Perhaps more than any other book published in recent years, The Palestine Laboratory demonstrates why Israel is a menace, not only to Palestinians and other Arabs whose countries it has invaded or bombed at one time or another, but really to people around the globe. Anyone who criticizes or mobilizes against their own authoritarian governments will likely have to contend with an Israeli weapon or technology designed to enhance government control over them and make dissent costly, if not impossible.
The arms industry is central to the Israeli economy, Antony Loewenstein notes: in 2021, arms sales surged to $11.3 billion; cybersecurity revenue that same year was about $8.8 billion, made from just 100 sales. Yet, the U.S. Congress rushes to grant astronomical aid packages to a country that can manage very well without them, thanks to its niche industry.
The broad contours of the story can be summarized. With massive reparations from West Germany, Israel started its arms industry. (Remember that the next time Israel cries victim.) It proceeded to market its weapons, indifferent to who was buying or how they were being used. Its client list includes countries whose atrocities against their own citizens made the second half of the 20th century so bloody: Chile under Pinochet; the death squads of Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Colombia; apartheid South Africa; Nicaragua under Somoza; the SAVAK in Iran under the shah; the Hutus in Rwanda; Argentina during the junta, which provided a safe haven for Europe’s Nazis after World War II. (This is a partial list.)
In June 1967, Israel occupied the land that became its Palestine laboratory. From then on, it could and did market its technology as battle tested (a key selling point)—mostly on noncombatants, which suits its customers because that is the profile of their targets, too. As Israeli colonization of the Palestinian territories became deeper, its methods of domination became more varied, and these were marketed to ethnonationalist governments looking for ways to control their own unwanted populations: asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border, refugees heading for Europe, the Maya in Guatemala, Muslims in Myanmar, Blacks and Indigenous people in the United States (with Israel training increasingly militarized U.S. police forces), the Kashmiris and Muslim minority in India and many, many more.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 provided a convenient excuse for governments around the world to implement “security measures” that dovetailed nicely with the impulses of authoritarian governments, and where those governments expressed a need, Israel was available to provide a solution and rake in the money. (As Binyamin Netanyahu observed in a rare truthful moment right after the attack, it was in fact very good for Israel-U.S. relations.) After 9/11, governments went beyond simply fighting “terrorism” to a “wholesale reimagining of what societies would look like in the 21st century,” Loewenstein writes.
Surveillance was a huge part of that vision, and where else to get surveillance and facial recognition technology than Israel, which has placed Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza under surveillance around the clock. Thanks to Israeli ingenuity, assassinating opponents by drone is as easy as (and requires less deliberation than) ordering a pizza. Drones bought by the U.S. from Israel and used in Iraq and Afghanistan killed an estimated 22,000-48,000 noncombatants in a 20-year period. There is no reason to believe that such high “collateral damage” is regarded as a problem or shortcoming that requires fixing, since the technology continues to be used.
It is disheartening to read about the many governments that regard Israel’s confinement and mass surveillance of Palestinians (particularly those in Gaza) as an attractive model to be implemented in their own countries against unwanted groups. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Israeli company Elbit set up surveillance towers. Since the 1990s, about 7,000 migrants have died on the border attempting to elude those towers.
Loewenstein discusses the Israeli companies, such as NSO Group which created the cell phone Pegasus spyware, and the cordial relations between high-tech companies and the Israeli government, united in the aim of suppressing pro-Palestinian social media content. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden was reportedly shocked by the extent of U.S. spying on the private communication of Palestinian Americans, which was then shared with Israel and could be used to target relatives under occupation; he judged it to be “one of the biggest abuses we’ve seen.” And in the occupied territories, every phone conversation can be listened to for the purpose of deciding who to kill or to blackmail.
Loewenstein states that he wrote this book as a warning: authoritarian, ethnonationalist governments emboldened by Israeli technology could become the new norm. The warning takes on additional urgency when seen in conjunction with the recent push by Israel and its agents, prominent among them the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the Anti-Defamation League, to rebrand criticism of Israeli policies as hate speech. This book shows why the world must never allow Israel to get a free pass.