During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yosrah Kafarnah feared for her family’s life. Situated in Beit Hanoun, a town close to the Israeli border that was the site of fierce fighting throughout the seven-week war, they fled to a nearby school for protection. Run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), Kafarnah was with her husband, Imad, and their two children. Israel attacked the school so they went to another one. “Gazans thought that UNRWA spaces were safe,” she tells me.
“I was scared when I saw fighting between Israel and Hamas,” she says, now sitting in her caravan, a temporary home made of tin that became semi-permanent. An Israeli surveillance blimp hovers in the sky as Imad explains how he carried injured people to hospital during the bombardment. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
A 2015 UN report found that Israel struck seven sites designated as civilian shelters in the 2014 Gaza war, killing 44 Palestinians and injuring 227. No Israelis have been charged for these incidents, or any attacks, during the war.
Beit Hanoun was particularly badly hit in the 2014 conflict and 70 per cent of its housing became uninhabitable. Today, sand, rubbish and discarded clothes remain strewn across the ground but the UAE, Qatar and the Maldives have funded some reconstruction. The Kafarnah family, like many I meet, live in shoddy caravans that are bitterly cold in the winter and extremely hot in summer.
The UN provides the bare minimum of oil, milk and wheat flour every three months, while the ruling Hamas government distributes a small amount of cash every quarter.
It is a desperate existence. Imad is unable to work due to a decade-old injury and he doesn’t want his wife to work because of the potential gossip in the community if she talks to unrelated men. It is a deeply conservative and religious area where men and women, who are not family, rarely mix. The couple have decided not to have another child because of their financial situation.
The precariousness of their existence deepened after Hamas recently ordered them to leave the caravan by the end of last month, because they want to build a market at the location. “I refused to sign the eviction papers,” Yosrah says. “Our caravan is in good shape and we are not told where to go. We cannot pay rent [at another place].”
Families in Beit Hanoun, many with up to 10 children, were told by the UN and Hamas after 2014 that they would have their houses rebuilt, but Israel and Egypt’s crushing siege of almost 10 years of the Gaza Strip ruined those plans. Furthermore, political infighting between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), corruption within Hamas and the UN, and a reconstruction plan that was arguably designed to fail from the beginning, have all contributed to today’s parlous state of affairs.
Gaza has experienced three wars in the past decade, each more devastating than the last. I last visited Gaza in 2009, six months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. I found an enclosed territory and population struggling to adapt to Hamas rulers and recovering from devastated homes and lives.
The 2014 conflict, that killed more than 2,250 Palestinians – hundreds of them children – and left thousands permanently injured, along with the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, still reverberates in Gaza; another war, just around the corner, is always feared.
According to the UN, more than 96,000 housing units were either destroyed entirely or in part during the 2014 war. During the conflict, 500,000 people – one quarter of the population – were internally displaced with nowhere to go.
In a report last year, the UN feared that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” within five years on current economic trends (though many Gazans worried it would happen earlier). Unemployment is at least 44 per cent and three-quarters of the population are threatened by hunger.
These struggles are ubiquitous across Beit Hanoun and the Strip. Farmers tend their small fields while dealing with frequent Israeli gunfire. Skin diseases appear on children’s arms and legs due to unhygienic conditions. Inside dirty caravans, cockroaches scurry around boxes of food. Disabled children barely leave their rooms because their families cannot afford care. One mother tells me that she often refused to send her son to school in the winter because his clothes were always wet. I see horrible scarring on a child’s buttock after a makeshift fire ran out of control. Cancer rates are up and bed wetting for children is common.
The social fabric of society is strained. The NGO Aisha Foundation reports that sexual abuse and domestic violence are soaring and yet the Hamas government wants to restrict public discussion about it. Executive director Reem Frainah says “women are not enslaved here”, but also that “there’s no equality between men and women. There are no laws to determine boundaries between the genders.”
In another caravan, with rotting floors, fraying equipment and dangerous gas stoves, Samaher Al Shenbari was recently told by Hamas that her dwelling would be destroyed to make way for a wedding hall. She opposed the forced relocation because there was nowhere to go. She says many of her family’s children have not accepted that their home was destroyed during the 2014 conflict and they suffer psychologically and physically because of the loss. “We want a new house,” she tells me. “We want all our families living together in one home.” She talks with a newborn baby cradled in her arms.
The Gaza Strip is unlike anywhere else in occupied Palestine. Its two million residents were punished after 2006 for voting the “wrong” party into power. Hamas defeated the American- and Israeli -backed PA and, since 2007 when Hamas assumed power, Egypt and Israel have imposed a stifling economic blockade on the territory, restricting goods and the movement of people. This year has seen a precipitous decline in Israeli permits granted for Gazans to leave and Egypt’s Rafah border is rarely open. Exports are minimal and the import of essential building materials is negligent. Economic activity barely operates because Israel has rescinded countless permits for businesspeople entering and leaving Gaza.
