Antony Loewenstein, The Palestine Laboratory. How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, Scribe, 2023.
“War is hell but clearly it is good for business.”
– Former chief lobbyist for pro-Israel US lobby group, AIPAC
Antony Loewenstein’s new book The Palestine Laboratory is a forensic account of Israel’s role in creating and distributing lethal weaponry and surveillance technology. He details how companies use the occupation of Palestine as a development lab, a testing ground, and a sales pitch for their deadly products. Loewenstein strips away the ideological trimmings that are used to hide Israel’s true nature in mainstream discourse. He shows the reader that underneath all the talk of a “democracy in the Middle East” lies a brutal apartheid state which provides inspiration and arms to seemingly every despot under the sun. It’s a safe bet, it turns out, that wherever you find a dictatorial, oppressive regime, Israel is probably selling them weapons. And it’s not only weapons. The book describes the sickening developments in surveillance that Israel has sold to the world, with companies like NSO and Black Cube creating tools to access the most intimate details of people’s lives through their phones.
Israel’s existence is predicated on military domination over the Palestinian population. This has been the case since its founding in 1948. A stable and ever growing supply of weaponry has been key to maintaining and extending that dominance. From the 1930s, Zionists were building up an arsenal in Palestine. After 1939, Britain began military training for tens of thousands of Jews there. West German reparations from 1952 gave the fledgling Israeli state the investment to begin a weapons industry in earnest, and by the mid-1950s Israel’s government-owned firms were selling weapons to other nations.
The modus operandi was, in Loewenstein’s words, “selling weapons to anybody who wants them” (p.17). Privately owned companies developed over the course of the next decade. Elbit systems, one of the most prominent firms, was founded in 1966, the year before the Six-Day War. By 1986, Thomas Friedman could write in the New York Times that “Israel, with only 4 million people, has become one of the top ten arms exporters in the world and Israeli businessmen are among the world’s leading arms merchants” (p.26). The industry has expanded to over three hundred multinational companies and six thousand startups that employ hundreds of thousands of people. Israeli firms lead the field in invasive surveillance tech. The most famous example is cyber firm NSO Group, which developed the Pegasus phone-hacking software. Use of Pegasus is now nearly ubiquitous among governments worldwide. Countless journalists have ended up dead after it was used to hack their phones. The governments of India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Hungary and Morocco have all used it against critics or opposition politicians. Spanish authorities used it to spy on Catalan pro-independence politicians. Phone-hacking software built by Cellebrite, another Israeli cyber firm, was sold to Vladimir Putin’s regime and has been used for years on dissidents.
Occupied Palestine is the perfect context in which to perfect murderous technology. Arms companies have an immediate field they can use to test their wares. Loewenstein documents how the recent “Great March of Return”, which gave hope to millions of supporters of Palestine, was used for this purpose. From 2018–19, thousands of Palestinians protested daily along Gaza’s border, demanding the end of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the right to return to the homes and land stolen from them. For Israel, it became “a lab and a showroom” (p.77). The state tested new weaponry on the march, including drone technology like the “Sea of Tears”, which deployed tear gas and “skunk water”, a foul-smelling liquid emitted from a water cannon. Drones were also used to transmit messages to protesters, including a message in Hebrew telling Jewish supporters not to “stand with the enemy”.
The occupation also serves as a sales pitch. Former South African politician Andrew Feinstein recounted to Loewenstein his experience of attending the Paris Air Show in 2009. In a luxury hotel, Israel’s biggest weapons company, Elbit Systems, displayed a video of a target being assassinated by drone strike during a military operation in the occupied territories. As the video played, young saleswomen enthusiastically explained the technology to the crowd of generals and procurement officers. Feinstein later looked into the strike and discovered that the events depicted in the video had killed innocent Palestinians, including children. A minor detail. Each of the most deadly events in recent Palestinian history have been used as the equivalent of an expo. Weaponry used in the 2014 Gaza war was profiled (ie advertised) in international and domestic media, including bombs, tank shells and drones. Vladimir Putin rearmed Russia’s surveillance system with Israeli drones, tried and tested in Gaza. These were used in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s counter-revolutionary war.
