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How the U.S. and Israel Use Similar Techniques of Racist Policing and Mass Incarceration

Ali Abunimah's new book explains why the struggle for Palestinian human rights is closely linked to the struggle for human rights at home.

The following is an adapted excerpt from The Battle For Justice In Palestine. Copyright © 2014 by Ali Abunimah. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Israel, European and US leaders often insist, is a shining beacon for the world. François Hollande, the Socialist candidate elected France’s president in 2012, observed that Israel faced so much criticism precisely because it is a “great democracy.” In a similar vein, Matthew Gould, the British ambassador in Tel Aviv, wrote that his country’s close cooperation with Israel stemmed from the “principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law that we work together to protect. These shared principles are the bedrock of our relationship.” American leaders, however, are second to none in the intensity of their ardor. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama insisted that “the establishment of Israel was just and necessary” and that “the bond between Israel and the United States is rooted in more than our shared national interests—it’s rooted in the shared values and shared stories of our people.” It is a theme he has returned to often as president, enumerating, for instance, some of the “shared values” in a 2012 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “A commitment to human dignity. A belief that freedom is a right that is given to all of God’s children. An experience that shows us that democracy is the one and only form of government that can truly respond to the aspirations of citizens.” Among the “shared stories” is the fact that both the United States and Israel were established by European settler colonists who usurped lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, though this is something Obama did not mention to his AIPAC audience. Another contemporary “shared value” that went unacknowledged is that Israel’s practice of “targeted killings”—extrajudicial executions of “terrorist” suspects and bystanders, once condemned by the United States—has become the signature policy of Obama, the only president in history known to keep a “kill list” of US citizens and others. But despite these incongruities, it would appear at first blush that, at least when it comes to officially sanctioned racism and discrimination at home, the United States and Israel diverge sharply.

In his second inaugural address President Obama harked back to the iconic ideas shaping America’s view of itself as a beacon for the world. He stood before a crowd of thousands as the living embodiment of the progress and opportunity he now sought to extend even further in a society more willing than ever to embrace multiple cultures. “We affirm the promise of our democracy,” the president said. “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Yet even Obama conceded that “while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” The history of the United States is one of conflict, sometimes at great cost and bloodshed, to make these ideals real for ever more Americans, whether brought in bondage, born at home, or hopeful immigrants coming to seek a better life. It is a familiar story: the time when official white supremacy was the natural and seemingly unassailable order—enforced by a system of juridical and customary violence known as Jim Crow—has passed forever. The abolition of slavery; the civil rights movement and the end of segregation; comprehensive civil rights legislation ending discrimination in education, housing, and employment; and voting rights are celebrated as milestones toward realizing the promise that all are “created equal.” Few deny that significant disparities have yet to be eliminated. Few deny that racial gaps in health, wealth, and education are vast in the United States, just as they are between Jews and Arabs in Israel. But these are often talked about as “legacies.” Even the most conservative opponents of social programs intended to remedy these disparities do not claim—as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in Israel—that too much integration in and of itself would constitute an existential threat to the United States. Contrast this optimistic and liberal vision to Israel’s record of state-sponsored racism and inequality, which, as we shall see, is broadly supported by Israeli Jewish opinion and justified as necessary for the state’s survival.

On its face, then, the American system—and the liberal narrative that Obama offers—would appear to share everything in common with the “state of all its citizens” that Palestinian parties in Israel demand, and nothing at all with a discriminatory and demographics-obsessed “Jewish and democratic state.” Sadly, however, despite Obama’s colorblind rhetoric, Palestinians under Israeli rule and people of color in the United States increasingly find themselves facing similar racist ideologies—even if they sometimes take veiled forms—and systems of physical and social control that are interconnected. These may be the real “shared values” of Israel and the United States—and they demand of us a shared understanding and a shared struggle to change them. While abolishing the racism and violence Zionism practices against Palestinians is the key to justice and peace in historic Palestine, no less than the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States were absolutely necessary, recent American history demonstrates that systems of racial control and the ideologies under- pinning them remain robust and adaptable. A formally liberal and rights-based order can allow a system just as oppressive as Jim Crow to hide and flourish in plain sight. Understanding the present-day experience of African Americans and other non-European groups in the United States offers critically important lessons to Palestinians and underscores that the struggle for Palestinian human rights must be closely linked to the struggle for human rights in the United States and around the world.

