Podcast Ep 78: How Israel tests weapons on Palestinians

On episode 78, we’re joined by journalist, filmmaker and best-selling author Antony Loewenstein to talk about his latest book, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports The Technology Of Occupation Around The World.

Loewenstein’s book is a meticulously researched exposé on how Israel tests weaponry and surveillance technology on Palestinians, perfecting what he calls the architecture of control.

He talks about Israel’s occupation and the requisite dehumanization of Palestinians as a marketing tool, and its weapons and spyware – including NSO Group’s signature Pegasus software – as Israel’s export assets.

This technology is being sold to global markets as “field-tested.”

Israel’s role in the destruction of Lebanon in the 1980s, for example, served as a promotional tool for exporting counterinsurgency techniques around the world, Loewenstein explains.

During that time, Israeli officials and private Israeli companies trained, armed and worked with US-backed death squads in Latin American countries, as well as the apartheid government in South Africa, he says.

However, after 11 September, 2001, as the US and allied Western leaders launched the so-called “war on terror,” Israel found a growing market for its surveillance and weapons technologies.

“Israel had been doing that for decades before,” he says. “So much of what I saw after 9/11 with the US and other countries, UK, Australia, my birth country, was copied from the Israeli playbook, mostly in Lebanon.”

He also talks about the Israeli spyware industry and how selling its technology is “one key example of how Israel almost gives itself an insurance policy against potential political headwinds that might come against it at some point.”

Meanwhile, other repressive states are looking to emulate Israel’s occupation industry and are taking note of its absolute impunity.

In India, for example, he explains how Narendra Modi’s government is trying “to do something very similar to what Israel is doing in the West Bank to the point where in the last few years … you have Indian officials openly praising what Israel is doing in the West Bank.”

These lawmakers are “saying two things,” he notes.

“One, we want to do something similar in Kashmir, namely bringing in huge amounts of Hindus to dilute the Muslim population up there and settle and build settlements, essentially. But secondly, Israel’s done it and gotten away with it. I mean, they openly say that. It’s possible to be done. Maybe the world doesn’t like it, and they might put out the occasional terse press release. But you know what, no one’s going to stop us and Israel would say, ‘you’re absolutely right. No one’s stopping us.’”

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Today we’re joined by journalist, filmmaker and best-selling author Antony Loewenstein. Antony’s latest book is The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. It’s a meticulously researched exposé on how Israel tests weaponry and surveillance technology on Palestinians, perfecting what he calls the architecture of control. Antony, it’s so good to have you on The Electronic Intifada Podcast, and congratulations on the book.

Antony Loewenstein: Thank you so much for having me, I’m rapt to be here.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Oh, thanks for being here. Let’s dig right in. You write in the Palestine Laboratory, “Palestine is Israel’s workshop, where an occupied nation on its doorstep provides millions of subjugated people as a laboratory for the most precise and successful methods of domination.” You talk about Israel’s occupation and the requisite dehumanization of Palestinians as a marketing tool, and its weapons and surveillance technology as Israel’s export assets. Can you give us an overview of why you wrote the book? Why now, and what it reveals about Israel’s placement in the global war industry?

Antony Loewenstein: So I started visiting Israel and Palestine in 2005. And I have been going there every three or four years reporting from the West Bank and Gaza and between 2016 and 2020, I was living there in East Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah with my partner who was working for an NGO. And I think when I was there, I guess it was at the beginning of that I’d already written the book “Disaster Capitalism,” which came out in 2015. And that was a book essentially about people making money from misery, from war, from mining, from the aid industry, I guess that was sort of in my mind. And one of the things that I found deeply frustrating, and something that you guys have written about a lot is so much, though not all, but so much of the reporting from by Western journalists in Israel and Palestine is terrible. It is clueless, it is lacking context.