“I don’t care what the Gentiles do with the arms. The main thing is that the Jews profit.”
– Israeli adviser in Guatemala from the 1980s.
Loewenstein begins with an account of the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile. The event is burned into the memory of the left because of the hopes held by the Chilean working class in the socialist government of Salvador Allende, the advances in their consciousness and organisation as they fought against the CIA-backed coup, and the terror that the military dictatorship brought in its triumph. Thousands of socialists, communists and anarchists were tortured and killed by Pinochet’s men in Estadio Chile. Loewenstein describes the life of Daniel, a man whose family fled to Israel after the coup. He recounts Daniel’s horror upon discovering that Israel had helped the Pinochet dictatorship to rule, arming it with sophisticated weapons including missiles, tanks, and aircraft. Loewenstein quotes Eitan Kalinsky, sent to Chile in 1989 by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Kalinksy attended a protest against Pinochet and watched streams of colour-changing water which pushed back the marchers and broke shop windows. The spray came from water cannons mounted on vehicles. “Look, it says Hakibbutz Haartzi Hashomer Hatzair,” said a Hashomer Hatzair envoy watching with him. “We all knew it was made in Kibbutz Beit Alfa [in Northern Israel],” Kalinksy wrote.
Israel’s backing for the Pinochet junta is part of a long-term pattern. The regime has developed and tested its weapons on Palestinians, and then sold them to despots across the world who seek to carry out similar terror on their own populations. Loewenstein argues that 1967 marked an important turning point in Israel’s international relationships. “Before the Six Day War,” he argues, “Israeli policy was not noble but at least gave the rhetorical impression of (sometimes) opposing repression” (p. 32). After the Six Day War, Israel’s relationships with right-wing despots strengthened, multiplied and became more public. Israel has long been referred to as America’s watchdog in the Middle East, and maintains a close relationship with the United States, while putting its own interests first. By partnering with Israel, including in more ordinary trade, regimes not only acquire arms, but hope to build closer ties with Washington.
Indonesia is a good example. In 1967, the Suharto regime took power of the country following a mass slaughter of communists and anyone who could be smeared as such. Half a million people were murdered. Israel’s national intelligence agency Mossad began a close trade relationship with the new regime, involving beef, corn, oil and cotton production. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Israel shipped weapons including Uzi submachine guns and hand grenades to the Hutu regime, which killed around 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days. Israel has armed the repressive South Sudanese regime, and sold military equipment to the genocidal junta in Myanmar until at least 2018.
Yet Israel’s favourite dictators tend to be based in Latin America. Israel provided weapons and advice to US-backed right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. Following a CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, the country had a succession of repressive right-wing governments. Between 1960 and 1996, roughly 200,000 people were killed in a civil war. Israel had a particularly close relationship with Guatemalan President Efrain Ríos Montt, who killed up to 75,000 people during his rule from 1982 to 1983. Israeli military advisors assisted him in his coup, and Ríos himself attributed part of his success to the fact that his soldiers were trained by the Israelis (p.40).
Today, Israel continues to assist and inspire right-wing despots. The regime of Narendra Modi in India has used Israel’s occupation of Palestine as an example in its own occupation of Kashmir. In 2019, India’s consul general in New York, Sandeep Chakravorty, said: “we already have a model in the world… If the Israeli people can do it, we can also do it” (p.126). And it goes beyond just inspiration. India was Israel’s biggest weapons export market from 2015 to 2020, filling 43 percent of total sales. Lowenstein rightly argues that the two countries are linked by a mutual embrace of ethno-nationalism, and a material relationship built on defence exchange.