On the eve of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election, 51 percent of Americans ex- pressed “explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in 2008,” an Associated Press survey found. The number of Americans with implicit “anti-black sentiments” jumped from 49 to 56 percent from 2008, while “the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.” In 2008, 55 percent of whites voted for Obama’s Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, while in 2012, 59 percent of whites voted for Republican Mitt Romney. Obama lost every white age group and white women. These are signs that even as legal forms of discrimination have been abolished, the United States has in many ways become more racially polarized; Obama’s re-election was secured only because he won majorities of every nonwhite demographic group. These facts—and the incessant cable news and Internet propaganda depicting Obama variously as foreign and Muslim—run counter to the warm narrative that Obama’s 2008 election was historic proof that America had overcome its troubled racial past. These attitudes challenge the com- forting assertion that, though there is still much work to be done, the history of the United States is one of steady progress. Indeed, in important respects, things are moving backward.

Becky Pettit, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of the 2012 book Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, found that the exclusion of millions of incarcerated Black men from national statistics on voting, wages, employment, and education has for years grossly exaggerated “progress” in virtually all indicators of achievement. When the population of incarcerated Black men is included in the statistics, the status of African Americans overall has, shockingly, actually deteriorated in the decades since the great civil rights victories. How could this be?

In her influential 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights lawyer and Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander challenges the optimistic liberal narrative “that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s ‘triumphs over race’ with the election of Barack Obama” as “dangerously misguided.” Alexander argues that, after enacting formal civil rights, the United States took a wrong turn and reversed much of what had been achieved, despite the increasingly common sight of prominent African Americans in high office. As Jim Crow once replaced slavery, so mass incarceration, brought about with the drug war, has “emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow”:

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of color- blindness it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Alexander describes a system in which children, overwhelmingly Black, are shuttled from decrepit and underfunded schools and neighborhoods where unemployment far exceeds even the levels during the era of formal segregation to brand-new, high- tech, and well-funded prisons, often owned and operated by the multibillion-dollar private prison industry. Within a span of thirty years, “for reasons unrelated to crime rates,” incarceration rates quintupled in the United States and the prison population exploded from three hundred thousand to more than two million, as the country created a penal system on a scale unprecedented in world history. US incarceration rates far surpass those of Russia, China, and Iran, countries regularly portrayed as particularly repressive.By the mid-2000s, thirty-one million Americans, roughly the population of Canada, had been arrested in the war on drugs; seven million are currently behind bars, on probation, or on parole. These millions are in many cases juridically “locked out” of voting, work, jury service, housing, and other basic needs by the “criminal” label they will carry all their lives. The devastation affects not only the individuals themselves, but millions more people in their families and communities.

But it is the racial dimension that Alexander finds most striking: “No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities.” In many urban communities, three out of four young Black men can expect to serve time in prison. More African American adults are in prison or under correctional supervision, probation, or control than were enslaved in 1850 in the United States. In 2004, more African American men were denied the right to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws than in 1870 due to formal racial discrimination, poll taxes, and literacy tests. In jurisdictions across the United States, Black men are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate ranging from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than white men. In 2006, one in every fourteen Black men was in prison, compared with one in every 106 white men. The systematic removal of Black men from their communities has produced such a significant gender gap that the difficulty many Black women face in finding life partners is a widely discussed phenomenon.

Drawing on meticulous research, Alexander demonstrates that no crime statistics can explain the dramatic rise in incarceration—or its disproportionate impact on people of color. Rates of crime and incarceration have moved independently of each other. Government statistics show that people of all races use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates. Among students, for example, whites and Blacks use marijuana at nearly identical rates, although white students use crack and cocaine at more than seven times the rate of Black students. And like much else in American life, drug markets are segmented by race and class: whites sell drugs to whites, Blacks to Blacks, students to students, rural people to rural people. Alexander explodes the myth that the focus on people of color is justified because hardcore violent criminals are concentrated in their neighborhoods, and that the war on drugs is aimed at “kingpins” and big-time dealers. The vast majority of arrests—four out of five in 2005—were for possession; only one out of five was for selling. Arrests for marijuana possession accounted for 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests during the 1990s. Nor can violent crime explain the shocking numbers. Violent crime rates have been falling; only a minuscule proportion of the astronomical increase in incarcerations is due to convictions for homicide. It is the way that the war on drugs has been waged, in communities already devastated by economic neglect, decline, and mass incarceration, that has proved to be one of the great engines for generating crime and violence.

