selling itself as a world-class expert in counter-insurgency and urban pacification. 

So called “small wars” have proliferated in the 21st century, as the authorities respond to social breakdown and a lack of political legitimacy with militarised police and high-tech weapons systems.

From Gaza to Ferguson to Durban, the tactics and weapons used are often strikingly similar. But rather than making the world safer or more free, the endless wars on “drugs” and “terror” have benefitted militaries and private capital while creating misery and death for civilians caught in the line of fire.

‘Racialised imperialism and war profiteering’

As activist-scholars such as Angela Davis and Robin DG Kelley have noted, there is a profound link between the Black Lives Matter and anti-police violence movement and the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. This is more than just a case of different populations being repressed with similar methods and weapons. Instead, throughout the world, the security state is animated by the same logic of racialised imperialism and war profiteering.

As Kelley writes in an essay on political violence: “By recognising the US and Israeli security states not as exceptional but as part of a global, neoliberal racial regime firmly rooted in the history of settler colonialism, we see some revealing parallels and relationships. Like Operation Ghetto Storm, or Brazil’s Pacifying Police Units waging war on poor Black favela residents, the consequences for the ruled ought not to be measured merely by the destructive force of American-made F-15s, cluster bombs and white phosphorous, but also by the everyday routine of occupation: unemployment, poverty, insecurity, precarity, illegal settlements, state-sanctioned theft of water and land, destruction of local economies and agriculture, a racially defined security regime, the effects of permanent refugee existence.” 

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The globalisation of repression highlights the urgent need for international solidarity with occupied Palestine. The IDF’s sadistic violence has inspired protests and actions around the world. In the United Kingdom, protesters occupied a drone factory that an Israeli company owns in a direct attempt to prevent the production and distribution of the machinery of death. 

Such actions are an inspiring challenge to the security-industrial complex, and its endless pursuit of profit from war and disaster.

*Naftali Bennett has become the prime minister of Israel since the time of writing.

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