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Analysis: The “S” in BDS: Lessons of the Elbit Systems Campaign (Part III)

Sept. 8, 2016 9:27 A.M. (Updated: Sept. 8, 2016 2:04 P.M.)
Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank town of Bethlehem calling to boycott Israeli products coming from settlements, on June 5, 2015. (AFP, File)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

In this Al-Shabaka policy brief, Maren Mantovani and Jamal Juma analyze some of the trends facing Israel’s military industrial complex with a particular focus on the campaign against Elbit Systems. The brief examines the tough times facing the industry, the myth of Israeli technological superiority, the industry’s local and global shifts, and the alliances emerging to reverse the militarization and securitization of societies. Based on this analysis, they draw valuable lessons and identify avenues for the global Palestine solidarity movement to pursue.The first and second part of this brief was published on Tuesday, and the third and final part will be published on Thursday.

Making Common Cause Against Militarization

The call for a comprehensive military embargo on Israel is rooted not only in the Palestinian call to end Israel’s impunity and the world’s complicity with its apartheid regime. It is also part of a global struggle against wars and repression and against the militarization and securitization of society. There is increasing awareness of the ways in which Israeli military and “homeland security” exports are contributing to these practices through new technologies and methodologies developed in the process of military occupation, apartheid, and the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. In turn, militarization and securitization help to sustain Israel’s military industry and its policies against Palestinians.

In parallel to Israel’s growing role in this militarization, movements across the globe are making common cause with the BDS movement against repression and discrimination by military and police forces. The campaign against the Israeli “homeland security” company International Security and Defense Systems (ISDS) is an important example. Former Mossad agents founded ISDS in 1982. Investigative journalists as well as former members of military juntas report that ISDS trained death squads in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua and was implicated in coups and attempted coups in Honduras and Venezuela.

Today ISDS trains the infamous military police force BOPE in Rio de Janeiro, proudly acknowledging that the police in the favelas (slums) are using the same techniques Israel uses in Gaza. ISDS also secured a high publicity contract with the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Palestinian movements such as Stop the Wall and the BDS National Committee (BNC) have joined forces with popular movements in Rio working for human rights in the favelas, in a campaign dubbed Olympics without Apartheid in order to cancel the contract.

Similar connections have been made between the Palestine solidarity movement and Black activists in the US, who in 2015 issued a statement of solidarity endorsed by over 1,000 black activists and intellectuals noting that “Israel’s widespread use of detention and imprisonment against Palestinians evokes the mass incarceration of Black people in the US, including the political imprisonment of our own revolutionaries” and calling for joint struggle against the security company G4S. Moreover, in August 2016 the Black Lives Matter movement endorsed the BDS movement.

The US-Mexico border wall is another site of joint struggle between Palestine solidarity activists and the indigenous people affected by the implementation of Israeli methodologies and technologies on their land, in which Elbit Systems plays a key role.

The campaign in the EU to stop funding to Elbit Systems and other Israeli military companies touches on a larger question of concern to every European citizen. With an €80 billion budget (approximately $88 billion at end-2015 exchange rates), the current EU research and development funding cycle Horizon 2020 is among the world’s biggest funding schemes. It redistributes taxpayer money mainly to corporate and academic institutions developing research at the service of big business, including in cooperation with Israeli military companies. The research projects with Israeli military companies often develop dual-use technology (technology for both military and civilian use) in clear violation of EU regulations and contribute to the militarization and securitization of European societies. Most Europeans, if they knew how their money was being used, would likely agree that the EU harms not only Palestinians but also its own citizens by spending on wars that create new refugees and on technologies that control, racially profile, and oppress Europeans instead of supporting their needs.

Targeting the Israeli Military’s Weak Spots

This policy brief has sought to provide an overview of Israel’s military industrial complex and to identify entry points that could reduce the industry’s profits and eventually lead to an arms embargo until Palestinian rights are achieved. There is no doubt that this is a major undertaking: The military industrial complex involves powerful corporations, slick propaganda and marketing, and global defense establishments that are often far from the discourse and reach of solidarity activists. Yet it is not only an ethical necessity for countries to end military relations with Israel until it upholds international law; it is also a campaign that can be won. Indeed, based on experience to date, and in light of the above analysis, there are several entry points for activists to consider.

At the most basic level, public education and outreach are essential. Most people intuitively understand that their governments should not maintain military relations with an occupying power that launches regular military assaults against the besieged Gaza Strip and other neighboring countries as well as commits incursions, raids, home demolitions, and other human rights violations against the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem -- particularly as these acts violate not only their own moral code but also their countries’ laws and international law. The numbers of human rights advocates working for boycotts and divestment is growing; it is only a matter of time before the numbers advocating sanctions, and particularly military sanctions, grow to form a critical mass.

Solidarity with Palestine by communities also impacted by militarization and securitization has a long history, especially in Latin America, where Israel and its private agents have for decades supported and trained death squads and dictatorships. Strengthened cooperation between Black Americans, Latinos, and indigenous peoples in the US, paired with the exponential militarization of European metropoles, mean that a broad and organized network of campaigners has the potential to develop in the West as well. In the case of the EU, a groundswell of public opinion could be used to back technical arguments to challenge Horizon 2020 funding to Israeli military -- and other entities -- complicit in the occupation.

In their campaigns, activists should also draw on the evidence that Israeli military technology is neither as effective nor as problem-free as its public relations purport. The major issues with Israeli drone production and the questions surrounding the Iron Dome are just two examples. Even more compelling is the fact that Israel is undermining country capacity to manage its own defense, siphoning countries’ national industrial capacity to Israel and using its security systems to spy on country clients, effectively resulting in their loss of national sovereignty and independence.

Elbit Systems, big as it is, is particularly vulnerable to activist action. It is the only Israeli private military company of this size and hence is more vulnerable to crises, risks of financial speculation, and economic restructuring. Elbit Systems is highly indebted and needs to ensure a continuous cash flow to service that debt. Its ever more global presence makes it easier for activists in different countries to take on Elbit or its subsidiaries. In addition, the growing dependence of the military industry on the Israeli state budget to rescue it also makes it vulnerable, while increasing the vulnerability of the state.

Activists should also learn from the lessons of experience: Israel always positions itself to take advantage when new governments come to power or new national policies are passed. Activists too should position themselves by developing contingency plans to deal with changes in governments. It is key to secure, where possible, commitments or legislation from friendly governments against military trade with Israel and to take advantage of instances in which hostile governments enact policies that contradict Israeli interests. Leveraging internal dynamics in such instances is an essential element for success.

If military sanctions against Israel are to be established, Palestinian civil society and activists will need to work hard to pressure the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) to use their diplomatic contacts and whatever powers of persuasion they may have, both with individual states and at the UN. In particular, they should ensure that the PLO/PNA uses every means possible to prevent and reverse arms deals between the Gulf states and Israel.

There is no way to calculate when the tide will turn. But popular struggles against repression, war, and apartheid, reinforced by a growing negative perception of the Israeli military industrial complex, could strike at the core of an industry that both sustains and thrives on Israeli aggression. The myth of Israeli military technology is slowly crumbling, and a more privatized Israeli military industry is as exposed to risks in the global markets as other corporations. The call for military sanctions may start to bite even before governments are ready to implement a full fledged embargo.

Originally published in full on Al-Shabaka's website on August 24, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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