Since its founding in 1948, Israel’s existence has been somewhat of an anachronism in the modern world. It came into being as a settler-colonial state at precisely the time when imperial powers were dismantling their colonial projects and creating transnational governing bodies with laws prohibiting such practices in the future. Many states that resisted these new norms ultimately collapsed under the weight of popular struggle and international isolation. Israel, however, has flourished.
In his book, War Against the People, Jeff Halper attempts to answer the question: “How does Israel get away with it?” More specifically, he asks: “In a decidedly post-colonial age, how is Israel able to sustain a half-century occupation over the Palestinians, a people violently displaced in 1948, in the face of almost unanimous international opposition?” Believing existing explanations of the occupation—imperialism, the Zionist lobby, guilt over the Holocaust—to be inadequate, Halper posits a new theory based on the increasingly important role of “security politics” in global affairs.
He argues that since the beginning of the “Global War on Terror” in 2001, the military campaigns carried
out by imperial powers and their junior partners have been primarily waged against nonstate military groups and popular resistance movements from below. The disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan along with the 2008 global financial crisis exacerbated these trends and further destabilized the global capitalist order.
The sharp rise in popular resistance has created what Halper calls a global pacification industry in which states engage in prolonged, low-intensity conflicts primarily against civilian populations and nonstate military forces “in the name of enforcing the hegemony of transnational capital.” Israel, Halper argues, is uniquely qualified to provide the strategies, tactics, and weapons necessary for waging these “securocratic wars.”
War Against the People is an exhaustive and often frightening look into Israel’s military industrial complex and its increasingly important role in global security politics. Halper offers a detailed look into Israel’s vast military capabilities, including: autonomous drones weighing less than a pound capable of locating targets and launching missiles via integrated command-and-control units; nanotechnology capable of weaponizing insects; weapons and surveillance systems deployed into space capable of targeting any group or individual anywhere in the world; and research programs that seek to integrate and weaponize emerging technological innovations in the fields of genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and cognitive science.
With its military currently supplying weapons and technology to at least 130 countries, Israel has spread its influence to nearly every corner of the world. But many of these agreements go far beyond weapons sales. Israel offers entire models of control that penetrate nearly every level of a state’s security apparatus, including military units, security agencies, and local and national police departments.
Halper documents that in many third world countries, “including many Arab and Muslim ones . . . Israelis can be found training army units, elite Presidential Guards and security agencies, national and local police as well as providing protection and services to private companies in markets difficult to penetrate.”
These same weapons and tactics are also sold to the major imperial powers for use against restless populations at home and abroad. High-ranking officials from police departments across the United States, including Ferguson and Baltimore, have made trips to Israel to receive training in aggressive forms of policing that involving intrusive (and often illegal) domestic surveillance, particularly against minority communities. “The fact that officers in the different police forces dealing with the Ferguson protests,” Halper writes, “who chose a confrontational approach backed up by heavy military equipment, were trained in Israel has led to a feeling that people in Ferguson have been ‘Palestinianized.’”
Israel’s qualitative edge stems from its ability to use the Occupied Territories as a laboratory for developing and refining its models of control and pacification. The cutting-edge weapons and security systems sold to countries around the world, Halper argues, “are products of the continuous engagement in the real-life, on-the-ground laboratory of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, augmented by occasional periodic ‘operations.’” By exporting the weapons, strategies, and tactics used in the Occupied Territories, Israel is, in a very real sense, exporting the occupation itself.
Halper explores how Israel uses military agreements to win political support from nations historically opposed to the occupation. He presents numerous examples of countries including China, India, and Pakistan softening their opposition to the occupation after signing large military agreements. Building off of this logic, Halper contends that Israel continues the occupation primarily because it is a valuable resource for maintaining its privileged status in the global arms industry.
War Against the People sheds light on the ways in which the oppression of Palestinians is connected to the struggles of oppressed people around the world; however, Halper’s argument that security politics should replace imperialism as the overarching framework for understanding the occupation is a bridge too far. Indeed, it’s clear from his research that the political gains Israel makes through its military, while real, are far from decisive.
Take, for example, Halper’s discussion of the diplomatic fallout between Turkey and Israel after the events on the Mavi Marmara in which Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish citizens during their raid of the aid flotillas headed for Gaza. If Halper’s theory is correct, then in the wake of this incident we should have seen Israel use the threat of cutting military ties as leverage against repercussions. But that’s not what happened. Turkey had no issue severing diplomatic ties and cancelling billions of dollars in military contracts with Israel. And in the end it was Israel, not Turkey, who scrambled to find new allies after the fallout.
Halper acknowledges this as an example of the limits of Israel’s influence. However, if Israel can’t use its military muscle to repair a relatively minor diplomatic rift, how is it able to use it for the far more difficult task of continuing the occupation? Even if Israel is at times able to leverage its military prowess in order to win political support among some of the marginal state actors, this means little more than better public relations for Israel during UN votes. If Israel is to maintain its clout—if Israel is going to continue to “get away with it”—it has to have the backing of the major imperial powers, the United States in particular.
But for the core hegemons Israel’s tactical and technological expertise, while certainly useful, is far more expendable. It’s one thing to say that the imperial powers benefit from Israel’s military expertise, but it’s quite another to say they need Israel in order to do carry out their strategic military objectives. The fight to control restless populations at home and abroad is as old as imperialism itself. These states are well versed in the tactics of repression—and the United States has its own massive military-industrial complex—and would no doubt get along just fine without Israel in this regard.
Halper makes a crucial mistake by using moments of disagreement between Israel and the United States to downplay the centrality of the deep, long-term shared interests of these two countries in understanding the occupation. Since 1967, Israel has functioned as the lynchpin of US strategy in the Middle East. In exchange for the economic, military, and political support that Israel needs to continue its settlement and colonization of Palestine, it functions as a proxy force to crush any opposition to US dominance in the region. Thus, despite the occupation’s destabilizing effects on the region, the United States continues its support for Israel because it believes the benefits outweigh the costs.
Despite this, War Against the People remains a valuable resource for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of Israel’s increasingly important role in global security politics. This book is an important contribution to the ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and it deserves to be read and debated by activists on the left.