How Counterinsurgency Tactics in the Middle East Found Their Way to American Cities

Many of the repressive police tactics and technologies used in the US have been developed in the Middle East to suppress dissent. Ending police violence at home must involve ending America’s wars abroad.

The Israeli Defence Forces in the Gaza Strip. (IDF via Getty Images)

A knee to the neck. A rubber bullet to the eye. A tear gas canister to the head. America spends $100 billion annually on policing, much of it supported by the exchange of material and counterinsurgency tactics used in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the “war on terror.” Raining down on American protesters in the current wave of protests, rubber bullets have a history stretching back to the British policing of Republican protesters in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, and the Israeli containment of Palestinians during the First Intifada in 1987. How have the military tactics and technologies used to suppress dissent in the Middle East found their way to America’s cities in the latest round of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests?

A Very Special Friendship

In May, protests erupted after the asphyxiation of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — an extrajudicial execution for the alleged use of a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill at a convenience store. Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, the store owner who contacted the police about Floyd, is himself a Palestinian-American, but may not see the connection between his being Palestinian and the choke hold that took Floyd’s life.

In 2012, a hundred Minneapolis police officers received training from Israeli consultants in Chicago, while another counter-terrorism training session, cosponsored by the FBI, took place in Minneapolis. Israeli deputy consul Shahar Arieli  commented on the training at the time, “Every year we are bringing top-notch professionals from the Israeli police to share some knowledge and know-how about how to deal with terrorism with our American friends.”

He conceded concerns that “law enforcement operations could violate civil rights,” speaking about a productive collaboration developing “terrorism prevention techniques.” That same year, the Minneapolis Police Department adopted those techniques — frequently used against Palestinians and protesters in the West Bank — and entered them into their use-of-force guidelines. In the last five years, Minneapolis officers have rendered forty-five people unconscious, including George Floyd.

The United States has long been Israel’s primary supplier of military weapons — a “special relationship” forged when the United States transported 2.2 million dollars of military assistance during the 1973 War. Over the decades, a complicated web of aid, military contracts, subsidies, and cash funds have been given to Israel.

More recently, the United States has promised 38 billion dollars over the next decade in military aid to Israel, with President Trump openly acknowledging that arms deals create jobs in the United States. Though it is not called economic stimulus, 100 percent of US aid is flushed back into Israel’s economy, and Israeli arms, in turn, are coveted in the global market because they have been field tested within the laboratory of human suffering called the West Bank and Gaza.

As Jeff Halper argues after September 11, the United States adopted Israel’s “security state” model where constitutional, civil, and human rights are subordinated to security imperatives. With security as the nation’s highest value, Israeli knowledge in policing terrorism, surveillance, behavioral science, profiling, torture, and maiming was transferred to various offices in the United States, among them the Department of Homeland Security, US marshals, police chiefs, Customs and Border Protection agents, the FBI, and the CIA.

At the time of this exchange, Israel was fighting a second Palestinian uprising, the Al-Aqsa Intifada. With the prevalence of civilian suicide bombers, Israel’s counterinsurgency focused on unarmed Palestinian and foreign protesters, as well as journalists resisting the army’s occupation tactics.

During this Second Intifada, a new practice known as “human shields” became military policy, whereby soldiers held the bodies of Palestinians as human armor in an act that left no doubt whose life was disposable in the logic of the occupation. Although Israeli courts made the practice illegal in 2005, it continues to be used in the Occupied Territories.

Because of the live rounds fired during the Second Intifada, Israel offered safety to “embedded journalists,” who would become mouthpieces for the Israeli military. The United States would borrow this policy for journalists a few years later in Iraq, using military law and disorder to undermine the democratic pillar of the free press.

As foreign peace activists and Palestinian protesters were shot with live sniper rounds during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, Israel developed a sophisticated public-relations campaign to counter its global image, part of which included partnerships with US law enforcement.

An extensive 2018 report titled “Deadly Exchange: The Dangerous Consequences of American Law Enforcement Trainings in Israel,” compiled by Researching the American-Israeli Alliance, documents how Israel’s policing tactics were transferred to US personnel. Over 250 police departments have received training inside Israel.

