“The Palestine Laboratory”: Antony Loewenstein on How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation

We speak with journalist and author Antony Loewenstein about his new book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. Loewenstein explains that Israel’s military-industrial complex has used the Occupied Palestinian Territories for decades as a testing ground for weaponry and surveillance technology that it then exports around the world for profit. “You find in over 130 countries across the globe in the last decades, Israel has sold … a range of tools of occupation and repression that have initially been tested in Palestine on Palestinians,” Loewenstein says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. That’s the title of a new book by the Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein, who examines how Israel’s military-industrial complex has used the Occupied Palestinian Territories for decades, he says, as a testing ground for weaponry and surveillance technology that they then export around the world.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of a number of books, including Disaster Capitalism and My Israel Question. He was based in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020. His most recent article for The Sydney Morning Herald is “Being Jewish and critical of Israel can make you an outcast. I should know.” Antony is joining us from Sydney, Australia.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Antony. Your book has just come out. What do you mean by the term “the Palestine laboratory”?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me on, Amy.

What I mean by that is that the occupation of Palestine by Israel is now the longest occupation in modern times, 56 years and counting. There’s obviously been an occupation of sorts since 1948, but particularly since 1967. And during those years, what Israel has done, very successfully, from its perspective, is find various tools and technologies to maintain and control Palestinians. And what they’ve done during that time, what Israel has done, is increasingly export those tools and technologies, but also those methods, those so-called counterinsurgency methods.

So, what I look at in the book, both being on the ground in Palestine for many years and also through declassified documents and various interviews across the world, is that you find in over 130 countries across the globe in the last decades, Israel has sold forms of anything from spyware, so-called smart walls, facial recognition tools — a range of tools of occupation and repression, that have initially been tested in Palestine on Palestinians. So, in other words, what I’m saying is that the occupation of Palestine is not staying there. It’s not a conflict that remains geographically based just in Palestine. It’s become so-called global Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you describe politicide, a term you use?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: “Politicide,” I think, was a term that was coined by Baruch Kimmerling, who is now the late amazing academic. And he was talking really about the concept of a desire within many in the Israeli elite to find ways to destroy Palestinians, not necessarily just through killing them, but also through extinguishing their political identity, their political self-determination.

And when looking from the outside, one could argue that in some ways Palestinian resistance lives on. Your last segment talked about that very strongly. Palestinians mostly have not left Palestine. They remain there.

But certainly, from the current Israeli government, and, I would argue, for decades, there has been a sense that there’s a way to crush Palestinian aspirations, their views, their political reality, their future, their horizon. And by doing so, Israel has increasingly marketed that to a global audience, including in its whole identity as an ethnonationalist state. It’s arguably the most successful ethnonationalist state in the world, a Jewish supremacist state. And growing numbers of nations around the world, from India and others, look to Israel with admiration and inspiration.

AMY GOODMAN: We just covered Modi and the lavish reception he got by the president of the United States, Biden, with a state dinner last night, the joint session of Congress. Talk about — a little more about how India looks to Israel.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Look, what India is doing under Modi, of course, is not solely because of Israel. But traditionally, Israel and India were not particularly good friends. But in the last 10 years or so, since Modi took power in 2014, there’s been a real ideological alignment.

But the relationship is really twofold. One, it’s a defense relationship. So India buys huge amounts of technology, defense equipment, spyware. I interview a number of people in my book, individuals in India, lawyers, others, who are spied on by Israeli spyware, particularly Pegasus by NSO Group. But also, there’s an ideological alignment, a belief that many Indian officials in the Hindu fundamentalist government there are openly talking about admiration for what Israel is doing in the West Bank, and wanting to do something similar in Kashmir.