I meet countless Gazans who are literally trapped, constantly refused permission to travel abroad or into Israel to study, live or seek medical care. After Israel recently charged a Palestinian man in Gaza from the Christian charity World Vision with diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas – allegations challenged by his employer and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – Israel tightened its travel restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza working for NGOs.
Some Gazans, who can afford it, pay bribes to Hamas and Egyptian officials to put them at the top of the list when the Rafah crossing occasionally opens. Birth rates have declined in Gaza due to the hardships.
After the 2014 war, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) was established by the UN, Israel and the PA to facilitate rebuilding. The main donors are the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Britain and South Korea. NGO Aid Watch Palestine, which calls for the GRM to be replaced by a more accountable system, has assessed that “the GRM transfers enforcement of Israel’s policing to the UN and the PA, thus making the UN and the PA involved with Palestinian human rights violations, particularly the blockade on Gaza, which is a form of illegal collective punishment”.
Aid Watch co-director Haneen Elsammak tells me in Gaza that her group was started after the 2014 war because it was always foreign NGOs along with international groups, and not Palestinians, following the massive amount of aid money flowing into Gaza. Palestinians were rarely given control over their own lives.
UNRWA director in Gaza, Bo Schack, refuses to use the term “collective punishment” with me when describing the situation in Gaza. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam all condemn the blockade as “collective punishment”. He notes the UN in the past 12 months has rebuilt 1,300 homes and provides rent money to many residents. He acknowledges a US$70 million (Dh257m) shortfall for vital activities at a time when the Middle East is suffering multiple conflicts.
Schack says that when he started his job in Gaza in 2015, 850,000 Palestinians were receiving food assistance. “Today we are almost at one million,” he explains, “and that means we are supporting half the total population of Gaza.”
Israel is tightening its blockade on Gaza and in the last months has barely allowed any materials in at all, including cement and civilian infrastructure. Many builders tell me that they have fired countless workers this year because there is no work.
Contractor Saadi A S Salama says employees come to him crying because they desperately needed work to support their families. Private contractors have protested in the streets over the lack of goods getting through the borders.
Why has reconstruction largely failed? Engineer Ali K Abu Shahla says in his office in Gaza City, after spending decades working with Palestinian authorities, that, “even today, there is no plan for Gaza reconstruction”. He attended a key meeting in Jerusalem after the 2014 war where a process was drafted to reconstruct Gaza. However, it was proposed to include six people from the West Bank and only one from Gaza.
“I asked [then] why people involved were not from Gaza, why the major individuals had no experience or eyes and ears in Gaza,” he says.
The PA and Israel had little interest in helping the people of Gaza in the faint hope that a desperate population would overthrow the ruling Hamas regime.
To get a new home approved is still a tortuous process. Coordinates of the new property are sent to a committee and a group of both Israelis and Palestinians must approve it. According to Abu Shahla, “Israel has no right to veto properties but they keep projects ‘under construction’ for months and years”.
This committee allows Israel to know the GPS coordinates of all new structures, which many locals say could be used by Israel as targets in any future war, along with every contractor’s name and address.
The “dual use” list includes thousands of goods that Israel claims can be used for military purposes, but Israeli NGO Gisha argues that it “includes items whose use is overwhelmingly civilian and critical for civilian life”. Cement, steel and other major construction materials are allowed to enter Gaza by Israel if they are produced by Israeli companies. Israel is profiting after causing the bulk of Gaza’s destruction, and heavily taxing the goods they allow in.
Khalil Shaheen, director of economic and social rights with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, condemns the “dual use” list as inhumane. “Hamas may be using materials for tunnels, but what can I do as a Gazan civilian?”, he asks me. “Should I wait 15 years for a new home? Israel has a legal responsibility to protect civilians.”
A former NGO director for Gaza explains the Israeli rationale: “Their policy and approach is to put Gaza on the starvation diet and make things bad, but not so bad that it would lead to revolution or [a] swing of support in their favour internationally.”
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman recently told a Palestinian newspaper that Israel was willing to lift its blockade on Gaza, “if Hamas stops digging tunnels, rearming and firing rockets”. He claimed Israel would build an airport, port and industrial areas.
The future of Gaza remains tenuous. With Hamas leadership elections early next year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his 80s, and Israel reaching 50 years occupying Palestinian lands in 2017, Palestinian autonomy feels like a distant dream. Gaza’s humanitarian crisis reveals that without stronger international pressure, the territory will wither.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in East Jerusalem.