In major cities, homicides are heavily concentrated in the poorest, most economically disenfranchised, and most heavily policed communities. In 2013, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel received press accolades for bringing down the city’s homicide rate by “saturating” specific neighborhoods with hundreds of police officers (at a massive and unsustainable cost to the city’s budget of tens of millions of dollars in extra overtime pay). Meanwhile, Emanuel has overseen the largest mass shutdown of public schools in the country’s history. The children in the fifty schools Emanuel announced he would close in 2013 were 88 percent Black, 94 percent low-income, and overwhelmingly concentrated in economically deprived areas. It is difficult to see how such slash-and-burn tactics can do anything but speed up what many in Chicago call the “rail to jail” for children and their parents. As Glenn Greenwald observes, “growing up with a parent in prison is itself a predictor of later criminality.” Thus the very mass incarceration policies that target the poorest and most powerless, while political and economic elites enjoy ever-greater immunity from the law, actually perpetuate the crime they are supposedly intended to fight.

Racializing Crime

The “enemy” in the drug war, Alexander argues, has been racially defined; the war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color. Draconian sentencing laws give prosecutors immense power to coerce people, often with little evidence, to accept plea bargains that send them to prison because losing the gamble of a trial with inadequate legal resources could result in a sentence lasting decades. Nonetheless, going to prison at all is enough to mark one as a “felon,” with all of that label’s lifelong consequences. This system “locks people not only behind actual bars in actual prisons, but also behind virtual bars and virtual walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow.”

It has become common to associate the post–September 11, 2001, PATRIOT Act with the dramatic erosion of civil liberties and individual rights and the increase in intrusive government surveillance in the United States and other Western societies. In fact, this gutting of constitutional protections began much earlier. In cities across the United States and along the highways connecting them, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, overwhelmingly brown and Black, are subjected annually to intrusive “stop-and-frisk” searches or traffic stops used as a pretext for such searches.

Several years ago, while driving with a friend toward Chicago through northwest Indiana, I was pulled over by an Indiana state trooper for what was ostensibly a routine traffic stop. But the officer subjected me to frightening and intimidating treatment. I was made to get out of the car and stand in the cold rain in the glaring headlights of his squad car as he questioned me aggressively. He wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going, and where I lived. My voice shaking, I asked him if I was required to answer his questions. He said I wasn’t, but if I refused he would issue me all sorts of citations.

I remember thinking, “This is one of those moments when things could go badly wrong if I am not very careful about what I say and do.” It was shortly after a spate of police shootings in which unarmed motorists had been shot because police claimed to have mistaken ordinary objects in their hands for weapons. I did my best to stay calm as the officer kept badgering me and accusing me of giving “suspicious” answers. In reality I was freezing and scared, but I think I understood at the time that he was trying to provoke me into reacting to create a pretext to search the car without my consent—the legal term is “probable cause.” I did my best not to give it to him. But when he started to ask me about my friend, I said I didn’t think I should have to answer questions about any passengers in my car. The officer said he would go and speak to my friend himself and ordered me to remain standing with my hands on my head and face the headlights of his car, which was stopped behind mine. “If you turn around I will arrest you for assault,” he warned. My friend was not legally obliged to speak to the police officer either, but managed to convince him that we were simply two people driving in a car. The officer returned with a completely changed demeanor and offered me his hand. He explained that police were monitoring the highway for people driving suspiciously slowly, who they suspected might be drug couriers trying to avoid detection. What had made me a target of suspicion, apparently, was obeying the speed limit on that stretch of the Indiana Toll Road. It is outrageous that he thought this explanation would make me feel better or justify his behavior, but I was too shaken and relieved to offer any more resistance. He let me go with no citation. It was an experience I will never forget.