Moreover, Israeli Weapons Industries established two police training centers inside the United States: a police academy in Paulden, Arizona, and the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) Center, in partnership with Georgia State University in Atlanta. The same university offers degrees to Israeli personnel as a part of these exchanges grounded in the integrated knowledge of counterinsurgency.

Atlanta, one of the great black American cities, created a video integration center modeled after one frequently showcased during a training session in the Old City of Jerusalem. Near Atlanta is GILEE’s predecessor, the School of the Americas, where ten former heads of state in Latin America honed their skills in torture and repression.

That Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd could be killed by police in the street means the rules of the occupation are at play on US soil. Procedurally, the knee to the neck and other choking restraints should only be used when an officer believes their life is in imminent danger.

A week ago, an officer in Bellevue, Washington, restrained an unidentified black woman who asked to speak with the sheriff. As he pushed her to the ground he said, “On the ground or I’ll put you out,” a threat to render her unconscious or possibly dead with his choke hold. What does it say when black people appealing for their legal and human rights are interpreted by the police as life threatening?

The “no knock” warrant that broke down Breonna Taylor’s door and enabled police to shoot her eight times is not only the police equivalent of a drive by shooting, it’s a paramilitary tactic. In 2016, when the Houston shooter was “neutralized” using a robot field-tested in Afghanistan, it marked the first “targeted assassination” of an American citizen. The United States condemned extrajudicial killings in the Occupied Territories before adopting it for use on suspected terrorists.

The hallmark of the “war on terror” was the presumption that any youthful, able-bodied male is a terrorist body. Fighting-age brown male bodies were “neutralized” by the person controlling the drone in Yemen and Afghanistan who, like the police knocking down Taylor’s door, serves as judge, jury, and executioner. In the “war on terror,” all military-aged men were not counted as civilian casualties.

The very presence of the living black body of the African American and the brown body of the Arab are a threat regardless of whether they are carrying a weapon or not, whether they are a criminal or not.

“Humane War” on Home Turf

The killing, maiming, and imprisonment of Palestinian bodies is today considered “worst practice” of the Israeli occupation. When these brutal tactics caused an international backlash during the First Intifada, Israel responded by “softening” its approach with the adoption of rubber bullets — much as the British Army was moved to adopt rubber bullets as an alternative after the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre caused so much bad publicity.

Today, there are more than seventy-five different types of “non-lethal” projectiles labeled rubber bullets. A beanbag round recently entered the skull of a sixteen-year-old protester in Austin causing the kind of injury that has maimed and killed Palestinian protesters for over three decades. While Austin has since banned beanbag rounds, the overall militarization of the American police has effectively Palestinianized dissent in the United States, bringing counterinsurgency tactics that both the United States and Israel have been using against Arabs onto home turf.

In a series of peaceful, unarmed border protests called “The Great March” in Gaza from 2018 to 2019, over 10,000 Palestinians were maimed by Israeli snipers with state-of-the-art scopes on their guns aimed for the knees. Weapons designed to inflict maximum damage without killing by using ammunition that mushrooms and expands within the body.

When we look only at death, we overlook lifelong disability caused by “less-lethal weapons.” This new frontier is called “humane war.” It’s goal is to kill less people while maiming for life. Jasbir Puar has documented how less lethal weapons produce disabled bodies that will be fed back into the capitalist medical industry to be rehabilitated for a profit.

In his prescient work, Rubber Bullets (1998), the late Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi argued that Israel’s choice to use the apparently nonlethal projectiles against Palestinians was a moral turning point that threatened liberal democracy by compromising its principles for the sake of extreme nationalism. Rubber bullets and knees on necks have similarly brought America to the precipice. How do we fight back against the normalization of militarized police violence in our cities and the threat it poses to democracy?

Ending America’s “forever wars” is a start. Activists must demand a ban on surplus materials and tactics training acquired by the police from Israel and US counterinsurgency abroad. The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions national committee issued a powerful statement of solidarity calling for support for BLM.

Such solidarity is built on an understanding that what is happening inside the United States, though not identical, is intimately connected to technologies of colonization and brutal policing overseas, in places like Palestine. Addressing the crisis at home, means looking toward the United States’s influence — and inspiration — abroad.