My investigation in US magazine The Nation (print and online) about Israel privatising its occupation of Palestinian land. It’s co-written with the great, London-based journalist Matt Kennard. This work continues my years-long research into disaster capitalism globally:
t’s 4:30 am with the moon still high in the sky, but Palestinians from across the West Bank are already disembarking from buses outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. They’re about to begin a day’s work on the other side of the separation wall, in Israel.
among the highest in the world, according to the United Nations), it’s always extremely busy at this early hour, because Palestinians need work, which is more readily available in Israel, especially in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.Qalandia is one of the busiest checkpoints through which Palestinians with the required work documents can travel from the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel. With unemployment around 26 percent in the West Bank (in Gaza, it’s far worse—
Roughly 63,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, though it’s estimated that 120,000 Palestinians work for Israelis; 27,000 of them are employed in illegal industrial zones in the West Bank that are operated and owned by Israeli companies, and 30,000 of them work illegally in Israel because they’re unable to obtain the necessary work permits. Permits to work in Israel are routinely revoked for spurious “security” reasons, and Palestinians are rarely given a reason for rejection. Since the so-called “knife intifada” last October, Israel revoked thousands of permits, citing fears of Palestinian terrorism, and the Israeli government is currently discussing a sizable reduction in the tax breaks granted to Palestinian laborers in Israel, which would make a significant dent in their already-meager wages.
In the early hours of the morning, Palestinian men (and only a handful of women) rush to beat the long lines and frequent Israeli closures at the checkpoint entrance. Such activity seems incongruous in the predawn hours, when the stark neon lights of the checkpoint are the only illumination for these harried workers. Many smoke cigarettes as they wait in line; one man wears a T-shirt with the words “Chicken Revolution” on the back.
The warehouse-like checkpoint looks like a cattle pen on the inside: Metal bars on either side and above form a narrow chute, enclosing and herding the workers—many of whom have traveled from villages more than an hour away—toward the point where their documents will be checked by Israeli officials. They then wait on the Israeli side for transport from their employers.
For years, these checkpoints were manned by personnel from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Border Police. But starting in January 2006, gun-toting private security guards joined the soldiers and police. Today, there are 12 checkpoints in the West Bank and two on the Gaza border that use such guards. Israel is slowly privatizing its occupation.
Many of the Palestinians we speak to are unaware of the changes. As far as they’re concerned, any Israeli with a gun and a badge is licensed to humiliate them. Day laborer Imad (like most Palestinians we interviewed, he didn’t want to give his last name) is standing in line at Qalandia and smoking a cigarette. He has slicked-back hair and wears a gray T-shirt. “If they are supposed to help, they don’t,” he says of the private security guards. “They are no different from the army.”
Just after 6 am, armed figures who initially look like Israeli soldiers start turning up; they’re wearing uniforms darker than the traditional olive green of the IDF, with a badge that reads “Ezrachi.” The company Modi’in Ezrachi is the largest security contractor currently employed by the Israeli government, and its personnel were among the first private guards the government used to staff its checkpoints. They can also be seen checking public buses in Jerusalem, protecting Jewish compounds in mostly Arab East Jerusalem (with the guards accused of terrorizing Palestinians and enabling settler violence), and standing watch at the city’s Western Wall plaza. Modi’in Ezrachi has repeatedly breached Israeli labor laws by underpaying its workers, along with other violations, but this has had no effect on its ability to get government contracts. This is a trend we’ve witnessed in many other nations, including Australia, Britain, the United States, and Greece, where governments and private security firms collude to avoid responsibility. (Modi’in Ezrachi did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its activities.)
When it comes to private security, the IDF, and the police, “we can’t differentiate between them,” says Reham, a 22-year-old medical and psychology student at An-Najah University in Nablus. Reham, who hails from Jerusalem, has six more years of study before she’s qualified to become a doctor. We speak to her and her friends just outside the chaotic Qalandia terminal.
“It’s miserable,” Reham continues. “Sometimes there are many people there, and you have to wait a long time. Sometimes you have to wait for an hour.” She was unaware that the checkpoints were being gradually privatized. “I haven’t noticed it. People take it [security] as a job.”
There’s a long history of humiliation inflicted on Palestinians at checkpoints. The Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem has released countless reports over the years documenting the abuse. The Israeli women’s organization Machsom Watch has been monitoring the checkpoints since 2001 and advocating on behalf of Palestinians whose work-permit applications are unfairly rejected.
Reham explains her own experience. “It depends on the individual soldier or policeman,” she says. “Sometimes they let you go; they don’t talk to you. Generally, girls are more mean than boys—I don’t know why that is.”
The Israeli NGO Who Profits, which tracks the private-sector companies cashing in on the illegal occupation of the West Bank, released a reportearlier this year that lifted the lid on this trend. “In recent decades,” the report stated, “many military responsibilities were handed over to private civilian companies, turning the private security industry into one of the fastest growing industries in Israel.”