And often the weirdest part is when you speak to the journalists themselves, if you do, face to face over a drink, over a meal, often what they’ll tell you is quite different to what they’re actually writing. That doesn’t make them necessarily evil people, but for whatever reason, they’re not often telling the full picture of what they’re seeing on the ground in the West Bank, or Gaza, or even in Israel itself. And I guess I wanted to write a book that was not just the daily minutiae of the conflict, not to minimize that, there’s an importance of people writing what’s happening every day, who’s being killed, who’s being arrested, that’s important.

But something bigger and obviously, in the news at the time started to be around Pegasus, the spyware that is infecting phones all over the world. And I did some reporting at the time also about how the occupation is increasingly being privatized, that Israel itself is privatizing the occupation, that more and more of the so-called services that are used to maintain the occupation are privatized. This is security, this is facial recognition technology that often appears at checkpoints where Palestinians go in and out, to go to work or to see their family, whatever it may be.

So I guess I was interested in trying to find a bigger narrative, and not just the conflict itself. And I guess that led to years of reporting around, partly, understanding the history, obviously, some other people had written in parts about Israel’s deep connection to, for example, Latin and South American dictatorships in the ’70s and ’80s. There’d been some work about Israel’s close alliance with apartheid South Africa, which I think is obviously, it was relevant back in the day, that regime ended in ‘94, but actually is very relevant today. Because I think the reason why there was so close still explains why Israel is the country that it is – this absolute obsession or fascination with ethnonationalism, and I think it’s partly tied into probably, although I didn’t talk about this much in the book, Trump became president in the US, there was a real acceleration of many of the trends that were already happening in the US around, obviously, America’s immigration policy was hardly fantastic before he came into power, but he was accelerating those those awful trends and in fact, accelerating what was happening in Palestine too.

Almost, you could argue, being far more honest about America’s role in the Middle East rather than being duplicitous, which I would argue former presidents had been. And I think pushing a very proudly ethnonationalist line in the US: we’re a Christian nation, so the argument goes, and if you’re not Christian, namely Muslim, or maybe even Jewish, you’re not really a real American. That was, of course, on steroids in Israel-Palestine as well. So all these factors, I guess, were in my mind, and I thought I wanted to write a book that I didn’t feel – although some other people have written certain articles and it’s been well into books around the issue, not going to say I’m the first one – but I thought there was a need for a really timely book to explain how Israel’s occupation is now being exported around the world.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Let’s get into some of the ways in which Israel has designed and tested their weapons on Palestinians. And, of course, at The Electronic Intifada, we’ve covered this, you know, multiple times over many, many years. Palestinians as really the – and the Gaza Strip, for example, as really the research and development wing of Israel’s weapons and surveillance industry. In one chapter you write, “Killing or injuring Palestinians should be easy as ordering pizza. That was the logic behind an Israeli military-designed app in 2020 that allowed a commander in the field to send details about a target on an electronic device to troops who would then quickly neutralize that Palestinian, the colonel working on the project, Oren Matzliach, told the “Israel Defense” website that the strike would be like, “ordering a book on Amazon or a pizza in a pizzeria using your smartphone.”

That’s from a chapter in The Palestine Laboratory called “Preventing an Outbreak of Peace.” And just last year, and you referenced this, it was revealed that there is a checkpoint in Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank that now has a fully remote controlled weapon that can shoot stun grenades, tear gas and sponge-tipped bullets at Palestinians. Can you talk about these new weapons and, really, how Israel tests these weapons on Palestinians, and then markets them to the arms industry?

Antony Loewenstein: There are other countries that have used war zones or battle spaces as testing grounds, you know, the US used Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 very effectively, from its perspective. And you know, a lot of people have said in the last 20 years, well, those wars were a disaster. You and I will say that and the Iraqis and Afghans would say that and many logical, sane people would say that, but actually, in the defense industries in the US, those wars were massively successful. There wasn’t a failure there at all. In fact, there was huge success, massive profits – very rich, to the point where where there were the US pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban, of course, took over again, defense companies in the US were openly saying, where’s our next war? Like, how are we going to manage this and the war in Ukraine started, and I’m not saying that the war started because of the defense companies, not at all.