And what I mean by that is, they say that — two reasons. One, because Israel gets away with it. No one’s stopping it. There’s a complete state of impunity that Israel has globally, really. But secondly, this idea of bringing in, according India’s view, huge numbers of Hindus to Muslim-majority Kashmir to settle that territory, to build so-called settlements akin to what Israel is doing in the West Bank. And I think there’s a really disturbing ideological alignment. I would actually make the comparison between Israel and India today to Israel and apartheid South Africa back in the day — nations that were very, very close ideologically and got inspiration from each other, in the belief, in Israel’s case, of course, being a Jewish supremacist state, in India’s case, being increasingly a Hindu fundamentalist state. And that, to me, is something that should concern people, including the U.S. president.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Antony, you talk about a Jewish supremacist state. I’m wondering if you could talk about your own background, something that you take on in this last piece you wrote, “Being Jewish and critical of Israel can make you an outcast. I should know.” And talk about your family, your grandparents, your great-grandparents, those who died in Auschwitz, those who didn’t survive the Holocaust.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Most of my family, sadly, Amy, like most Jews who lived in Europe, perished in the Holocaust, including Auschwitz. And the ones who got out and escaped Europe, particularly in 1939, just before the war started, escaped to wherever they were given a visa: Australia, Canada, the U.S., elsewhere. And the ones who came to Australia, when I was growing up — I was born in the mid-'70s in Melbourne — Israel was not the center of their lives, but Israel was seen as a safe haven. For those who don't know, as a Jew, I can go to Israel tomorrow, and within a few months, I can almost certainly be a Jewish citizen, if I can prove that I’m Jewish.

And I think, for many Jews, including my family, there was a real reluctance, and, in fact, a hostility, to any kind of Palestinian reality, Palestinian story, even to meet Palestinians. I mean, as a young Jew, I never met Palestinians. And I think there is a change going on, but, certainly, when I started writing about this issue around 20 years ago — I wrote a book in 2006 called My Israel Question, where there were attempts by the Israel lobby in Australia to censor the book. There was attempts to pulp the book. There was condemnations of me in Parliament. I mean, it was ridiculous. The book became a best-seller, thanks to all that ridiculous controversy. But over that time, my parents, both of whom lost most of their Jewish friends, because it was the sins of the son — I was being critical of Israel. I was trying to humanize Palestinians.

Now, I’m not the only Jew, of course, who was saying this. And I’m really encouraged in the last years, in Australia, the U.S. and other Western countries, a growing, almost like a Jewish insurgency against particularly an older generation of Jews who doesn’t want to humanize Palestinians and somehow believes that Jewish identity should be tied to Jewish supremacy. And so, for me, personally, I don’t claim to be a victim. That story that you referenced at the beginning sort of gives a bit of a pallid history of my life, but also explains that one does pay a price for it. One does pay a price as a Jewish person. I’m a secular anti-Zionist Jew today. But I feel often that there is a real moral collapse in much of the Jewish diaspora in the last decade. It is changing, but not nearly fast enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Antony, we were talking about the horrific shipwreck last week of migrants, maybe up to 700 dead. Can you talk about Israeli technology used by the European Union to surveil and target asylum seekers?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: This really shocked me, you know, years ago, when I started doing some work on this issue. The short version is that the European Union in the last years after 2015, when they were, in their view, overwhelmed by particularly Muslim refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, didn’t want to ever repeat that. And they put in place almost a fortress-type Europe, which has occurred in the last years, which is a range of tools and technologies to keep people out — mostly Muslim and Brown and Black bodies, of course.

And part of that arsenal is using Israeli drones. They’re unarmed, but they are flying over the Mediterranean 24/7, and they’re used mostly by Frontex, which is the EU’s sort of border security arm. And they’re the eyes in the sky, essentially. So, they are sending back all these images 24/7 to Warsaw, which is where Frontex is based. And the EU has made a decision — of course, they don’t admit this, but this is the reality — of letting people drown. This is the new policy. There are very, very few rescue boats. The EU barely rescues anyone. There are some NGOs that are trying to do so, and I deeply admire what they’re doing. So, the Israeli drone becomes a key arsenal in part of this infrastructure of essentially allowing people to drown. And to me, it really goes to the heart of why Israeli drones are used by the EU, because they were battle-tested in Palestine over Gaza in a number of years in the last 15 years.

And you see this almost Israeli border-industrial complex exported across the U.S.-Mexico border, for example. There are massive amounts of Israeli surveillance towers, made by Elbit, which is Israel’s leading defense company, dotted across the border. It’s a key part of the U.S. arsenal across its border with Mexico. And why was that company chosen by the U.S.? Because, of course, it was tested first in Palestine.