PRIVATE MUSCLE IN THE LAWLESS ZONE
As the sun rises on another hot August day, its rays hit the separation wall near the Qalandia checkpoint; on it, one can see ads for apartments in Palestine. Coffee sellers do a roaring business among those waiting in line. A wall near the checkpoint features a large painting of men—“martyrs” to locals—from Qalandia village who have been killed by Israeli security forces.
On one level, it’s a mystery why Israel feels it needs more muscle at these checkpoints. Palestinians passing through already face a maze of confusion, and another level of security bureaucracy hasn’t helped. But even if more muscle is needed, why not just send more soldiers? After all, Israel has a captive security labor force in its large conscript army, which requires three years’ service for men and two for women (and reserve duty is obligatory for men until age 51 and for women until age 24).
Iyad Haddad, a 53-year-old field researcher with B’Tselem for the past 15 years, has spent his whole career investigating Israeli human-rights abuses against Palestinians. “Before, the Israeli forces were clear, with a clear uniform,” he tells us in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. “Sometimes, before the second intifada [which began in fall of 2000], they used undercover units by using civilian dress. But in that period, I don’t remember that they used private groups. But after the second intifada, I started to notice that there is a different type of tactic: using private Israeli forces and companies at checkpoints, guarding the barrier, doing security on the barrier and in the jails. Also guarding the settlements.”
“The Invisible Force,” which compared private security in Colombia, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, the International Institute for Nonviolent Action found: “Outsourcing began with the delegation of non-military services such as catering, transportation and other logistic services, then continued with the construction of military systems, including the separation Wall, and finally included the delegation of some of its functions of maintenance of public order and security in the [occupied Palestinian territories].”This move was part of a global trend, from Iraq to Colombia, in which private security and military companies increasingly began to assume state functions. Most companies started with more mundane operations but ended up carrying out those involving violence. In their 2016 report
It has become more confusing for Haddad to figure out who has committed violations, as many Palestinians aren’t aware that they’re dealing with private security forces. “Sometimes, Palestinians describe to me forces that I can’t recognize,” he says. He believes this is one of the main reasons Israel has turned to these companies. “They use them to escape accountability, especially because the people can’t recognize them, and it becomes easier for them to use force when they want [to do so] without accountability. Instructions regarding Israeli or international law are easier to escape via private forces.”
Haddad’s hunch seems to be correct. At the Qalandia checkpoint this past April, two Palestinians—Maram Saleh Abu Ismail, 23, and her brother Ibrahim Saleh Taha, 16—were shot dead by Modi’in Ezrachi guards. It was one of the first high-profile killings carried out by private security guards at a West Bank checkpoint. The siblings, who witnesses said didn’t seem to understand instructions in Hebrew, were branded “terrorists” by the Israeli police because one of them, Ismail, allegedly threw a knife at officers. Not long afterward, the justice ministry announced that it was dropping an investigation into the killings without charging anyone. The Israeli defense minister’s office, the IDF, and Modi’in Ezrachi all ignored our questions about the incident.
In theory, these private security guards could be prosecuted in Israeli courts since they’re not protected under Israeli law in the same way as police and soldiers. However, an Israeli court placed a gag order on the case (partially lifted in October), making it impossible to see footage of the shootings and prove the security guards were at fault. The family of the victims were given no recourse to justice. In this way, privatized occupation enforcement serves the interests of the Israeli state.
In its 2014 report “The Lawless Zone,” the Israeli nonprofit Yesh Din wrote that private security forces “are equipped with IDF weapons, undergo military training, and are empowered to undertake policing actions, such as searches and detentions, and to use force.”
At the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, which is surrounded by Israel’s separation wall, we witnessed Ezrachi guards checking the documents of bus and car passengers, taking on many of the roles that used to be done solely by state security forces or police. When we approached the guards, they scowled at us and told us to leave. Black smoke from burning rubbish, collecting near the separation wall, wafted through the air.
When we contacted the Israeli Ministry of Defense for comment about its matrix of control across the West Bank, we were told that “some of the crossings receive assistance from companies specializing in security and protection.” The ministry advised us to speak to the IDF for further details, because “the crossing points around Jerusalem” are its responsibility. But the IDF told us, “The Ministry of Defense is the appropriate body to speak with on this subject.” It was a Kafkaesque dead end that gave us a small window into the impossibility facing Palestinians who seek justice for loved ones killed or injured by private security contractors.
THE ETHOS OF PRIVATIZATION
From its founding in 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel was supported by much of the global left, which saw it as a socialist nation committed to social justice and equality. True, this was always a convenient myth that ignored the endemic and state-sponsored discrimination against the Arab minority (in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens lived under direct military rule from the end of the 1948 war until 1966). Until the mid-1970s, Israel had one of the smallest wealth gaps in the West (for Jews), with the welfare state providing decent support for its Jewish population. But by the mid-1990s, the gap between rich and poor had skyrocketed. Israeli academic Daniel Gutwein, who teaches at the University of Haifa, writesthat “Israel’s ethos of social solidarity has been replaced by an ethos of privatization.”
