Members of the BOPE (Brazilian Special Police Operations Unit) in Brazil. (Flickr/André Gustavo Stumpf)

How Israeli companies market repression in Latin America

Militarization in Latin America is not new, but in recent decades, Israeli weapons, training and expertise have been key to its expansion in the region.
Members of the BOPE (Brazilian Special Police Operations Unit) in Brazil. (Flickr/André Gustavo Stumpf)

On the first day of our Antimilitarism in Movement conference, Nada Hussein discussed the impact of Israeli militarization around the world. Here is an edited version of her speech:

As a Palestinian refugee, as a woman, and as a human rights’ defender, I am here to share my experience with Israeli militarization. This is not a personal experience — this is the experience of all my people, who share a fear that the whole world will become a replicated copy of the Israeli militarized doctrine. I am here to re-emphasize the importance of all the groups and movements that are subject to this doctrine to join our efforts, and to put an end to the arms race around the world.

Very quickly, I am going to share some examples of what life is like for Palestinians living under Israeli militarization and apartheid:

  • Palestinian communities face collective punishment, such as the closure of whole villages, roads, checkpoints and house demolitions. The Israeli state destroys Palestinian houses for a number of reasons. In Jerusalem this approach is used to push people outside the borders of East Jerusalem and into the surrounding areas.
  • Palestinians have a whole different understanding of time and distance as a result of the checkpoints. Journeys are extended to avoid checkpoints.
  • Palestinians are subjected to night raids, when soldiers are ordered to shoot to kill or to create physical disabilities.
  • Palestinians and Israelis live separate lives, with different laws — a form of apartheid. For example, Palestinians are deprived from many academic and career opportunities.
  • In June 2019, a Palestinian prisoner died in an Israeli jail as a result of medical negligence. Palestinian female prisoners went on strike to protest their living conditions, especially the installation of security cameras. Families of prisoners face insulting measures during visits and when attending trials, including strip searches, harassment and being arbitrarily stopped from visiting their loved ones.
  • Our bodies are militarized, including my own body. As a woman, Israel considers my ability to reproduce a threat, and therefore, all Palestinian women are targets. Israeli politicians have called for killing or raping women.

Considering all that, it scares us, as Palestinians, to see this replicated in other parts of the world. Militarization in the global south, especially in Latin America is not new, but in recent decades, Israeli weapons, training and expertise have been key to this militarization.

Exporting repression

Latin America has had a key role in the development of Israel’s military industry. In 1973, Israel’s first major export of war planes was concluded with the dictatorship in El Salvador. In the following years, Israeli Arava planes reappeared in various countries, including the killing fields of the dictatorships. For example, they were used in the “death flights” during the Dirty War in Guerrero, Mexico, when they used them to throw activists and community leaders into the sea.

Israeli military support for Latin American dictatorships has been enormous. The percentage of purchases of Israeli weapons during various dictatorships include:

  • Argentina (1976-1983) 95 percent
  • El Salvador (1972-1979) 92 percent
  • Honduras (1972-1981) 81 percent

Still today, the most repressive, most right-wing regimes and coup regimes in Latin America all rely on Israeli support; Honduras has received help since the beginning of the coup against President Zelaya, Bolsonaro’s government is looking for military and security cooperation with Israel, and Colombia’s President Uribe was one of the biggest buyers of Israeli weapons.

Many police forces and intelligence units in Latin America were trained by Israeli units like the Mossad (Israeli foreign intelligence force) and “private” Israeli security companies. In Guatemala in 1982, the “Dos Erres” massacre was committed by soldiers trained by an Israeli company called ISDS, using weapons manufactured in Israel. ISDS is still operating in many countries around the world, including Brazil and Mexico. In the favelas in Brazil, the militarized police unit BOPE (Special Police Operations Unit) cooperates with ISDS, and the methods of repression in the favelas and in Palestine are very similar. BOPE occupies the rooftops of homes to control and kill people, just as the Israeli military does in Palestinian cities. What we call “flying check-points” — temporary, ad-hoc military control posts where people are stopped, harassed and sometimes killed — is another feature regularly used in both the favelas and in Palestine.

Colombia has its own history of Israeli trainings. Yair Klein, is a former lieutenant in the Israeli army and founder of Spearhead Ltd, a private mercenary company. Through Spearhead Ltd, Klein trained the infamous AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), a coalition of right-wing death squads. Klein has been convicted by a Colombian court but never extradited, and is living freely in Israel.

