Author Jeff Halper says the usual explanations of Israel’s behavior didn’t make sense to him.
In June, Israelis and Palestinians marked the 48th anniversary of the Six Day War, and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that began in its aftermath. President Obama has admitted that he doesn’t expect to see an end to the occupation by the time he leaves office in January 2017—it will likely crawl past its 50th anniversary later that year without a chance of ending.
Since 1967, Israel has violated numerous international laws with its settlement of the West Bank, regular disproportionate military incursions into Gaza and frequent extrajudicial killings. American-Israeli scholar and activist Jeff Halper, co-founder of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, sought to discover the source of Israel’s seeming immunity. He focused on Israel’s arms trade, and argues that it was “parlaying its military prowess into political clout,” as he writes in a book entitled War Against The People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification. Halper spoke with In These Times recently about the book.
In your book War Against The People, you explore the cause of Israel’s international immunity, examining its exportation of arms and “Matrix of Control.” How does Israel get away with it?
The usual explanations didn’t really make sense to me. The pro-Israel lobby may have an impact in the States, but it certainly doesn’t run American foreign policy and doesn’t have anything to do with China, or India, or Nigeria, or other countries that have come to support Israel over the years. Christian Zionists like Sarah Palin don’t run the world. And that wouldn’t explain Europe and its support for Israel either. Guilt over the Holocaust? That might work in Germany, to some degree, but that doesn’t make any difference in the United States.
Henry Kissinger used to say that “countries don’t have friends, they have interests.” I was looking for the interest here, why the international community gives their uncritical support to Israel—even though what Israel’s doing in the Occupied Territories violates those countries’ own foreign policies. They’re all against the occupation, they’re all for a two-state solution, they’re all for international law and human rights. And yet….
“What’s going on?” That was really the question. And what I came to was the military-security-policing elements. The quid pro quo is that Israel serves elites. The political, military and economic elites, wherever they are in the world—from the Global North through the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries and down into the Global South. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, you can get support from Israel basically for staying in power. And the quid pro quo is that while we might criticize you, we’ll let you keep the occupation.
You place all of this—Israel, Palestine, security politics—in the framework of an international capitalist system. Explain that analytical framework, and why you decided to use it.
There’s two levels here. You look at every country—China-Israel, India-Israel, the U.S.-Israel, Brazil-Israel, Equatorial Guinea-Israel—and you can find a reason why that country supports Israel, and the niche Israel fills for it in exchange. Israel has to be very clever and very sharp in terms of identifying niches.
What is the niche in the American system that Israel fills? For example, drones and other high-tech components for weapons systems. What does Europe need? What does China need, or India? Israel generalizes Palestine. It creates what I call “Global Palestine,” the Palestinization of weapons of security in order to meet the specific needs of each country or each set of hegemons that they’re serving.
Beyond that, you have the shift from inter-state warfare like World War Two to what we have today which is more securocratic wars – wars among the people, or as I say in my book, wars against the people. Against refugees, against poor people, against Black Lives Matter, against the Occupy Movement. War today is really policing, and policing is really a kind of class war. You can’t understand the context, or why there is conflict, and who’s fighting who, and what forms wars are taking, unless you put it within the capitalist world-systems context. It’s a capitalist world-system that we live in that’s generating these conflicts. It’s under tremendous crisis, because of climate change, population movements, the need for scarce resources, and so on. On one level, you understand the quid pro quo between Israel and each set of elites, but the bigger system that Israel’s serving is really the capitalist world-system, and Israel is tuned into that.
You mentioned Global Palestinization. Explain this idea and talk about how it relates to governmental responses to progressive struggles in the West surrounding race and Syrian refugees, among other issues.
Today the capitalist elites—the corporations, the governments that serve them, the militaries that serve them—are under tremendous stress. Capitalism has always been an expanding system, spreading into new markets, new frontiers. But now, it’s captured the entire world. There are no new markets, there are no new places, so the capitalist system has started feeding off itself. The absolute power that it has, with no constraining opposition, means that all resources are available to it. It can waste as much as it wants to.
That creates tremendous resistance. The income disparities, the poverty, even concepts like surplus humanity. The corporations have basically declared two thirds of humanity is surplus. They’ll never be educated, they’ll never be productive, and the worst sin is they’ll never be consumers. The question is, how do we extract the resources on which they’re sitting, but exclude them from the system? And how do we protect capital flow, how do we protect our very lavish lifestyles in the Global North, and keep control of the Global South? Especially since the Global South is penetrating into the Global North – you have waves of migration like Syrian refugees, you have the rise of Black Lives Matter, representing the increasing disenfranchisement of poor people. Even among the middle classes that are being excluded, there are people who are saying “Look, this system isn’t working, and it’s not sustainable,” like the Occupy movement.
Israel-Palestine is the microcosm of the larger world. What Israel’s doing to the Palestinians not only reflects what the Global North is doing to the Global South, but also reflects the kind of war that capitalism is having to fight now. That’s what makes Israel so relevant to the Global North. The wars that are being fought in Syria, or the wars being fought against poor people in the States aren’t wars that F-35s or nuclear submarines are any use for. They’ve got these huge arsenals, but when they’re actually going to fight wars among the people, Israel becomes the go-to place. They have the weaponry, the tactics, the surveillance systems and the security systems that are more relevant for the types of capitalist wars of repression that are being fought today than the big systems that the Pentagon has. That’s what I mean by globalizing Palestine.
War Against The People has detailed explanations of military terminology, processes and systems. You spoke with many former military and security officials to gather this material. What was it like to talk with officials as a scholar and activist?
I was most interested in talking to police people and security people, not military, because of how militarized and relevant policing is today. The problem with these officials is that they’re not critical. If you go into Barnes & Noble, the military history section is a huge section of the bookstore. You can get everything from Blackwater to the history of the Kalashnikov, the Delta forces to warrior police. But people who are writing them—with a few exceptions, like Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater and Dirty Wars and an editor at The Intercept—aren’t critical. These are guys that love the military.
Everybody that writes about capitalism knows the military plays a role. But we don’t know anything about it, and I include myself in that. I couldn’t tell you a rifle from a tank. I’m not interested in that—most of us on the Left aren’t. Our analysis trails off when we start to get into actual weapons systems and what militaries do.
This is why I wrote a lot about the technology, because I think it’s something we should be aware of. But at the same time, the military people that are writing about this aren’t critical and aren’t relating it to bigger political issues. I was trying to fill this gap, and also show that military, security, and police are all one thing today. They are tools of the capitalist system, but you have to understand how they’re used, and why they’re used, in order to create strategies of resistance.
When you wrote this book, the Iran Deal had not been finalized. However, you mention that while Israel often bucks U.S. commands, America often finds itself beholden to Israel. The Iran Deal is a clear divergence between the two on foreign policy. How does the deal illuminate this relationship?
Israel is the number two arms supplier to China. The United States is running naval exercises in the Pacific, and Israel is supplying its arch-rival. Israel has its own interests, it’s not simply a client state. It has its own interests and it pursues them in a very meaningful way.
Israel has gone through a number of hegemons that have given it protection that it served, from the Germans before World War I, to the British until 1948, to the French after 1948, until 1967, to the Americans since 1967. But Israel could easily jump ship if it sees the American star starting to fall, to China, or India, or the other BRICS countries starting to rise. You have these BRICS countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, as counter-hegemons. And you can add to those the MINT countries, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey.
Israel is super strong in every single one of those countries. While Israel presents itself as pro-American, in terms of its real interests, it’s covering its bases. And it’s very strong in all of the rivals to American-European hegemony in the world. You have to understand that Israel is pursuing its own interests.
The beauty of this kind of security politics is that it bypasses ideologies. For example, Israel and Saudi Arabia are super close. You could never explain that by normal international relations. But Israel can deliver against Iran, and the other Shiite foes to Saudi Arabia, and against forces of democracy in the Arab world—Israel does support conservative Arab regimes—the military and security bypass ideology. In that way, not only has it gotten away with the occupation for the past fifty years, but it’s a strategic ally of the United States. It does exercises with NATO, it’s a close military ally to China and India, and you’ll find it in every Global South country in the world. It’s been very effective at working with all the power blocs that exist in the world for its own interests.
You discuss the impressive technological and military capabilities of Israel. Given these capabilities, it looks like violent resistance is unlikely to succeed. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement is the best option for ending the occupation. Do you agree? And if so, how does BDS shape Israel’s security politics?
In response to your first point, yes, violent resistance by Palestinians provides a pretext for Israeli military aggression. Israel needs conflict. Netanyahu recently said, “We’ll always live under the sword.” Israel has to keep things quiet enough here that it doesn’t disrupt the international system and cause the United States or Europe to intervene. But on the other hand, it has to keep enough turmoil so that it can keep using the army and security forces as ways to develop and test weapons and surveillance systems.
In this particular context, however, BDS is very effective. It’s worrying Israel. I sometimes have a problem with the targets that have been taken—I don’t think SodaStream is exactly the best target. I would go for American communities involved in importing Israeli police tactics like Ferguson. In almost every part of the United States, the defense industry is very strong, developing everything from crowd control to weapons systems to surveillance systems with Israel. Israel works with Raytheon, Boeing, and many others. Those should be the targets—American targets that bring it home.
Overall, we’ve got to find ways to somehow combat this very militarized form of management that the entire capitalist system is imposing on us. They’re getting better and better at it, more totalizing at it. We’ve got to develop spaces of resistance. You could look at BDS as a certain space of resistance—now let’s see if we can broaden that. If they’re globalizing Palestine, let’s do our own globalizing of Palestine, from the point of view of BDS into other issues as well. The BDS campaign could certainly be a model for the Left beginning to resist other forms of oppression.