Only after I read Alexander’s book did I recognize that what happened exactly fit a pattern used hundreds of thousands of times by local police departments all over the country as part of a federal Drug Enforcement Agency program called Operation Pipeline. This program has trained tens of thousands of officers “how to use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop someone, how to lengthen a routine traffic stop and leverage it into a search for drugs, how to obtain consent from a reluctant motorist, and how to use drug-sniffing dogs to obtain probable cause.” Blessed by the Supreme Court, such stops, which rarely turn up any drugs, eviscerate constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. They allow police to use arbitrary and nonsensical profiling criteria including “traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs, driving a rental car, driving with out-of-state license places,” and driving with “mismatched occupants.” In some states—clearly, in my experience, in Indiana—officers are even told to watch out for “scrupulous obedience to traffic laws.” The effect of such scattershot criteria is to give police the power to stop anyone at any time for any reason and bully them into cooperating.

While, fortunately, I have rarely been subjected to such special attention (at least outside of airports), it is daily routine for many young people in American cities. “The militarized nature of law enforcement in ghetto communities has in- spired rap artists and Black youth to refer to the police presence in Black communities as ‘The Occupation,’” observes Alexander. “In these occupied territories, many Black youth automatically ‘assume the position’ when a patrol car pulls up, knowing full well that they will be detained and frisked no matter what.” These tactics, ubiquitous in American inner cities, are unknown in predominantly white suburban areas or on college campuses, where drugs are just as prevalent. But as narrated through the lyrics of Tupac Shakur and of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, this “occupation” was immediately recognizable to three young men in Lydd, near Tel Aviv, who were inspired to form the pioneering and now world-acclaimed Palestinian hip-hop group DAM.

From the Old to the New Jim Crow

What is devastating about Alexander’s thesis is her explanation of how racial targeting was not just the outcome of this project but integral to its design. She traces the origins of this “human rights nightmare” to the lingering resentments and racial fears that accompanied the civil rights era. Among whites, the end of formal segregation had its greatest impact not on the liberal elites who were pushing the reforms, but on poor working-class whites, scarcely better educated on average than Black people. These whites faced what many saw as a social demotion. Poor whites were the ones expected to “bear the burden of this profound social adjustment even though many of them were as desperate for upward social mobility and quality education as African Americans.” Affirmative action, moreover, created the impression that Blacks were leapfrogging over whites. In the absence of a narrative, social investments, and a movement that could have given everyone a stake in the “nascent integrated racial order,” the situation was ripe for political exploitation.

Civil rights had made overt racial fearmongering unavailable as a political dis- course in the new era of colorblindness, but conservative, especially Republican, politicians “found they could mobilize white racial resentment by vowing to crack down on crime.”30 An ostensibly race-neutral but highly racialized discourse preyed on fears about social disorder, explicitly linking crime to the kinds of civil disobedience that had been practiced during the struggle to end Jim Crow. This was the essence of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to lure white voters away from the then-dominant Democratic Party. Nixon himself had explained to an advisor “that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.” Nixon’s 1968 campaign strategy, as presidential advisor John Ehrlichman explained, was to “go after the racists” and so a “subliminal appeal to the anti-Black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”

But it was Ronald Reagan who perfected this method by announcing the “war on drugs” in 1982 as a convenient vehicle to advance a racialized discourse on crime without having to use any explicitly racial language. Reagan’s “war on drugs” was never intended to be about drugs or crime, so the initial resistance from law enforcement agencies that couldn’t see the need for it was eventually broken by massive federal financial incentives, including the transfer of vast quantities of military weaponry to police forces across the country. When the “epidemic” of crack-cocaine use emerged in 1985, years after the drug war had been declared, the Reagan administration launched a massive propaganda effort, assisted by the media, effectively associating drugs and crime with people of color. Deeply entrenched stereotypes of “crack whores,” “crack babies,” and young Black men as feral “predators” took on the forms that shape perceptions and policies to this day. Israeli politicians, too, have aggressively portrayed Black African migrants and asylum seekers as a criminal class, despite the fact that their crime rate is lower than that of the general Israeli population—but without taking the care Reagan did to avoid explicitly racial language. In America, racialized yet overtly colorblind language has also found a use in international relations. As Joseph Massad observes, Israeli and American politicians, including Obama, frequently describe Israel as “living in a tough neighbor- hood” where Iranians and Arabs “are the ‘violent blacks’ of the Middle East and Jews are the ‘peaceful white folks.’”