Of course, after Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the state never considered granting universal welfare coverage to Palestinians in the newly conquered territories. Palestinians under occupation were subject to military rule, a policy that continues to this day.
From the late 1970s, right-wing governments in Israel, led by the Likud Party, argued that dismantling the welfare state was the best way to liberalize the economy. Simha Erlich, Israel’s finance minister from 1977 until 1979, boasted that hardline economist and privatization zealot Milton Friedman was his economic adviser.
Shir Hever, author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation (2010) and a graduate student at the Free University of Berlin who specializes in security privatization, says: “In 1985, as the World Bank and the IMF imposed ‘structural adjustment plans’ on developing countries struggling with debt, the Israeli government voluntarily adopted such a plan. The Israeli ‘Stabilization Plan’ of 1985 was a transformative moment in the country’s economy, marking the shift from a social-democratic, planned market into a neoliberal one.”
Hever continues: “Actual privatization of large government-owned companies started in the 1990s, and privatization in the defense sector followed later, first with the sale of factories out of government-owned arms companies, and later with massive outsourcing of security operations to private companies during the second intifada.” Israel was following the model set by Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, the US military industry encouraged the Israelis to privatize their weapons industry.
Hever argues that privatization in Israel was driven by the same factors leading the charge internationally: “Private-sector investors used neoliberal ideology to claim that the government was inefficient in running businesses and were able to buy Israel’s telecommunications giant, its largest airline, its giant shipping company, oil refineries, and all but one of its banks at fire-sale prices.”
Health, labor, and education were targeted, and it wasn’t long before Israel’s middle class began to suffer from the brutal discipline of market forces. A calamitous drop in union representation and reduced regulations corresponded with falling living conditions. By the 2000s, membership in the Histadrut labor organization had dropped by two-thirds, from a figure of 2 million in the early 1990s. (Over the past decade, however, Israel has a seen a steady increase in union membership, as the country’s population struggles to survive financially.)
Today, the results of outsourcing are clear. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to selling off billions of dollars in state assets, a policy he’s proudly championed for years and one he started during his first term in office in the late 1990s. But the Israeli public is paying a high price. Israel now has the highest poverty level among the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to UNICEF, in 2016 Israel showed the highest level of inequality among children in the world’s 41 most developed states, with one-third living below the poverty line. In 2015, Israel’s National Insurance Institute estimated that there were 1.7 million poor people in the country, out of a population of about 8 million. The pay gap has also widened, and increases in the cost of living and high rents led to massive protests in 2011.
But not everybody is suffering. The country’s military establishment is both privatizing the weapons sector and selling this technology abroad. Israeli writer and activist Jeff Halper argues in his book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and the Global Pacification (2015) that the occupation isn’t a burden for Israel but a “resource,” because it gives the Jewish state the opportunity to test weapons and surveillance in the field on Palestinians, along with assisting other states in their military and intelligence needs. Growing numbers of European and US officials have been visiting Israel in recent years to learn about its security and defense systems.
Take the Israeli company Magal Security Systems, which surrounded Gaza with fencing, assisted construction of the barrier along the Egyptian and Jordanian frontiers in recent years, and is bidding to build a wall on the Kenya-Somalia border to protect Kenyans from Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks. The company’s head, Saar Koursh, recently told Bloomberg that “the border business was down, but then came ISIS and the Syrian conflict. The world is changing, and borders are coming back big-time.”
reconsider arm deals with Israeli weapons companies.” Indeed, Hever questions the viability of Israel’s defense industry. “The arms sector in Israel is larger compared to the size of the economy than in any other country in the world,” he tells us, “but its relative share of the Israeli export market is declining.” In 2015, Israeli military exports were relatively flat, at $5.7 billion.This is just one way that Israel’s vast expertise in occupation, from militarizing borders to surveilling unwanted populations, has become a huge financial boon for one sector of the Israeli economy. It isn’t helping most of the population—poverty is rife, after all—and according to economist Hever, it’s not enough to insulate Israel from potential economic headwinds from the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. “BDS is not about the size of exports but awareness of international law,” he says. “Recently, BDS activists have made some advances in regards to the arms industry itself, starting a debate in the EU about the funneling of research funds into Israel’s arms industry and convincing key Brazilian politicians to
Private companies have been investing for years in the settlement project. But that involvement, as well as the amounts of money being made, have increased dramatically in the past decade. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, “Occupation Inc.,” that detailed how “Israeli and international businesses have helped to build, finance, service, and market settlement communities.” It added, “In many cases, businesses are ‘settlers’ themselves.”
