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USA: A clone of Israeli national security state

Which model do we prefer as a country: the Israeli national security state or a nation under laws?

Over the past decade, Israel lobby groups have founded exchange programmes with US police and homeland security agencies which have imported Israeli policing and national security practices to the US. Groups like the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee recruit delegations of high-level American security officials to liaise with Israeli counterparts in the police, military intelligence and internal security. Hundreds of officers have participated in these trips from departments in a score or more of US cities. New York even has its own police liaison office located inside an Israeli police station.

A former Washington DC police chief who participated in an Israel exchange programme called Israel “the Harvard of anti-terrorism”.  When professionals like these return home from Israel they implement the same intrusive surveillance and aggressive policies which they learned in Israel.

This Centre for Investigative Reporting article notes the overlap between Israeli and US police weaponry:

The … evidence that the training is having an impact on American policing is that both countries [use] identical equipment against demonstrators, according to a … report by the Israeli … organisation B'Tselem, and photographs of such equipment taken at demonstrations in Ferguson and Oakland and Anaheim, California.

Tear gas grenades … gas canisters and stun grenades made by the American companies Combined Systems Inc. and Defense Technology Corp were used in all three US incidents, as well as by Israeli security forces and military units.

…In Ferguson … law enforcement used a long-range acoustic device that sends out high-pitched, painful noises designed to scatter crowds. Israeli forces first used such devices in …West Bank protests in 2005, according to the B'Tselem report.

The Alameda County police conducts an annual training exercise called Urban Shield. In 2011, as it prepared for the Occupy protests the event featured members of the Israeli Border Police special forces unit, Yamam. This agency has been regularly linked to targeted assassinations of Palestinians. Its preferred method of “urban policing” was the bullet.

Jimmy Johnson, writing in Electronic Intifada, reports that these programmes develop professional relationships and political alliances between Israel and foreign security agencies. This in turn creates a pro-Israel constituency within “local, regional and national security infrastructures”. When Israel needs friends, it can depend on these assets it’s cultivated to act as advocates.

Social media monitoring targets citizens

Recently, the Israeli news portal 972 reported the Israeli army’s intelligence division had contracted with big data companies in Israel to harvest reams of information from Israelis’ social media, telecom traffic and e-mail. The companies were tasked with sorting through the data using NSA-type methods.

In the case of the Israeli army, it sought keywords associated with terrorism, but also keywords associated with terms like “BDS” or “boycott,” which can’t conceivably be associated with terrorism, unless one adopts the paranoid style of Israel’s extremist political leadership, which has taken to calling BDS “terrorism”. Furthermore, the contractors were plumbing data not just of Palestinians, but Israeli-Jews as well. Everyone was caught up in the security dragnet.

Since Israel has no constitution or firm guarantees of personal privacy, it isn’t surprising that it intrudes on the rights of its citizens. But America has a constitution, judicial checks and balances, and a history of civil liberties. Given this, how should we explain this report from The Intercept this week that US police departments and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been monitoring the peaceful, legal activities of the Black Lives Matter movement?

The department … collects information … on Black Lives Matter activities from public social media accounts, including … Facebook [and] Twitter … even for events expected to be peaceful. The reports confirm social media surveillance of the protest movement and ostensibly related events in the cities of Ferguson, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York.

They … show the department watching over gatherings that seem benign and even mundane. For example, DHS circulated information on a nationwide series of silent vigil, and a DHS-funded agency…monitor[ed] a funk music parade and a walk to end breast cancer ...

The article notes that DHS tracked a “National Moment of Silence” protest after the shooting of Michael Brown. Since when has a moment of silence become a criminal act or terror threat?

The funk parade was targeted for surveillance because DHS believed there might be “Baltimore-related” protests against the killing of Freddie Gray. Add to this that the parade was held in an African-American neighbourhood, and this provided enough justification for DHS to manufacture fear of civil unrest from costumes and funk music.

Given the recent string of hate-crime murder sprees in Louisiana, Charleston, Texas, and possibly Chattanooga, one wonders whether DHS has its priorities straight.

Israel and the 'army of occupation' police model

Israeli intelligence agencies operate in similar ways, largely targeting Palestinians for surveillance. They employ tactics like the NSA - intercepting communications (phone, email and computer). In fact, 43 veterans of the Israeli army’s military intelligence Unit 8200, last year declared in a public letter that they would no longer participate in the tactics of blackmail, gay baiting and sexual humiliation used to recruit Palestinian agents.

Israeli agents also infiltrate Palestinian protests. At rallies against the Separation Wall, Israeli mistarvim (agent provocateurs dressed like “Arabs”) incite violence by throwing rocks, which gives the military an excuse to employ tear gas and live fire ammunition. Non-violent protesters, including some US citizens, have been killed or severely injured through such subterfuge tactics.

