Israeli apartheid on the US border

People on the US-Mexico border complain that they live under occupation. It's clear to see why

Belen Fernandez's picture
Thursday 12 February 2015 10:15 UTC

What did Suharto and Augusto Pinochet - the ex-dictators of Indonesia and Chile, respectively - have in common with right-wing Colombian paramilitaries and the South African apartheid regime?

All benefited, at one time or another, from Israeli arms shipments and/or military training.

As a 2012 report by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network documents, these are but a few of the entities to which “Israel's government, its military, and related corporations and organisations” have lent expertise over past decades, contributing to a “global industry of violence and repression”.

The US-Mexico border has also attracted Israel’s repressive know-how - albeit of a much quieter variety. Back in 2004, the US Border Patrol - a division of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) - began using Hermes drones, manufactured by the Israeli corporation Elbit Systems, which has a Fort Worth, Texas-based subsidiary called Elbit Systems of America.

The drones have since been discarded but have been replaced by an even more lucrative deal for Elbit: a $145m CBP contract, awarded earlier this year, to construct surveillance towers along the frontier between Mexico and the state of Arizona.

And that might not be the extent of the damage. A February Bloomberg article cited the estimate that the Elbit Systems contract “may eventually reach $1 billion if legislation to rewrite US immigration laws passes Congress and helps fund the project’s expansion in the Southwest”.

If the government’s aim is to indefinitely perpetuate the “global industry of violence and repression”, throwing heaps of money at such projects is a pretty shrewd move.

Occupying the border

The ever-intensifying fortification of the US border - characterised by wanton construction, not only of physical barriers but also virtual, surveillance-based ones - hasn’t deterred undocumented migration. Why? Because when people’s livelihoods are destroyed by US-engineered free trade agreements, they enjoy few options aside from migration. And if there’s a wall in the way, they’ll do their best to go around it, pursuing ever more dangerous routes.

Obviously, this translates into ever greater human suffering, and an untold number of migrants have perished while endeavouring to cross the desert into the US.

In his new book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security, journalist Todd Miller describes the US side of the frontier as an “intensely controlled border zone buzzing with armed authorities… to the degree that many in the borderlands, from federal magistrates to grassroots activists, have compared what they experience to a military occupation”.

Given Israel’s intimate association with the phenomenon of occupation, it’s perhaps no wonder that it has been so seamlessly inserted into the American border security industrial complex. (One of Miller’s focuses is the concerted militarisation of lands belonging to indigenous communities, making the whole business even more up Israel’s alley.)

Indeed, the Bloomberg article quotes a partner at a US government-contracting consultancy on why Elbit Systems was chosen for the surveillance tower project over domestic contractors like Lockheed Martin. Israel is “liable to be much further advanced in this particular arena”, he says, and, “in extraordinary circumstances, one really wants to employ the best”.

Not so extraordinary

If anyone knows a thing or to about erecting barriers to justice, it’s Elbit - a contractor for Israel’s apartheid wall, the winding monstrosity that separates various Palestinian villages from their agricultural lands, hospitals, and other necessities of life, and effectively criminalises anyone who falls on the wrong side of the fence.

From an industrial perspective, Elbit and other Israeli security firms are in the enviable position of having a walled-in population right next door upon which to conduct experiments in repression that are lucrative both at home and abroad.

As noted before, this arrangement is nothing new. Gabriel Schivone, who has conducted extensive research into Israeli complicity in the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s - part of a conflict that ultimately left approximately 200,000 people dead, many of them indigenous Mayans - reminds us that Israeli counsel to the Guatemalan military was based on methods test-driven in the West Bank and Gaza.

He also recalls an unfortunate remark from Israeli Border Guard Lt. Col. Amatzia Shuali, responsible for the training of numerous officers in the Guatemalan army: “I don't care what the Gentiles do with the arms [delivered to them by Israel]. The main thing is that the Jews profit”.

In more recent - and far less blatantly nefarious - Israeli contributions to the “security” of the Western hemisphere, Elbit was awarded a contract in March by the Brazilian air force to supply drones for use during this summer’s World Cup.

Journalist Charlotte Silver, who referred to Brazil as Elbit’s “profitable ally” in a 2012 op-ed for Al Jazeera, also observed: “Providing ‘security’ for these mega-sports events really means sweeping the host city ‘clean’ of the unattractive indigent communities that make their homes there”.

Elbit’s superior qualifications for this particular job were presumably underscored by its previous collaboration with the Brazilian Defense Ministry.

An extra dose of apartheid

Earlier this year, Elbit Systems of America, the subsidiary tasked with the potentially billion-dollar enhancement of the US-Mexico border, was named one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethisphere Institute. The institute, it seems, possesses a sense of humour similar to that of Nobel Peace Prize committees that reward warmongering US presidents.

In pondering the ethical ramifications of showering experts in Israeli apartheid with massive security contracts in the US, it’s instructive to revisit Christian Parenti’s masterful book Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, published in 1999 and updated in 2008.

According to Parenti’s analysis, the “entire social landscape of the [US] border region is being remolded by the politics of the militarised frontier”, which has contributed to a system of “de facto apartheid emerging in the Southwest; working class Latinos live under a fundamentally different set of laws than Anglos”.

Increasing cooperation between law enforcement bodies and border patrol has led to racialised criminalisation and the disproportionate harassment, by state and federal officials, of documented and undocumented Latinos alike. Harassment has included warrantless searches, the humiliating interrogation of schoolchildren of Hispanic appearance, and selective beatings.

And it appears that things only stand to get worse. In his own book on the Border Patrol, Miller describes the creeping evolution of the concept of “the border” to encompass communities and happenings far beyond the country’s literal boundary line. (Border Patrol has, for example, been put to work at the Super Bowl, an event not traditionally regarded as an international border.)

Given its background, it seems Elbit Systems won’t be offering much in the way of social cohesion to the expanded border regions of the US, and will instead be reinforcing the boundary between “us” and “them” - human beings that matter and human beings that don’t.

If only the border could be reinforced against incursions by Israeli security firms.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A border fence has cut off parts of the US-Mexican border and is only scheduled to keep growing (AFP)