For Israelis, the West Bank has become a kind of special economic zone, where settlements often provide more profitable business conditions—low rents, favorable tax rates, government subsidies, and access to cheap Palestinian labor—than in Israel proper. It’s a draw for Israeli companies, but also for the international market, and a lot of money is being made. Foreign direct investment in the West Bank and Gaza spiked from $9.5 million in 2002 to $300 million in 2009, before plateauing back to $120 million in 2015. The American computing behemoth Hewlett-Packard, for example, developed the biometric ID cards used by Israeli security forces at West Bank checkpoints.
HRW reports that there are 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones in the West Bank, covering about 1,365 hectares, with Israeli settlers overseeing the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land. The researchers conclude that “by virtue of doing business in or with settlements or settlement businesses, [foreign] companies contribute to…violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses.” This knowledge is beginning to have an effect.
This is one of the contradictions of privatization. While Israeli state transgressions of international law are generally ignored by its biggest benefactor, the United States (President Obama just gave Israel its largest-ever military-aid package), the BDS movement has claimed some key victories in terms of pressuring the private sector over affiliations with human-rights abuses in Palestine. For example, the French infrastructure firm Veolia announced in April 2015 that it was leaving Israel, while the British mobile-phone company Orange said just a few months later that it would terminate contracts with its Israeli partner.
This poses the question of whether the privatization of the occupation is making Israel more susceptible to international opprobrium, including boycotts. The security company G4S, the biggest private-sector security employer in the world, announced in 2014 that it was leaving Israel within three years and terminating its contracts with the Israeli prison system. (BDS claimed a victory, but when contacted by The Nation, G4S said that while it still planned for a full pullout by June 2017, “the decision to not renew the contracts was taken for commercial reasons.”) That system now holds 6,295 Palestinians as prisoners and security detainees (including, at the end of 2015, 116 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 15). In 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that plans for fully private prisons were unconstitutional. But many of the systems and products used in prison—from cameras to doors to alarm systems—are made or managed by private corporations.
With the Middle East aflame, and Israel selling itself as an island of stability amid a region in conflict, there are few compelling reasons why the Jewish state won’t continue to market itself as a model in how to manage unwanted populations, with private companies the beneficiaries of this policy. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the colonization is increasing. Without massive international pressure, it’s impossible to see how the outsourced occupation won’t become a permanent nightmare.
, a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, is the author of Antony LoewensteinDisaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
I visited Guinea-Bissau in 2015 to investigate its role as a key drug smuggling hub.
My following essay appears in the African Arguments website:
Despite being as poorly governed as Zimbabwe and Angola, and having some of the lowest social development indicators on the continent, Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa’s forgotten states. With a population of under two million people and life expectancy of just over 50 years, the tropical West African nation barely makes international headlines, seemingly destined to remain a nation with little to export except for cashews.
However, if the former Portuguese colony is known for one thing, it’s for being a central hub in the smuggling of cocaine from South America to Europe. The nation has been labelled a “narco-state” by the United Nations, with its state institutions – both government and military – known to consistently enable South American drug cartels to sell drugs across its borders.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has even claimed that Guinea-Bissau is the world’s only example of a narco-state, with one official commenting: “In Afghanistan and Colombia, individual provinces are in the hands of drug lords. Here, it’s the entire state.”
Also unlike Colombia, where chaos has helped drug cartels, it is the relative calm in Guinea-Bissau that has benefited the industry though political dysfunction is ubiquitous. Since independence in 1974, an elected leader is still yet to complete a full term, and it has now been a year since there has been a workable government in place. In 2009, President João Bernardo Vieira and an army chief-of-staff were assassinated, and since then a litany of military insurrections have cursed the nation with five separate individuals holding the top job at different times.
Guinea-Bissau’s financial state is also dire. In the words of Finance Minister Henrique Horta this June, “The economic situation of the country is catastrophic”. This has contributed to a situation in which the woefully under-paid army has often been a key conduit for smugglers, while much of the cocaine snorted in Europe will have passed through the hands of poor fishermen in Guinea-Bissau looking to make a few dollars a day.
Guinea-Bissau has few viable industries and despite the natural beauty of the Bissagos Islands, for example, tourism is minimal. Instead, drug traffickers utilise the remoteness of the islands to store and transport cocaine. On Bubaque, the main inhabited island, there are no paved roads but runways used by drug smugglers to bring in their product. In recent years, there has been a slowdown in business due to stronger policing, but previously, local men got a regular income from unloading cocaine from boats and small planes from South America.
In the hopes of encouraging economic development, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have routinely given aid or loans. But this has instead facilitated corruption and led to a situation in which Guinea-Bissau is dependent on foreign aid for 80% of its annual budget. Even so, the IMF announced this September that it was considering giving yet more funds to a country with no functioning government.