The triumph of Reagan’s strategy was how quickly and thoroughly it was adopted by ostensibly liberal Democrats eager not to be seen as “soft on crime.” Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, the war on drugs, the militarization of policing, mass incarceration, and the number of rights and benefits formally denied to people labeled “felons” reached ever-more-astounding heights. The war on drugs, “cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress with- out being exposed to the charge of racism,” Alexander writes. And so it is little surprise that “mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial justice or civil rights issue.” The system now runs on autopilot, with no need for the major campaigns of the 1980s to convince the public of the need for the war on drugs. It requires no overt or conscious bigotry to produce these grossly disproportionate racial outcomes. The “war propaganda” has moved on to new ground: “Crack is out; terrorism is in.” The “colorblind” parallel should be clear: there was no need to call the “War on Terror” a “war on Muslims.” Everyone understood this—those fighting it as well as its victims at home and abroad—despite the constant assurances by public officials to the contrary.

Israel as Warning and Model

As America’s wars spread domestically and internationally, Israel and its occupation of the Palestinians have emerged as direct inspirations, not just as metaphor in the rhymes of hip-hop artists. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein offered Israel as a cautionary example for the rest of the world. The assumption in the early days of the “peace process” was that Israel needed peace in order to foster and sustain economic growth and prosperity. But in the post–9/11 environment, Klein shows how Israel transformed its economy into one “that expands in direct response to escalating violence” and has become the world’s “shopping mall for homeland security technologies,” reaping billions. In 2012, Israel’s “security” and “defense” industries, including conventional arms sales, saw record exports worth $7.5 billion, with much of the recent growth coming from the Asia-Pacific region. Israel’s arms exports have more than doubled from $3.5 billion in 2003, making it the world’s sixth largest arms exporter. Israel’s global sales of unmanned aerial vehicles—more commonly known as drones—are second only to those of the United States.

Klein says Israel has offered the “West” a simple pitch: “‘The War on Terror you are just embarking on is one we have been fighting since our birth. Let our high-tech firms and privatized spy companies show you how it’s done.’” “From a corporate perspective, this development has made Israel a model to be emulated in the post- 9/11 market,” but from a social and political perspective, Israel should serve as a “stark warning.” The fact that “Israel continues to enjoy booming prosperity, even as it wages war against its neighbors and escalates the brutality in the occupied territories, demonstrates just how perilous it is to build an economy based on the premise of continual war and deepening disasters.” As Klein shows, the United States has been a major market for Israeli technologies of surveillance and control that were frequently developed and tested on captive Palestinian populations. Indeed, four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip “have become little more than guinea pigs in military experiments designed to enrich a new elite of arms dealers and former generals,” according to a 2013 investigative Franco-Belgian–produced documentary by Israeli di- rector Yotam Feldman.Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, argues that this gives Israel even more reason to want to hold onto the West Bank. “The occupied territories are crucial as a laboratory not just in terms of Israel’s internal security, but because they have allowed Israel to become pivotal to the global homeland security industry,” Halper has observed.

Since 9/11, pro-Israel lobbying groups have created a veritable industry of shuttling police chiefs from major US cities to Israel to “learn” from the “best.” These missions function as important marketing opportunities for Israel’s “security” industry as well as to shore up ideological support for, and identification with, Israel among US elites. In 2010, the Jewish United Fund, in cooperation with the Israeli government and Israel’s notoriously abusive Shin Bet secret police, sponsored a high- level delegation of Chicago law enforcement officials to Israel, where they were treated to an “intensive seminar” on “intelligence-led policing techniques and responses to critical events.”Among the sites they visited were occupied East Jerusalem and “checkpoints for people, vehicles and cargo.” Israel’s oppressive and internationally condemned occupation regime was being openly touted as a model for Chicago, a city that Michelle Alexander identifies as already one of the worst places to see the devastating effects of racial segregation, militarized policing, and mass incarceration. This trip was the second of its kind; between the two delegations, commanders of every major division of the Chicago police had been to Israel, including Counter-Terrorism and Intelligence, Bureau of Investigative Services, Organized Crime Division, Mobile Strike Force, SWAT, and the city’s Office of Emergency Management. The Chicago Police Department “is today more effective operationally and tactically as a result of these two trips and the enduring partnership with our Israeli institutional and individual counterparts,” said department chief of staff Michael Masters.