Cyber espionage is another top seller of Israel’s military industry. Pegasus is spy software used against human rights defenders, journalists and others by repressive regimes across the globe. Facebook recently banned another Israeli company called Archimedes, which — similar to Cambridge Analytica — specializes in manipulating elections. Archimedes have been highly active in Brazil, among other countries.

It is important to understand that these tech companies are anything but independent from Israel’s military and political strategy. The revolving door between Israel’s top spy unit — military intelligence Unit 8200 — and the country’s hi-tech and cyber sector is confirmed by Yair Cohen, a former commander of Unit 8200 and today heads the intelligence cyber department of Elbit Systems, who said: “It’s almost impossible to find a technology company in Israel without people from 8200.” The process is quite simple: former Unit 8200 personnel are allowed to use the unit’s technology to build their own start-ups (sometimes making immense profits) and in turn can use them to influence politics, support their allies or gain access to information across the globe.

Many Israeli arms and technologies are sold as “field tested” or “proven effective in field,” meaning they were used and proven effective on my people in Gaza and the West Bank, and will be used against other groups and movements fighting for social justice.

More than weapons

Israel doesn’t just market weapons — it also sells its military doctrine, a doctrine built on the belief that in addition to external threats, people inside also are a threat and therefore must be controlled and monitored. After decades of training and policy dictations, this militarized mentality has caught on with Latin American regimes. As a result, the lines between military forces and police forces have vanished in many countries.

Militarization is no longer only about different weapons or vehicles, but has become a matter of controlling all aspects of people’s lives through systems of surveillance and cyber security. Through initiating programs like “Smart Cities,” regimes are installing systems (mostly Israeli) to control and monitor people. Israeli drones are sold all over the continent and are proven to be used against social and peasants movements, in addition to other surveillance and security technologies.

Based on all that, it’s only fair to argue that forcing a military embargo on Israel isn’t just important for Palestinians, but it’s also very important to the nations in Latin America and all over the world.

Calling for an embargo

In 2005, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions coalition formed. BDS is a form of nonviolent pressure on Israel, with three demands:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall,
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in U.N. Resolution 194.

In 2011 the BDS Palestinian national committee issued a call for a comprehensive military embargo on Israel, and started an international campaign. Israel’s military occupation and apartheid regime simply couldn’t continue to violate our rights day after day if governments around the world ended military and security relations with Israel. It would be economically and technologically unsustainable.

The military and security industrial complex is a core component of Israel’s economy and ensures the sustainability of its military aggression and occupation: according to Israel’s ex-defense minister Ehud Barak, 150,000 Israeli households — or about 10 percent of the population — depend economically on this sector. Israel has licensed 6,800 arms and security services providers, making this the largest industry in Israel. This still doesn’t count the hi-tech sector, largely depending on the commercialization of intelligence and military research and applications. Only an effective military embargo can make peace and justice more profitable and interesting for Israel’s establishment than continued war and aggression.

While it’s clear that a full military embargo could only be achieved through a U.N. resolution, activists can:

  • pressure banks and companies to divest,
  • protest Israeli military presence in their countries,
  • academics can submit motions and petitions pressuring their institutions to stop joint military research with Israeli universities,
  • campaign against complicit corporations,
  • lobby parliamentarians and political party representatives,
  • lobby local authorities and governments to take action.

This campaign is having an impact with lots of evidence that joint efforts and continuous campaigning can affect the global structure of militarism:

  • Many banks and financial institutions have divested from Elbit Systems,
  • Elbit lost contracts in France and Denmark after public campaigns,
  • G4S lost contracts worth millions of dollars with unions, banks, universities and other bodies,
  • Dozens of city councils, including the cities of Dublin and Barcelona, have endorsed a military embargo of Israel,
  • Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil cancelled a satellite program with Elbit Systems,
  • The first U.S. cities have pledged not to allow their police to be trained by Israeli companies.

The scope of the military embargo campaign is widening, more activists and groups are joining, and we won’t stop until Israel complies with international law, and until all oppressed people around the world achieve their rights of freedom, justice, self-determination and sovereignty.

This story was produced by War Resisters

War Resisters is a joint page shared by War Resisters International and War Resisters League highlighting pressing antiwar topics of today. WRI is an internationalist network of antiwar groups struggling to end the root causes of war around the world. War Resisters League is an independent organization based in New York and a proud member of War Resisters International.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.