Israel has created one of the world’s biggest ongoing refugee crises by carrying out mass expulsions of Palestinians from their homes and by turning Palestine into a war zone. But it has also played an important role in the militarisation of the European Union’s borders. In 2020, the EU announced US$91 million in partnerships with Israeli weapons firms to run a drone presence over the Mediterranean. The drones are part of the rapidly expanding web of Frontex, the EU agency responsible for keeping refugees out. According to Loewenstein, Frontex is alerted to the presence of refugee boats by Israeli drones. It then often feeds the coordinates to the Libyan coastguard, known for being the most brutal and inhumane of all of the national coastguards, to intercept.
Between 2014 and publication of Loewenstein’s book, 22,784 people died in the Mediterranean. Frontex has grown from having 45 employees in 2005 to over 2,000 today. It has proposed a staff of 10,000 by 2027, and met with 108 defence companies including Israeli firms 17 times between 2017 and 2019. Israeli surveillance firm Cellebrite provides Frontex with technology to spy on asylum seekers by getting into their smartphones, and Greece and Cyprus have conducted naval drills in the Mediterranean with Israel. In 2021, the Guardian reported that Services Australia had paid A$1.2 million to Cellebrite to obtain data from the phones of welfare recipients.
Given what comes before, Loewenstein’s conclusion seems somewhat incongruous. He places at least a vague hope in court cases, the UN and hypothetical Israeli liberal values in finding a solution to the crisis in Occupied Palestine. He writes:
Israel and its supporters must make a choice between their commitment to Zionism and adherence to liberal values. It’s impossible to continue to believe in both, considering the state of apartheid across both Israel and Palestine. (p.214)
Israel has never adhered to liberal values. The Zionism of the state has been based upon violent barbarism since its inception. But this final chapter is offset by the scathing criticism which fills the rest of the book, which accurately presents a picture of a despotic, sprawling arms industry working hand in glove with the Israeli state, the US, the European Union, and a plethora of dictatorships and despots.
Loewenstein writes that “The need for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace has long been obvious, but mostly dismissed as unrealistic by opponents” (p.211). But a two-state solution, which envisages Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting in peace, is a fantasy. It always has been. The various US-sponsored so-called peace processes carried out over decades have made this clear. From the Camp David Accords of 1978 to the Oslo Accords which concluded in 1995, all of the various “peace” schemes have only bolstered Israel’s power.
Recent developments make the utopianism of this position even clearer. Israel is currently defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people rather than of its citizens, leaving its non-Jewish residents to sit at the back of the bus. This is just one manifestation of a process whereby hard and far-right politics increasingly dominate every aspect of official Israeli society. The right has triumphed in all five elections between 2019 and 2022, with parties competing over who could promise the most bombings and annexations. The current Israeli government is the most right-wing in history, one in which open fascists participate alongside religious zealots and other hard-right figures. Loewenstein aptly describes Netanyahu’s re-election in 2022 as “the equivalent of the KKK breaking down the door brandishing an assault weapon”(p.211). The anti-democratic judicial reform passed into law in July, which gives the government even more freedom to expand settlements, is just the latest expression of the natural trajectory of a state based on dispossession and domination.
Loewenstein can hardly be blamed for not offering a clearer path forward. The situation is desperate. The Arab states are increasingly abandoning even feigned backing for Palestine, and there hasn’t been a mass revival of civil resistance since the 2021 Unity Intifada. Despite this, the widespread protests and nationwide strike of the Unity Intifada show the possibility for mass resistance, as did the revolutions that swept the region in 2011 and 2019.
Despite this minor criticism, Loewenstein’s book is an important weapon in the struggle against Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and indeed the very existence of Israel as an ethno-nationalist state. It should be read by all those with an interest in the struggle for justice and the debauched dealings of international weapons companies.
European Parliament 2019, Press release: “EU Border and Coast Guard Agency: 10 000 operational staff by 2027”, 28 March. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20190327IPR33413/eu-border-and-coast-guard-agency-10-000-operational-staff-by-2027
Fox, Vashti 2020, The Story of Palestine, Red Flag Books.
Taylor, Josh 2021, “Services Australia pays $1.2m for controversial spyware for fraud investigations”, The Guardian, 14 October. https://amp.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/oct/14/services-australia-pays-12m-for-controversial-spyware-for-investigations