From the Gazan Laboratory to the World’s Borders: A Conversation with Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper with his book War against the People.

In 2012, at a border security conference I attended in El Paso, Israeli brigadier general Roei Elkabetz gave a PowerPoint presentation to a large group of border industry insiders and border officials, including uniformed Border Patrol agents, about how Israel approaches border enforcement, with an array of walls and “smart” surveillance technologies. “We learned lots from Gaza,” the brigadier general said. “It’s a great laboratory.”

A few years later, I visited Israel to look further into its homeland security industry, which is on the world’s cutting edge. Population control, as anthropologist, author, and political activist Jeff Halper says in the below interview, has become Israel’s niche in a global enforcement regime, which includes border control. I first met Halper in 2016, when I interviewed him at his home in Jerusalem—where he has lived for 50 years and is a dual citizen of both Israel and the United States.

And now—with the ongoing atrocities in Gaza, Israel’s long-standing siege on the territory, the killing of 1,400 Israelis by the Palestinian militant and political organization Hamas, and the bombing and killing of nearly 6,000 Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Forces—I asked Halper for an interview. I wanted to look at this conflict from a different angle, to see how it connects with increasing border enforcement around the world, including on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Halper is the director of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions and the author of War against the People: Israel, Palestine, and Global Pacification. He is also cofounder of the One Democratic State Campaign. In this interview Halper offers an original and important perspective that both challenges established narratives and broadens the analytic scope of what this conflict means.

I want to view the events in Gaza through the analysis you offer in War against the People. So, first, can you tell us about the central thesis of the book? What do you mean by “war against the people”?

I begin with the question How does Israel get away with it? In terms of colonizing Palestine. Here you have Israel, which conquers, takes over Palestine. It drives out three-fourths of the Palestinian people. In 1967, it imposes an occupation over the rest of Palestine that it hadn’t conquered in 1948. Sets up an apartheid regime. It settles the whole country in violation of international law. And gets away with it. How?

And what I say in the book is that international politics is transactional. There’s no value, no ideology today. Trump was the epitome of this. There are no real alliances. There are no principles. Even though Biden talks about human rights and about how we have to live by the rules of international law, there aren’t such things that hold back powerful governments. It’s all transactional. Short term. What is my immediate advantage? How do I lever my power and get what I want? And “deal” (this is the Trump word) with other powerful parties that have what I want?

In this kind of global system, Israel plays two major roles. One of them is, it becomes an enforcer of the system for the major political players, especially the G7 but not only those countries. Israel also has relations with Russia and with China.

The other one I put in the framework of global capitalism. From the 1970s, the last 50 years, as this neoliberal system has taken over all the world economy—there’s no more socialist countries (China is a state capitalist system)—it’s the only system. It’s saturated all possible markets. It can’t expand. So what it has to do is turn inward. It begins to exploit internally. And then, with no regulation, there is a rise of a super-rich class, the Musks and the Gates and all the billionaires. The capitalist system has always promised you a happier life, especially for the middle class, upward mobility, and a house, and job security, and Ronald McDonald’s shining face. And all of a sudden, it’s becoming repressive. The rest of the world won’t have the standard of living we do. In this system, you need enforcement. Because not only the poor people of the world, but also the middle classes of the Global North, our kids, will not have the standard of living that we do. Now you have the Occupy movement, all kinds of Global South movements. So it has to be more repressive.

The big powers aren’t built for repressing populations. The Pentagon builds F-35s, nuclear submarines, thermodynamic missile systems, not the kinds of weapons you need for population control. The Pentagon is geared toward conventional warfare, not population control. And that’s Israel’s niche, because it has perfected all this on the Palestinians over the last century.

So it has the technologies of repression—we see it now in Gaza. And it has the strategies of population control that most other Western developed countries don’t have. And the experience of boots on the group for a century. So that’s one level, where Israel becomes the enforcer of global capitalism. In a very real way. Not alone, of course, but it becomes the leading force in population control.

This is a homeland security convention I attended in Tel Aviv in 2016. On display is an unmanned ground vehicle, similar to those patrolling along the Gaza border wall. Photo: Todd Miller.

And this leads to the emphasis on border control?

Yes, that’s where you get to the Mexican border, migration, and link that to crime. So Israel has two or three academies training the U.S. police—one is in Atlanta, another one is in Arizona. This niche for population control is what I call security politics. It’s military and security and surveillance prowess put in support of its occupation and what it does. And this is how Israel gets away with it. You see it very clearly with Biden coming to Israel.