So, to me, the real concern in the 21st century is, as the climate crisis worsens, as resource wars are worsening, as refugee numbers have never been higher since World War II, many Western nations are, sadly, making a choice to not welcome people in — as we saw with the recent awful shipwreck disaster in the Mediterranean — but, in fact, to build higher walls and more surveillance. And Israeli surveillance and technology and repression is part of that arsenal that many nations are now buying, because it’s been used, in their view, successfully on Palestinians in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have evidence of the United States in particularly controversial situations working with Israel to perhaps have, for example, in Guatemala, Israel work there so that the United States won’t get — won’t be held responsible?

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Absolutely. One of the things I document in the book really clearly is that over the last 50 years a lot of nations that the U.S. was close to, Israel almost became an American wingman, often supporting, arming, training nations the U.S. even couldn’t do officially because of some issue maybe in Congress. And that did include nations like Guatemala, including at a point where they were committing genocide against their Indigenous populations. And one of the reasons that many of those nations — Guatemala, Honduras, Chile under Pinochet, a range of other nations in Latin and South America, or, of course, it went far further, including in Africa and Asia — was that these nations were really attracted by the idea of learning the so-called skills that Israel was gaining through its occupation after 1967. How is it managing the Palestinian population? How is it repressing them, essentially?

And a huge amount of evidence, through declassified documents and interviews, much of which is in the book, virtually goes to the heart of showing that the U.S. and Israel became almost like invaluable partners during that period, to the point where today — look, America remains the world’s biggest arms dealer. Forty percent of the world’s arms is sold by the U.S. Israel is now 10th. And just last week, in fact, Israel released its 2022 arms figures: $12.5 billion U.S., the biggest amount ever. And 25% of that was going to Arab autocracies, after the so-called Abraham Accords, the Trump deal from a few years ago. So we’re talking about Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and others. So, what are they selling? They’re selling repressive technology, spyware, intelligence gathering, a range of other tools, to prop up U.S.- and Israeli-backed dictatorships in the Middle East. So, this is what the Israeli arms industry is about. Like, this, to me, is not just a moral failing, but a really dark stain on the Jewish legacy 75 years after the Holocaust. Like, this is what we’ve become — “we” meaning the Jewish population of the world. The legacy seems to be backing and supporting and arming the worst regimes in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about something you mentioned earlier, and that’s NSO’s Pegasus. Explain further how it’s used and how it is used to infect the phones, for example, of journalists, some, for example, who are in jail, like in Morocco, as you talk about the Abraham Accords, Omar Radi, who we interviewed before he was imprisoned, and has been now for several years.

ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN: Pegasus got a lot of attention in the last years, as viewers will know, as probably the most known or infamous Israeli spyware. Essentially, it’s a tool that allows any government or military intelligence or police department to spy on someone’s phone, iPhone or Android, and get all the information from that phone. And it’s popped up in dozens and dozens of countries around the world. And I spend a lot of time in the book interviewing some of the victims of that surveillance, in Togo, for example, in Mexico, in India. And Mexico, interestingly enough, is the biggest user of Pegasus by far. There is an absolute addiction in Mexico, both under right-wing governments and the current nominally left-wing government. Governments don’t want to give this tool up. And it’s not just Pegasus. Of course, there are many other Israeli companies doing the same thing.

But one of the things that I explore in the book is that so much of the media in the last years around Pegasus missed the key point. It was almost framed as a rogue Israeli company doing terrible things around the world, when, in fact, companies like Pegasus actually are only private in name. They are basically arms of the state. Netanyahu and the Mossad, who have been going to various countries in the last 10 years — I document this in the book, and this has also been shown by Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper — often go to nations, like Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and others, and they hold Pegasus and other tools as a diplomatic carrot: “If you support us in the U.N. or elsewhere, we will sell you the most powerful spyware in the world.” And it works, because it’s been sold in UAE, in Saudi, in Rwanda and many other repressive states. So, unless there is a complete ban or massive regulation, which currently does not exist at all, these technologies will continue. And even if NSO Group disappears tomorrow — and it’s currently in financial crisis — many other companies do exactly the same thing, and which is why Israel is now one of the leading spyware exporters in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Antony Loewenstein, I want to thank you so much for being with us, author of the new book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. If you want to see our interview with the now-imprisoned Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, as well as our other work talking to the University of Toronto lab and others about Pegasus, you can go to democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, as well, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!

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