A 2008 ADL-sponsored delegation with police officials from fourteen cities, including Miami; Philadelphia; Lexington, Kentucky; Mobile, Alabama; and Salt Lake City, Utah, featured tours of checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and a visit to Hebron, where one hundred thousand Palestinians have lived for years under lock- down so that a few thousand of the most extreme Israeli settlers can have the run of their city. Hebron is where some of the worst abuses by Israeli occupation forces have been consistently documented by Palestinian and international human-rights organizations. The Israeli organization Breaking the Silence collected testimonies from former Israeli soldiers stationed throughout the occupied territories between 2005 and 2011. One soldier from the Kfir Brigade, stationed in Hebron in 2006 and 2007, explained what he and his colleagues would do for amusement: “We’d be on patrol, walking in the village, bored, so we’d trash shops, find a detonator, beat someone to a pulp, you know how it is. Search, mess it all up. Say we’d want a riot? We’d go up to the windows of a mosque, smash the panes, throw in a stun grenade, make a big boom, then we’d get a riot.” It is no wonder that soldiers and settlers attack Palestinians with complete impunity, whether for fun or to take their land. Yesh Din, an Israeli legal advocacy group, examined 781 cases of criminal complaints filed by Palestinians for alleged criminal acts by Israeli civilians against people or property from 2005 to 2011. It found that 84 percent of cases were closed due to “investigational failures” and observed that the “failure to maintain an effective law enforcement mechanism in the West Bank indicates that the State of Israel is failing to meet its obligation to protect Palestinian civilians in areas subject to its military occupation.”

One recent victim of this lawlessness was Muhammad al-Salaymeh, who was shot dead by an Israeli Border Police officer at a checkpoint only feet from his home in Hebron on December 12, 2012, his seventeenth birthday, as he went out to buy a cake. The officer, Nofar Mizrahi, told Israeli media that Salaymeh, a talented athlete who attended acrobatics school, had seized her colleague by the neck and was holding a gun to his temple, even after she fired the first shot. A video released days later disproved the officer’s account. Salaymeh never pulled out a gun and held it to anyone’s temple. Although the video showed a brief altercation with one of the occupation soldiers, when Muhammad was shot he was not in contact with anyone and presented no danger.

Why did Muhammad die? What really happened? His case, like those of thou- sands of other shootings and killings of Palestinians by Israeli “security” forces and settlers, has never been credibly investigated. When it comes to the lives, limbs, and property of Palestinians, the advanced evidence-gathering techniques Israel show- cases for its American guests are nowhere in sight. But in cases where investigations do take place, Yesh Din found that 94 percent of criminal investigations by the Military Police Criminal Investigations Division against soldiers suspected of criminal violent attacks against Palestinians and their property were closed without indictments. Almost any Palestinian child knows he is without protection, including Atta Muhammad Atta Sabah, a twelve-year-old boy who was shot and paralyzed by an Israeli soldier in the Jalazoun refugee camp in the West Bank in May 2013, as he approached a checkpoint to retrieve a school bag soldiers had confiscated the day before. “I’m not expecting anything to happen to [the soldier who shot me],” Atta said in an interview with Defence for Children International. In the minority of cases where there were indictments, conviction resulted in very light sentences. Nevertheless, Chief Alan Rodbell of the Scottsdale, Arizona, police department came away from his tour of the occupied West Bank struck by the “Israeli people’s amazing capacity for compassion.” 