Economically-speaking, China does seem to be looking to increase its engagement, and other countries are offering tentative support, but at it stands, the investment required to build up other industries such as tourism are simply unforthcoming.
Meanwhile, attempts to stop the nation being a drug transit point through more enforcement or legal have had mixed results. Through its Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, the US has invested huge resources. In 2014, this led to Jose Americo Bubo Na Tchuto, former head of Guinea-Bissau’s navy, pleading guilty in an American court to importing narcotics into the US. But this high-profile case had little pay-off. Na Tchuto was sentenced to only four years in prison in October this year. With time already served, he was released back to Guinea-Bissau.
A Herculean task
With so much ignorance surrounding the country, the new book Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State arrives at the perfect time. Edited by two academics from King’s College London – Patrick Chabal (who died in 2014) and Toby Green – the chapters examine the country’s history, politics and foreign relations. From agriculture and migration (many of its citizens flee across Africa and into Europe looking for employment opportunities) to the legacy of colonialism, Guinea-Bissau aims to highlight the rich history of one of Africa’s poorest countries.
This involves covering many difficulties facing the country, but as Green argues in his introduction, hope is not lost: “Unlike some of [its] neighbours such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Casamance region of Senegal, the country has not slipped into a prolonged civil war or rebellion”, he writes.
“Day-to-day life in the country remains peaceful, in contrast to the stereotyped image, and people frequently cooperate and marry across projected ‘ethnic divides’…The people have retained some autonomy and strength even through the worst passages of the political melt-down.”
Nevertheless, as the volume’s contributors explain by examining both historical and contemporary dynamics, Guinea-Bissau’s recent story is largely one of hopes dashed after independence and low expectations today.
Central to turning this around, of course, will be tackling the drug cartels, which are deeply embedded in the country’s political system. As Gambian historian Hassoum Ceesay explains: “While the narco-traffickers did not seize power, they were indeed extremely close to the centre of power; and while drugs did not run the country, traffickers took advantage of the state’s inherent weakness and exacerbated it by their presence.”
According to Ceesay, the only way to take the nation out of this morass is to reform the military, noting that without this, “it will be a Herculean task to set the country on the path of stability and growth.”
In her home on the outskirts of the capital Bissau, Dr Carmelita Pires, the former Minister of Justice, echoed this sentiment when we met in late-2015. “Until we have the capacity to organise, to establish authority, we will have drug smugglers coming to my country,” she said. “We need a consciousness uprising, to work hard.” I heard this message from people across the state, though few believed the current crop of political leaders were up to the task.
As long as global demand for drugs remains high, the illegal trade around it is all but guaranteed. And in Guinea-Bissau, weak justice systems, harsh prisons and corrupt policing can exacerbate the problem or create new ones rather than addressing the issue. Furthermore, given the flexibility of drug cartels, even if Guinea-Bissau, Guinea or Liberia were to become less favourable, other routes would grow in prominence, whether in West Africa or elsewhere.
More enlightened ideas such as decriminalising drugs in an attempt to reduce criminality and violence – as was done successfully in Portugal – currently have few supporters in Guinea-Bissau. But it may grow in popularity especially as many nations in Latin America also increasingly recognising the futility of trying to stop the drug trade through law enforcement.
As Green concludes, as long as Guinea-Bissau lacks economic and political stability, it “will continue to be seen as an ‘external threat’”. This means that ignoring the country and leaving it misunderstood should not be an option. In that sense, Guinea-Bissau: Micro-state to Narco-State marks a small but invaluable step in the right direction.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, Guardian contributor and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
Haiti is currently cleaning up from the devastating Hurricane Matthew but thankfully there are questions being asked about the viability and usefulness of foreign aid as well as the debts the poverty-stricken nation endures.
It’s a key theme in my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January), as I investigate where the billions of dollars of aid money has disappeared in Haiti and which companies and corporations are turning a profit. Haiti is also a featured country in my documentary in progress, Disaster Capitalism.
A piece in The Conversation this week, by academics Jason von Meding and Giuseppe Forino, criticise the global response to the latest Haitian disaster:
Investigations have revealed that the actors of predatory capitalismrushed to secure quick and easy profits in the wake of calamity. This has helped to prevent any serious effort to address disaster risk by sidelining local stakeholders.
Under the guise of goodwill and solidarity, the United States has officially supported what journalist Antony Loewenstein calls “the latest incarnation of a tired model that failed to deliver long-lasting benefits to locals, but instead delivered cheap labour to multinationals”.
No argument for skills development and employment opportunities can really excuse abusive labour practices. In Haiti, these simply reinforced underlying vulnerability and made a mockery of the commitment to “build back better”. In reality, the United States’ interests have been protected and served in Haiti for a century.