In a transactional, international system like that, it’s only the powerful that matter, if you don’t have resources, like the Palestinians don’t, or you don’t have any kind of financial power or political clout, like the Palestinians don’t, or if you are not geopolitically placed in a strategic location, like the Palestinians aren’t, you’re not at the table. You’ve got nothing, nothing to bargain. And so oppressed peoples all over the world like the Palestinians are completely shut out of the political game.

Could you say that Israeli technology is not only being tested and developed on the Palestinians, but that it is also developing and selling a security apparatus?

And a border apparatus.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. So how does this apply to not only the U.S.-Mexico border but a world of borders everywhere? Especially with an increasing number of people on the move?

There’s borders throughout the world. Europe has the most concentrated number of borders. Israel has been very involved with that. It’s not only the type of fencing that Israel has developed, certain types of barbed wire and other kinds of sensors. They have what’s called the Rafael system, which is the automatic surveying and firing system. You don’t need soldiers. You can just fire. Or you could have soldiers back home in Texas, in Athens, wherever you are, patrolling the border with these towers, with sensors, surveillance equipment, and machine guns. There are all kinds of border systems. It’s true that what we call the “walls” or “fences” are really systems. Israel is involved in that very much in Europe. But also Israel is involved in India, which is building a wall with Kashmir and with Pakistan.

In other words, wherever there is a border against immigrants or against infiltrators of any kind, Israel is the place to go to. This is one of its specialties. That is certainly a part of population control. Israel has about 600 checkpoints in the West Bank. And it’s developed everything from biometrics and biotechnology that can read eyes and do facial recognition. This is all in War against the People. They have all these surveillance systems that they sell to cities—Safe City systems, they’re called. Israel specializes in magnetic cards and chips on people, so they can monitor them.

In their bodies?

Some do. But what is more common is magnetic cards. They go through and they’re tracked. And that has to do with population movement, and again this idea of fortress Europe, fortress Global North, against the Global South.

This is a slide Jeff Halper shared with me from one of his PowerPoint presentations. It shows the Israeli export of surveillance technology and weapons around the world.

Do you see Israel playing a part, as you were mentioning, as an enforcer of a global system or status quo? Especially in terms of border control and people on the move?

Israel is not the only player. There are other technological companies and systems. But Israel, I think, is the one that has kind of put it together, a coherent system when it comes to population control. Each technology—robotics and biometrics or security systems or surveillance systems. There are other companies that make those products too. But it all kind of comes together in the Israeli system. Israel is able to take these technologies—some that it’s developed, some that has been developed elsewhere, and apply them specifically to population control, population movement. Since that is its focus. Other companies might do biometrics or security, but not with the same political intent. Other companies might do airport security or unlock cell phones, but Israel puts it all together and creates an industry that has to do with population control. And that, I think, is its niche.

Given all that you’ve shared with me today and your thesis in War against the People, how would you interpret what is happening in Gaza?

In a way, it’s sort of like Frankenstein’s monster turns on its creator. The Occupied Territories are a laboratory. They’re a huge laboratory where Israel can perfect all these weapons systems, surveillance systems, and technologies. It helps that you have workers coming into Israel. At the checkpoints, all these companies are creating all kinds of security systems, whether it’s biometrics or facial recognition or chips. They have 120,000 Palestinians going through checkpoints every day. They have a whole laboratory there.

Israel needs a controlled conflict. It doesn’t help in a way if the Occupied Territories of the Palestinians are silent. The guinea pigs got to start running around. Israel doesn’t just tolerate but instigates or exploits uprisings, whether it’s in the Jenin refugee camp or an intifada, or what has been happening in Gaza all these years. And this has been documented, in every major attack on Gaza. It’s used weaponry that has never been used before. It’s being tested in a Gazan laboratory. Like all kinds of new drones that Israel is developing. Israel is world’s leader in exporting drones. Gaza is perfect place for this.

But why now? Why didn’t Israel destroy Hamas the last six times it attacked Gaza? Thinking back to 2008 and even before. Why now? And I think that until now Israel was able—look, Israel developed the Iron Dome system, which it’s exporting all over the place. It couldn’t have done it without Gaza. Gaza was the most conflictual part, there was a conflict there, but it was controlled and used by Israel as its laboratory to develop these weapons. Military people always say the enemy is also smart and doing their own learning, doing their own part, figuring things out. I think in this last attack, first of all the Israeli army was humiliated. Killing 1,400 Israelis is a huge thing. And Hamas has developed urban warfare technologies that Israel is surprised by. I think what happened this time is that there was a constellation of which the controlled, contained conflict went out of control. And then got to the point that Frankenstein’s monster turned on its creator.

This interview first ran on The Border Chronicle.

Todd Miller is the author of Build Bridges Not Walls and editor of The Border Chronicle.