An October 2012 delegation to Israel, the tenth of its kind, organized by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, included officers from New York; Los Angeles; Oakland, California; Maryland; and Austin and Houston, Texas. On their itinerary was a visit to Megiddo Prison, near Haifa, notoriously one of the sites where Israel holds hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners. These include “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial, a practice Amnesty International has frequently demanded Israel end. These calls became more urgent as thousands of Palestinian prisoners, among them hundreds held without charge or trial, emulated Khader Adnan, an administrative detainee at Megiddo Prison who waged an epic sixty-six-day hunger strike in early 2012 to secure his release. These hunger strikes gained global attention, especially after calls on Israel from international football stars and Sepp Blatter, president of the global soccer federation FIFA, to release Mahmoud Sarsak. Sarsak, a twenty-two-year-old member of the Palestinian national football squad, was arrested on his way to a match and held for more than two years without charge or trial at Ramleh Prison. By the time Israel agreed to free Sarsak, he had been on a hunger strike for three months and was on the brink of death. Israel’s detention practices came under renewed scrutiny in February 2013, when Arafat Jaradat, a thirty-year-old father of two young children, died at Megiddo Prison after an interrogation by the Shin Bet. Palestinian human- rights groups and Physicians for Human Rights Israel observed that Jaradat’s death was “symptomatic of the utter disregard with which Israel holds the lives of Palestinian prisoners” after an autopsy found evidence that he had been tortured.

Megiddo Prison is also where Israel detains Palestinian children who are subjected to abuses amounting to torture. In 2011, sixty-eight of more than two hundred Palestinian children detained from the occupied territories were held there. In one case documented by Defense for Children International’s Palestine Section, in the same month as one of the visits by US police chiefs, Adham D., a sixteen- year-old from Nablus in the occupied West Bank, went with a friend to the Israeli military coordination office to apply for permits that would allow them to work in Israel. Instead, the boys were detained, cuffed, blindfolded, and marched on foot to the Huwwara detention center. Adham was then transferred from the occupied territories to the Al-Jalame interrogation center inside Israel, a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, where he was held for twelve days in solitary confinement in a filthy, tiny cell and subjected to frequent harsh interrogation. Adham said:

The mattress was very dirty. The toilet had a horrible smell and there were two holes in the ceiling that allowed freezing cold air in. The lights were dim yellow and left on the whole time. I spent 12 days in this cell. I could not tell day from night. I could not tell what time it was. I did not even see the prison guard who brought me food and passed it through a gap in the door. I did not sleep at all on the first night because I was so scared.

Adham described being bound to a small chair in a painful position (a frequent Israeli torture technique) and interrogated without access to a lawyer or his family. He denied accusations, typically leveled against Palestinian youths, that he had thrown stones or Molotov cocktails. But suffering from the cold, pain, and fear, he broke. “On the third day a doctor came to see me and asked me a few questions about my health but did not examine me physically. I was in bad shape. . . It was really hard to spend days and nights in the cell, not to mention that the interrogator told me all my friends had provided confessions against me. This is why I decided to confess,” Adham recalled. “Even though I confessed on the fourth day, I was interrogated for 11 days. The interrogator wanted information about other people in my town but I did not cooperate.” After that Adham was transferred to Megiddo Prison, where he remained as of early 2013.

Jamal S., sixteen, a Nablus teen who was snatched from his bed during a night raid on his family home by Israeli soldiers, also ended up at Megiddo that month. Like Adham, he was first taken to Al Jalame, where he was forced to confess to accusations he denied, with no lawyer or family present; the interrogator threatened him with prolonged solitary confinement. “I actually believed him when he said this,” Jamal recalled. “My body started shaking and I felt really dizzy. I begged him not to put me back in the cell and I confessed to throwing stones, Molotov cocktails and grenades at military jeeps, even though I never did it.” Adham and Jamal bear witness to just two examples of what Defence for Children International terms the “systematic and institutionalized ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities.” The abuse of children at Israeli facilities is so pervasive that the British–Danish multinational security company G4S has become a major target of international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns for providing security equipment to Al Jalame and Megiddo. G4S also describes itself as “the leading security company in the United States,” where it is a major contractor to federal, state, and local police agencies and runs numerous prisons and juvenile detention centers nationwide. Palestinians such as Jamal and Adham, if they ever face “trial,” would go before the military court reserved for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank; the conviction rate in these kangaroo courts is 99.74 percent.65

It is instructive to contrast this with the treatment received by Israeli settlers and their children, who, unlike Palestinians, go before Israeli civilian courts. Jamila Hassan, her husband Ayman, and their children, Iman, four, and Muhammad, six, were riding in a taxi in the occupied West Bank south of Bethlehem in August 2012, along with another passenger and the driver, when their vehicle was hit by a Molotov cocktail. Ayman and the two children were badly injured, with Muhammad suffering severe burns on his back, hands, legs, and face. “We are lost, our life has turned upside down, the father, son and daughter are each in different worlds, our life is difficult and we’re miserable,” Jamila told Ma’an News Agency two weeks after the attack, just as Muhammad emerged in agony from another surgery. “He screams from the pain a lot,” the child’s mother said.

