Talking Palestine with the South China Morning Post

My interview with Alex Lo from the South China Morning Post newspaper about my new book, The Palestine Laboratory. Many interesting conversations here but particularly about China’s potentially growing role in the Middle East and how this could impact the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The full interview transcript is below:

Israel has occupied Palestinian territories for more than half a century. During this time, a militarily enforced system of repression has been refined with new technologies of surveillance and spying. As a result, according to investigative journalist and bestselling author Antony Loewenstein, the country has developed a hi-tech surveillance industry whose technologies are being sold to autocracies and democracies alike.

“What happens in Palestine does not stay in Palestine,” he warns, and the never-ending occupation not only concerns Palestinian human rights and self-determination, but has implications for the right of privacy of citizens around the world.

1. Let’s start with the title of your new book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. What do you mean by “laboratory”? And what kinds of surveillance and control technologies have been selected for export to other countries?

After running the longest occupation in modern times, 56 years and counting in Palestine, Israel has developed a variety of tools and technologies to control an “enemy” population, the Palestinians. These Palestinians are guinea pigs for a range of defence equipment, from spyware and smart walls to facial recognition and biometric tools to drones.

When Israel promotes them, whether publicly or privately, it says that they are “battle-tested”. They often use that term. In other words, they have been tried, tested and tweaked in Palestine – that might be a war against Gaza or some actions in the West Bank. What happens in Palestine does not stay there. It has been exported across the globe.

Many countries, both democracies and autocracies, are super keen to get those tools Israel is so keen on selling. Over 130 nations have purchased some form of Israeli weapons in the last decades, insulating Israel from any political headwinds against its illegal occupation of Palestine. Israel is now the 10th biggest arms exporter in the world, a remarkable feat for a nation of a relatively small size.

2. Before the new tech, Israel had already exported its security expertise, such as police tactics, internal security, as well as military and special operations training to other countries. Is selling its control and surveillance tech a logical and even more profitable extension of the export of security measures and skills?

That’s true to an extent. Other countries also use war to battle-test weapons. The US did that extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 for the last 20 years. In the current Russian war against Ukraine, US surveillance and weapons companies have been testing their weapons and selling to Ukrainians.

The difference with Palestine is that there is this constant, never-ending occupation in Israel’s backyard. The US has Iraq and Afghanistan but at least those wars are nominally over; and those countries are in complete chaos.

Israel has long been a global master at counter-insurgency and that’s why so many nations, including repressive states in Latin America and Africa, have asked Israel to assist them in their own battles against internal enemies, dissidents, journalists and critics.

Israel was a key ally of apartheid South Africa, both in arms sales but also due to an ideological affinity. They viewed themselves as noble nations battling forces that wanted to destroy them. It was a racist delusion, of course, because they both oppressed their “unwanted” populations and Israel was inspired by South Africa’s use of Bantustans [confined enclaves] to encircle black citizens.

My book is filled with research and examples of Israel selling itself as the ultimate master of the “war on terror”, long before 9/11, due to its daily experiences in the West Bank and Gaza.

3. Can you explain what “Pegasus” was and the company behind it? Why was it such a big deal for the rest of the world?

Pegasus is the world’s most infamous spyware, run by Israeli company NSO Group, founded 15 or so years ago by veterans of the Israeli military. Its vision was to hack what was then the popular BlackBerry, but of course, it has moved on to iPhones and others.

It has the power to completely control your mobile phone and access everything on it including emails, voice messages, photos, videos and texts. It has been purchased by dozens of countries, democracies and dictatorships, because they want to monitor human rights activists, journalists, dissidents, rival politicians and perceived enemies. The proliferation of spyware risks killing privacy entirely because a citizen will not know if his or her phone is compromised.

What has been mostly ignored is that, though it was framed as a rogue Israeli company selling a horrible technology around the world, this is an arm of the state. What the Israeli government under [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has been doing in the last 10 or so years is, they go around the world to nations they want to be friends with – this could be Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Rwanda – and they hold out this technology as a carrot. Netanyahu met some of these leaders, and six or 12 months after those meetings, Pegasus had been deployed in those nations.

Pegasus has caused a huge number of scandals because it’s a technology that’s borderless and without any meaningful regulation. In my book, I speak to a number of Pegasus victims who tell me that discovering that their most intimate information had been breached on their phone made them feel violated and scared.

Back in the day, its first major client was Mexico. Mexico was then fighting a completely disastrous war on drugs and the Mexicans were desperate to get information about drug cartels and other criminals. They bought a lot of that technology. In fact, even to this day, Mexico remains the biggest user of Israeli spyware in the world.

Authorities become addicted to this technology. Why? Because they are so keen to go after perceived enemies and criminals, journalists, dissidents and human rights workers.

But the issue here is not just Pegasus. It’s the most infamous, but there are countless other Israeli companies that are doing it. In the last few years, as Pegasus has received a lot of bad press, smaller Israeli spyware companies have come to the fore. If Pegasus were to disappear, the problem doesn’t end there.

4. What is being done to regulate surveillance tech like Pegasus and how worried should ordinary citizens of the world be?

The [Joe] Biden administration says it wants to quash any kind of invasive spyware and has sanctioned the NSO Group. On the face of it, that seems like a positive development, but it’s not. The US itself is still using Pegasus and other spyware tools.

More importantly, this really goes to the heart of the US-Israeli relationship, which you think is very close. But there is a degree of competition. America does not want any kind of potential competitor to its NSA [National Security Agency], arguably the world’s most influential intelligence-gathering organisation. The US is worried about Israel stepping on its turf.

So, if you are trying to quash a competitor to your own spying technologies to keep your own companies’ spyware dominance, this is what it’s about, rather than about human rights being breached.

The [European Union] is at the moment flirting with the possibility of banning spyware. But this technology will continue to proliferate because very few nations, in fact no nation would just want to give it up. They want to have the right to use the technology themselves.

Pegasus is just the tip of the iceberg of Israel surveillance tech. A lot of nations are looking for alternatives after NSO Group generated so much bad press in the last years. Beyond spyware, Israel is testing in the occupied Palestinian territories sophisticated facial recognition technology, biometric tools, missile defence systems and drones to monitor every aspect of Palestinian lives. Without regulation of these weapons, we will live in an increasingly monitored world with little privacy.

5. Do you expect China to play a bigger role in the Middle East, particularly in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the coming years?

China’s recent intervention in the Middle East, trying to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a peace agreement, was a welcome sign of Beijing’s more assertive moves in the region. Israel was unhappy with this arrangement because it wants to keep Tehran as the enemy hated by all of its allies.

China has suggested that it would like to be more involved in bridging the divide between Israel and Palestine but it must learn the lessons of why Washington has failed for so long. The US has been “Israel’s lawyer”, never viewing the Palestinians as equal partners, so Beijing must come to the table with an understanding that these aren’t two equal sides in a never-ending conflict but a colonial aggressor, Israel, unwilling to stop illegally settling Palestinian land.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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