Israel has also developed a new weapon in the fight against Palestinian resistance. “Skunk trucks” spray a noxious fluid (“a cross between a rotting animal corpse, raw sewage and human excrement”) over entire streets, drenching buildings and people with a foul-smelling ooze that lingers for days or weeks.  B’Tselem says it is a form of “collective punishment” against entire villages for demonstrations in their midst. Rania Khalek, writing in Electronic Intifada, called it “environmental terrorism”.

The Israeli company Odortec, which created this “weapon” in the fight against civil “disturbances” is marketing it to American police departments:

According to Odortec’s website, “skunk has been field-tested and proven to disperse even the most determined of violent protests” effectively “breaking adversarial resistance”. 

Odortec has a US distributor for its military-related products. But understandably, US police departments are sensitive about being publicly associated with such products.

Militarising US cities

During the protests against police murders in American cities, we’ve seen a propensity to militarise civil unrest. Armoured personnel carriers, body armour and even tanks have turned our homeground into battlefields. This parallels the Israeli approach to Palestinian protests. Israeli soldiers shoot first, ask questions later - or never. They expect the worst and find it. They treat Palestinians like animals and the result is rivers of blood running through Palestinian streets.

The fatal error of this type of policing is in transforming a political problem (racism and its attendant evils) into a criminal phenomenon. American police in many places are poorly trained. They are either unfamiliar with minority residents in their communities or frightened of them. The result is policing that is closer to a military occupation than acting with the consent of the policed.

Israel’s approach turns police and residents into enemies. It treats all Palestinians as potential criminals or terrorists. It runs roughshod over individual rights for the sake of national security. Does America want to emulate this model and become what Ehud Barak called Israel: the villa in the jungle?

NYPD targets an entire Muslim community

New York, the largest city in the nation, and one with a large Arab-Muslim population, is a special laboratory for counter-terror policing. As one of the places victimised by 9/11, the city embraced new methods of detecting terror threats in its aftermath.

Former CIA officer Lawrence Sanchez began working for the New York Police Department (NYPD) in 2003, after 9/11. He approached NYPD with an audacious plan to profile a wide range of suspects who might be threats to security in New York. Calling it the "Demographics Unit," he proposed monitoring Muslim groups and individuals throughout the city.

The programme was intended to be pre-emptive. It didn’t wait for tangible proof of an intent to commit a crime. It sought to do the equivalent of reading suspects’ minds to find intent as it was being formed among prospective terrorists.

As a result, NYPD sent undercover agents known as “rakers” or “mosque crawlers” into houses of worship, stores, community centres, wherever local Muslims gathered. It not only monitored activities; agents recruited impressionable young men to engage in criminal acts.

According to Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman’s Enemies Within, the model for Sanchez’s ambitious programme was Israel itself and its highly developed surveillance programmes for monitoring Palestinians. As an NYPD official said:

… The Demographics Unit has attempted to “map the city’s human terrain” through a programme “modelled in part on how Israeli authorities operate in the West Bank.”

But as the authors note:

Sanchez’ programme ignored some important differences between the US and Israel. Brooklyn and Queens … were not occupied territories … There was no security wall … in New York City. Israel does not have a constitution and Muslims there do not enjoy the same freedom as Jews. In fact, they are routinely discriminated against...

Israeli counter-terror tactics the US embraced with abandon

The book also notes that Abu Ghraib and the CIA’s secret international prison network used to torture suspected Islamist terrorists were preceded by 20 years by the Israeli army’s Prison 1391. There, it took high-value detainees and tortured them to elicit information on terror activities.

One of the most notorious of the torturers was Doron Zahavi, whose identity I first exposed. He was a senior officer tasked with “breaking” Mustafa Dirani. Dirani was thought to be a key player in the capture of missing Israeli Air Force pilot, Ron Arad. Zahavi’s “interrogation” is reported to have involved sodomising the detainee, who later sued the Israeli government. A right-wing Israeli Supreme Court overruled its own previous ruling permitting the suit. The tortuously argued ruling rejecting his suit claimed that since Dirani had left Israeli jurisdiction for Lebanon, Israel had no obligation to adjudicate his claims.

Goldman and Apuzzo also note that in seeking legal precedent to justify US torture tactics, the Bush administration invoked the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled that sleep deprivation, painful stress positions and extended interrogation sessions were acceptable forms of “moderate physical coercion” against Palestinian prisoners.

Israel also first widely used targeted assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders, a tactic the CIA honed and expanded in the Middle East. Israel pioneered the use of drones in conventional warfare and for surveillance of potential targets, along with targeted killings. But it was the US that took the tactic to “the next level”.

In fact, America’s engagement with the Muslim world in this region consists mainly of targeted drone killings, which have taken the lives of 3,000 individuals. The Centre for Investigative Journalism has documented that hundreds of the dead were civilians, not militants.

Which model do we prefer as a country: the Israeli national security state or a nation under laws? Do we sacrifice our rights on the altar of security? Does safety trump freedom?

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

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

Photo: Israeli security forces conduct operations in the West Bank (AFP)