Israeli police arrested three minors from a nearby Jewish settlement in the attack and told the judge who remanded the boys in custody that they had found finger- prints linking the suspects to the crime. According to Haaretz, Judge Yaron Mintkevich “said he rules to keep the boys in police custody with a heavy heart, due to their age,” which was reported to be between twelve and thirteen. But in January 2013, Israeli prosecutors dropped the case, citing a “lack of evidence,” even though the DNA of one of the suspects was found on a glove at the scene of the crime. Certainly, there was no question of the settler boys being kept in solitary confine- ment, shackled in painful positions, deprived of family contact and legal counsel, and otherwise abused until they confessed. It is unknown whether any children jailed at Megiddo, such as Adham D. or Jamal S., might have caught a glimpse of the visiting American police officials. But following the familiar script, Los Angeles Police Department commander Richard Webb praised the Israeli officials he had met as “world leaders and innovators in counterterrorism and security” who “do their duties while vigilantly protecting human rights.” Webb vowed to “take many lessons I learned back to Los Angeles.”

How widespread is the Israeli-American cooperation in policing? No comprehensive studies appear to have been done, but the claims made by Israel lobby groups alone are impressive. The Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs (JINSA), a neoconservative Washington think tank that advocates for Israeli interests, says it has brought more than one hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained eleven thousand more law enforcement officers across the United States since 2002. JINSA has worked closely with the US-based International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world’s largest organization of police executives. In 2008, an IACP luncheon hosted by JINSA honored the Israel National Police. One JINSA delegation to Israel that year included officers from the New York and Los Angeles police departments, the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the New York Port Authority, and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, which claims to have taken six thousand influential figures from dozens of countries to Israel since 1982, doesn’t only target law enforcement agencies in the United States. Recent delegations have included city, county, and state elected officials, “Latino leaders,” and a “civil rights” delegation. The American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of AIPAC, also frequently brings US law enforcement leaders on visits to Israel and the occupied territories.

It is also clear that the Israeli government is itself directly invested in promoting relations with US law enforcement agencies in order to boost Israel’s lucrative “homeland security” export industry. The Consulate General of Israel to the Mid- west in Chicago, for example, sponsored two visits by Israeli police officials in 2012 to address hundreds of US law enforcement officials in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. The participants “were encouraged to attend the HLS2012 Conference, Israel’s premier Homeland Security Seminar and Exhibition.” Ofer Sachs, chief executive officer of the Israeli Export Institute, one of the conference sponsors, explained that a key goal was to increase Israel’s “market share” of the estimated two-hundred-billion-dollar global homeland security sector.This weapons and security technology fair, held in Tel Aviv in November 2012, was addressed by much of Israel’s top military and security echelon, including former leaders of the Shin Bet secret police, Atlanta chief of police George Turner, and Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and US Secretary of Homeland Security (and now a homeland security profiteer). Turner is also chair of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, created by Congress at the height of the drug war to promote exactly the kinds of practices that have led to mass incarceration.

Journalist Max Blumenthal believes that examples such as these are only the tip of the iceberg. What he calls the “Israelification” of American policing came into full view with attacks on Occupy Wall Street movement protestors in 2011, but, he as- serts, it has taken place “at every level of law enforcement, and in areas that have yet to be exposed. The phenomenon has been documented in bits and pieces, through occasional news reports that typically highlight Israel’s national security prowess without examining the problematic nature of working with a country accused of grave human rights abuses” or the quality of what is being sold. Also unexamined is the fact that “former Israeli military officers have been hired to spearhead security operations at American airports and suburban shopping malls, leading to a wave of disturbing incidents of racial profiling, intimidation, and FBI interrogations of innocent, unsuspecting people.”

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.
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