But you have articles now in the New York Times, just in fact, this week, saying that a lot of US technology, weapons and surveillance, is being tested in Ukraine. And that, of course, will then be spread around the world. So I mention all that because that’s relevant. There are a number of states that are doing that. However, Israel has a very unique situation, there’s an endless occupation essentially down the road, or in their own territory, there are roughly five, five and a half million Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, of course, also East Jerusalem. And there is global impunity, and impunity is so central to that, right? That Israel, essentially, can do what it wants, and Israel has sold itself as the master of the so-called “war on terror.” You know, one of the things I talk about in the book, Nora, is that after 9/11, the US and much of the West kind of took on this whole language and behavior around a “war on terror,” going after terrorists, blowing up terrorist infrastructure, all the rhetoric that viewers will know.

But Israel had been doing that for decades before, and I say this in the book, that so much of what I saw after 9/11 with the US and other countries, UK, Australia, my birth country, was copied from the Israeli playbook – mostly in Lebanon, particularly if you look at so much what Israel was saying in Lebanon in 1982, which was really in any logical way, a complete disaster for Israel, really, however, they were monetizing that around the world by saying to nations – at that point, Latin and South America – we are masters of counterinsurgency, we can teach you how to deal with your own problem, so to speak. And a lot of Latin American countries – Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, were desperate for Israeli advice. And you had in that in that period during the Reagan era, lots of Israeli officials, private Israeli companies going to these countries, training, arming and working with death squads, with death squads, openly. And obviously, they weren’t necessarily doing this in, you know, in front of a camera or in front of the media. But it was even being reported a bit at the time. I have some quotes from newspapers from back in the day. So this so-called laboratory has been there from the beginning.

Obviously, this was happening from 1948. But it massively was on steroids after ‘67. When, by the early ’80s, the occupation had been going for 15 or so years, and there already had been an awareness, I think, in parts of Israel, at least the so-called smarter Israeli Jews who were saying, ‘We know a lot of the world doesn’t like what we’re doing here. We don’t approve of this occupation,’ however, firstly, most of the world didn’t say much about it or against it. So that was only really rhetorical. And secondly, and I think this was the case then and even more now, that Israeli testing of weapons surveillance, spyware, so-called Smart Walls, all this technology, which obviously is massively improved in the digital age in the last two decades, is the vital insurance policy Israel needs. What I mean by that is that yes, when you look at most of the UN votes that happen every few months, the vast bulk of the world’s on one side, and the other side is usually Israel, the US, Australia, Micronesia, Palau, and Nauru, like they normally – so on the face of it you might say yeah, but the world’s against Israel. No, that’s actually a misunderstanding.

I mean, yes, on one hand, you look at that UN vote, Israel’s very isolated, but of course, they got America as their big daddy friend to protect them in the UN. But selling all these weapons and tools and technologies, in my research, at least 130 countries around the world, which is the majority of the world, to some extent, insulates Israel from real serious criticism. Now, could that change in time? Could a nation that buys say spyware turn against Israel? Of course, it’s possible and it has happened.

But in general, I think so many of these nations that are buying a range of technology, which is openly promoted as battle-tested, I mean, I didn’t include pictures in the book, but people can Google this, that you have, after, for example, the Gaza Great March of Return in 2018, of course Israel killed, many, many Palestinians, injured many, many more. And there were certain tools and technologies that Israel was using, including something called for example, the Sea of Tears, which essentially was a drone that dropped tear gas on people. And that wasn’t itself killing people, it injured people in the process, journalists and also Palestinians in Gaza, that was then seen and promoted by Israeli companies as an amazingly effective tool, I use them – I use that term loosely, for crowd control around the world, and those drones are now sold globally.

So again, in that case, this weapon really again, didn’t kill people, but it injured people. And obviously, you know, as tear gas does, was seen as an effective form of so to speak, counterinsurgency. It’s one example. And I mean, obviously, there are so many more in the book, it’s hard to know where to begin. But this, I think, is one key example of how Israel almost gives itself an insurance policy against potential political headwinds that might come against it at some point.