Last December US magazine The Nation published my investigation into the resource curse in Afghanistan. I visited the war-torn country in 2015 to film my Disaster Capitalism documentary (we’re currently working on the rough cut).
I’m always glad that more, non-English speaking readers, can discover my work.
A few months ago I was interviewed on the US radio program, Writer’s Voice with Francesca Rheannon, about my book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (out in paperback in January). We spoke for an hour about war, immigration, Haiti relief and people making money from misery.
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
From its beginning, Israel’s settlement project was shrouded in secrecy. Newly uncovered documents from 1969, two years after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, revealed that the military censor was used to keep documents hidden that proved the establishment of illegal settlements.
After 50 years of occupation, Israel is a radically different country than in the late 1960s. Zionism, with a messianic and nationalist fervour, is in the ascendancy while liberal and more tolerant humanism is dying. Although Israel was celebrated by the global left as a socialist paradise, conveniently ignoring the roughly 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed during its founding in 1948, today’s Israel is entrenched in the belief that Israeli control of Palestinian land and resources is essential for its survival. Palestinians are barely heard in the Israeli media, their voices and views largely invisible. Many in the Israeli left are leaving, disillusioned with their country and its move towards an ethnocracy.
Supporters of the two-state solution are fearful that the occupation is now permanent. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation and yet liberal Zionists are desperate to maintain Jewish privilege. The “Decision at 50” movement is pushing for a referendum – for Israeli citizens only – on the fate of the West Bank. Its website calls on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask Israelis “whether Israel’s vision includes one state between the river and the sea or a two state solution”.
In theory, this sounds like a sensible idea but it’s a deeply flawed proposal. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are given no voice on their own future. After all, they bear the brunt of Israel’s military occupation. Secondly, Israelis have made it abundantly clear, over countless elections, that ever-expanding colonies in the West Bank and regular bombardments of the Gaza Strip are both necessary and morally defensible. World powers, despite occasional complaints, have done nothing to change this view including buying the latest Israeli weapons and technology battle-tested on Palestinians.
Living and travelling around Israel and Palestine, I regularly hear disparaging comments about Arabs by Israeli Jews, unwilling or incapable of imagining them as anything other than a threat to be neutralised and placed behind walls and fences. Palestinians and Israelis have barely any physical contact these days and the majority of Palestinians view Israeli Jews as brutish occupiers who steal their livelihood. They only see them as rampaging settlers or uniformed soldiers.
A recent article in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, revealed the mainstream Israeli mindset. Written by a former settler spokeswoman, Emily Amrousi, she longed for “the day we decided to win”.
“We made the decision to destroy terrorists’ homes with no advance warning”, she wrote. “We deported the families of terrorists. We wrapped the bodies of terrorists in pig skin. ‘They’ve gone crazy,’ everyone said. Yes, we had already gone crazy, when they murdered a young girl in her bed.”
After five decades of occupation, with no end in sight, no interest in establishing a Palestinian state or giving full rights to all Arabs, the international community has a decision to make. It can continue to indulge Israeli policies or take concrete action to change them through severing military or diplomatic connections.
Two-state backers are often called the “peace process industry” because they’ve been making money for decades writing opinion pieces and being hired by politicians to convince sceptics that peace is just around the corner if Palestinians capitulate and Israel removes a few settlements.
There are more than 500,000 settlers living illegally on Palestinian land. Moving them all is an impossibility. Besides, Israel feels no real pressure to do so.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sell themselves as Israel’s best friends but in fact they’re its worst enemies, funding its insatiable appetite for never-ending expansion. With many Middle East states consumed by civil war, freedom for Palestinians is now a fifth tier issue in the diplomatic community.
Could the occupation last another 50 years?
Quite possibly, if Israeli hardliners annex vast swaths of the West Bank, kick out Palestinians by stealth and continue selling to the world the methods, technology and ideology that celebrate the control of a people led by corrupt leaders.
Next year’s occupation anniversary will be marked with global protests, loud voices of opposition and harsh denunciations of Israel. But the occupation is permanent and sustainable unless Israeli Jews are made to pay an economic price for it. Daily life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation is barely discussed in the Israeli media. Colonisation is seen to be almost cost-free. A healthy society would never tolerate millions of people living under military rule.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist in Jerusalem
There are growing moves to privatise more prisons in New South Wales, Australia despite the disastrous experiences of outsourcing prisons and detention facilities in the UK and US.
I was interviewed today by Australian current affairs show, The Wire:
Australian company Wilson Security recently announced it would withdraw from working in Australia’s offshore detention facilities from October 2017. It’s one, small positive step in the collapse of Australia’s privatised immigration network.
I was recently interviewed about this development and privatised detention on ABC Radio’s 702 Sydney with host Wendy Harmer: