On March 5, Gov. Andrew Cuomo flew to Israel to show solidarity with Jews amidst an uptick in anti-Semitism in New York.
But the trip also doubled as the kick-off for a new project meant to bring Israel and New York closer together.
Inside the opulent King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Cuomo announced the creation of the New York-Israel Commission, an initiative to strengthen the already-robust ties between Israel and the state with the largest number of Jews in the United States.
A key part of the commission will focus on connecting New York law enforcement with Israeli security forces. Cuomo wasted no time in starting that initiative.
An hour after the King David press conference, the New York governor stood outside Jerusalem’s Old City police headquarters alongside Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, marveling at Israel’s ability to keep Jerusalem safe. He said Israeli security forces’ use of technology is “something that we can learn from,” and also said that he wanted New York law enforcement to learn from Israel about combating “lone wolf” terror threats.
The New York cops won’t be alone in learning from Israel. Since 2001, hundreds of American police officers have been flown to Israel, most on the dime of pro-Israel groups, to tour the country and speak with Israeli security forces about how they keep their country safe.
These police delegations, and Cuomo’s praise for the Israeli police, highlight how Israel is seen as a world leader in security. Because of this reputation, Israeli weapons and surveillance companies — a core part of the Israeli economy — have become well-known in far-flung countries. Such companies export billions of dollars worth of armaments and spy tools to virtually every region in the world.
But why are security companies in Israel, as opposed to any other country, so coveted?
“All of the Israeli companies would immediately answer the question: We have actual experience, and we have tested these weapons on human beings,” said Shir Hever, an Israeli researcher and author of the book The Political Economy of the Occupation.
June 5, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, a conflict in which Israel defeated Arab armies and captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — the occupied Palestinian territories — as well as the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights. While Israel has since withdrawn from the Sinai Peninsula, it remains the occupying power in parts of the Golan Heights and in all of the Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian territories have become a testing ground for new weapons and surveillance tactics which are then exported to other countries.
As the years of occupation ticked by, the Israeli army, border guard and police developed increasingly sophisticated ways to keep Palestinians in check. And Israel has cashed in on its expertise in occupation and policing. Israeli arms and surveillance companies are typically founded by combat and intelligence veterans who have expertise in maintaining Israel’s regime of control in the occupied Palestinian territories. After their military service — which is required for most Israelis at the age of 18 — many young veterans either form or join up with arms or spy companies, trading in on their army service in order to make huge profits by selling weapons of repression.
To critics of Israeli security forces, this process has led to a grotesque outcome: The occupied Palestinian territories have become Israel’s “lab” — a testing ground for new weapons and surveillance tactics that are then brought to other regions bent on keeping their own populations in check. The self-proclaimed “light unto the nations” has instead brought dark tools of repression to many countries.
Israeli exports became particularly coveted around the globe after the Sept. 11 attacks, which led governments — particularly the Bush administration — to spend heavily on the homeland security industry, according to Hever.
“The technology that the Israeli army, police and secret police can boast is surveillance technology, technology of control and riot gear, which became very much in demand after Sept. 11,” he told The Indypendent.
Hever maintains that the allure of Israeli security products has waned in recent years.
“All of this amazing technology, and all of these very expensive gadgets that they’re developing — they don’t do anything, because they do not create security,” Hever said. “That’s mainly the reason for the decline in sales, because customers from various countries in Eastern Europe, they go to these fairs and look at these sophisticated cameras and weapons and ask, is Israel a safe place to live? There’s not a sense of security.”
Nevertheless, Israeli surveillance tools and weapons remain prominent around the world.
Last year, Israel exported $6.5 billion worth of weaponry, making it the seventh-top arms exporter around the world, according to data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In recent years, buyers of Israeli weapons have included India, South Korea, Colombia and Spain, among others. Israel has also come under fierce criticism for selling weapons to states like South Sudan, whose armed forces have allegedly committed war crimes during the country’s civil war, and Azerbaijan, a country run by authoritarians with a checkered human rights record.
Israeli spy tools are also coveted globally. With 27 surveillance companies headquartered in Israel, the country has the fifth largest for-profit surveillance sector in the world, according to Privacy International, a watchdog group that tracks the surveillance industry.
Israeli companies have sold spy products to countries like Colombia and Uganda — and even Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, a country Israel has no official relations with.
“Israel’s spy unit is now the largest in its armed forces, and military conscription is mandatory, meaning that surveillance capabilities developed and used [while in the army] can be packaged and exported abroad, for profit,” said Edin Omanovic, a researcher at Privacy International. “There doesn’t appear to be any consideration of human rights when it comes to these exports in Israel, which is highly concerning given that surveillance tools can and have been used around the world to target journalists, activists and opposition members and undermine privacy, freedom of expression and other human rights, and can be used to effectively crush democratic and progressive movements.”
Israeli surveillance tools have also been used by the U.S. security state. Cellebrite is one Israeli-owned company popular among U.S. law enforcement. The corporation’s phone hacking technology — it has the ability to bypass iPhone password locks — has been bought by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Secret Service and Customs and Border Protection.
On the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. subsidiary of Israeli-owned Elbit Systems has supplied surveillance towers. Then there’s Magal Security Systems, an Israeli company that installed surveillance tools alongside Israel’s separation barrier, the mixture of walls and fences that snakes into the West Bank and cuts off Palestinian areas from Israel proper. Now, Magal wants to supply President Trump with fiber-optic tools to strengthen his proposed border wall with Mexico.
But it is not just the federal government that sees Israel’s prowess in fighting terrorism and migration as a model to adopt. State and city agencies do as well — and among the 50 states, New York has perhaps the closest relationship with Israel’s security state.
One example of how New York has forged ties with Israel’s surveillance state lies on Roosevelt Island, the patch of land located between Manhattan and Queens. Construction of a new university there is coming to a close in anticipation of the school’s opening this summer. But most people passing by the site probably don’t know about the controversy behind the building of this new university — and its ties to Israel’s war industry.
In December 2011, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Cornell University and its partner Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had won a bid to build a state-of-the-art science and engineering campus on the island. It has been heralded as a job-creating tool to usher New York City’s economy into the future and brand the city as a center of technology. Powered by more than $785 million in private and city funds, Cornell Tech promises to be a hub for science and technology students and research. University classes are currently housed at Google’s New York City headquarters.
But the choice of Technion as a partner was controversial from the start. Technion is at the heart of Israel’s academic-military-industrial complex. The university, located in Haifa, Israel, is a feeder school to arms and surveillance companies like Elbit and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, and has active partnerships with both companies, which are key players in Israel’s war industry. Elbit is a main supplier of surveillance systems and creator of drones, while Rafael is well-known as a producer of missiles. And Technion has developed technology for the Israeli military. Technion, working alongside the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), created an unmanned robot bulldozer to raze Palestinian homes in the occupied territories and has been at the forefront of developing new drone technology. The university also runs programs that teach students how to market Israel’s military industry around the world.
For now, it is unclear whether Technion’s partnership with Cornell means the new Roosevelt Island campus will also become a hub for the creation of military technology. But the mere fact of Technion’s presence in New York has outraged activists.
“Cornell University has partnered with The Technion Israel Institute of Technology, an institution of higher education that develops technologies which are used actively to advance the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine,” said film scholar Terri Ginsberg, the author of Visualizing the Palestinian Struggle and a former member of the group New Yorkers Against the Cornell-Technion Partnership, which is no longer active. “Cornell University is implicated not only in ethnic cleansing — already an immoral act — but in enabling its profitability, also immoral, for the purposes of fostering social repression on an international scale.”
As the Cornell-Technion partnership takes root, New York City and state law enforcement continue to forge ties with Israeli security forces through delegations to Israel.
The New York police delegations to the country have been sponsored by pro-Israel Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Framed as a way to learn from the Israeli army, police and intelligence services about how to combat terrorism, these New York cops meet with high-level Israeli officials and tour sites both in Israel and in West Bank settlements. Proponents of these trips say U.S. law enforcement learn how Israel protects its residents from militant attacks.
The New York Police Department has forged a particularly close relationship with Israel. In September 2012, the NYPD stationed an officer at a police station in central Israel. According to Maariv, the Israeli newspaper that first broke the story, the NYPD made the move because “Israeli police is one of the major police forces with which it must maintain close work relations and daily contact.”
The most striking, and controversial, aspect of how the NYPD has learned from Israel has to do with its post-9/11 surveillance program targeting Muslims. From 2003-2014, the NYPD instituted a program that sent members of its intelligence division out to map Muslim communities throughout the Northeast, infiltrate mosques and record conversations among Muslims — including those not suspected of any crime. According to the Associated Press reporters who broke the story, the NYPD modeled its program on Israel’s surveillance operations in the occupied West Bank. Thomas Galati, the former head of the NYPD Intelligence Division, traveled to Israel with the ADL in 2010, though it’s unclear what, exactly, he discussed or learned from his Israeli counterparts.
Cuomo’s New York-Israel commission promises to continue the tradition of New York cops learning from Israeli security services. But local and national resistance to these programs also promises to grow.
In April, Jewish Voice for Peace (JUP), a pro-Palestinian group with local chapters around the country, announced the launch of their Deadly Exchange campaign — a push to bring attention to, and halt, police partnerships between the U.S. and Israel. JVP plans to educate and organize activists in various cities to call attention to these partnerships by way of protests, teach-ins and walking tours of cities to point out institutions that participate in law enforcement exchange programs with Israel.
The New York chapter plans to focus on the NYPD’s relationship with Israel, as well as Cuomo’s recently announced program to intensify New York law enforcement’s links with Israeli law enforcement.
Sagiv Galai, a member of JVP’s New York chapter, noted that the New York governor’s office had said the purpose of New York-Israel law enforcement cooperation will be to “share best practices and benefit from each other’s experience.”
“‘Best practices’ in this context have been developed under a belligerent military occupation replete with human rights violations, from extrajudicial killings to administrative detentions,” he told The Indypendent.
Galai said that the campaign is not arguing that Israel has introduced racism and human rights violations to American policing. Rather, the Deadly Exchange campaign is targeting nonprofit groups, like the ADL and JINSA, for normalizing Israeli counter-terrorism practices and trying to frame them as a model for American counter-terrorism campaigns.
He added that the campaign is a way for Jewish groups to mobilize against pro-Israel organizations that promote Israel’s model of counter-terrorism and security.
“It’s an opportunity for progressive Jewish organizations in each of these cities to come out against the conservative national security policies that organizations like JINSA are vocalizing,” Galai told The Indy. “We will be there on the streets, protesting and resisting, building those relationships and building solidarity which will hopefully make the campaign more resilient in the long-term fight against racist policing in the Trump era, where Islamophobia, racism and law-and-order discourse has re-entered the mainstream.”
Illustration (top) by Lynne Foster.