Now, at the moment, I would say, Israel, although I think there’s a lot of profound insecurity within the Israeli Jewish state, and I would argue in the Jewish diaspora for a range of reasons, which on the face of it might seem weird, they’re incredibly powerful, they have the friends that they need, no one’s really stopping them to do it. But I do think there’s actually quite a lot of insecurity around their position in the world, and the fact that there’s a growing movement of people in the US and elsewhere, that don’t accept Israel’s right to exist, all those kinds of issues. And yet, I think overall, that defense industry, which is growing, both weapons in the traditional sense, missile defense shields, spyware, etc, is surging. It’s absolutely surging. And I think Israel would feel, rightly, frankly, that in the short to medium term, they have made the right kind of – I use the term friends very loosely, because all these nations are so desperate not just for the tools and technologies but also the maintenance of those tools and technologies ongoing.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right, and you get into that in your book, you know, about this kind of other nations, other governments looking at how Israel is administering the occupation, how it’s growing its arms and surveillance industries, and how it’s able to enact this incredibly oppressive, you know, matrix of control on Palestinians. There is a – you mentioned Central America. You talked about Guatemala in the 1980s, where Israel’s so-called defense innovations helped regimes like the Rios Montt government commit massacres against indigenous populations.

Antony Loewenstein: Genocide – that regime was committing genocide.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right, genocide. Yes. It was like 75,000 people, right, exactly. It’s absolute ethnic cleansing. You wrote, “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather explained in 1983 that Israel’s prowess in Guatemala was tried and tested on the West Bank in Gaza, designed simply to beat the guerrilla.” And you add that one Israeli advisor in Guatemala had clearly taken the Israeli government’s message to heart, he said, “I don’t care what the Gentiles do with the arms. The main thing is that the Jews profit.” So can you talk a bit about like, you know, part of Israel’s brand strategy is to on the one hand portray itself as this you know, moral democracy, this, you know, the so-called light onto nations cliche. And on the other hand, as you say, export its tactics of genocide and ethnic cleansing. This is of course, you know, not new to anyone who’s studied European settler-colonial and imperialist tactics, but with Israel, there’s also this overt business enterprise. And you have this this quote that I think really kind of distills what it’s all about, you say that “the Palestine laboratory can only thrive if enough nations believe in its underlying premise.” Can you talk about that a bit and how other countries are looking at Israel’s quest for ethnonationalism? And how it’s bearing out?

Antony Loewenstein: You know, one of the things I try to separate in the book is there are some nations that simply want to buy great surveillance technology or weapons to oppress their own people. So for example, Mexico, in the last 15 years, has become Israel’s biggest buyer of spyware. This is both from the previous governments and the current government. I mean, the current government denies it, but it’s a lie. They are still using it against dissidents and human rights workers. They love Israeli spyware, particularly Pegasus, but others as well. So when a country like Mexico is buying that technology, I don’t think Mexico is looking to become an ethnonationalist state. They’re doing it because they love the technology and it serves their purposes.

It’s different though, when it comes to places like Hungary or India, and I talk a lot about India in the book because India is now the world’s biggest population, it just overtook China this year. It’s got 1.4 to 1.5 billion people, it is the self-described world’s biggest democracy although I would seriously question that; it is massively good friends now with the West, the US, Australia, in fact, Narendra Modi is in Australia right now, as we record this interview, being feted by much of the media in our government, disgracefully. So but what India is doing in India, is, since Modi came into power in 2014, is remarkably disturbing, I don’t want to go into the history right now. But in short, wanting to create a Hindu fundamentalist state where the roughly 200 million Muslims are discriminated against, there are pogroms against Muslims, there’s legal and racial discrimination against them.

And one of the things that they’re trying to do in Kashmir, which obviously is a Muslim majority part of India, is do something very similar to what Israel is doing in the West Bank to the point where in the last few years, I have these quotes in the book, you have Indian officials openly praising what Israel is doing in the West Bank, saying two things: One, we want to do something similar in Kashmir, namely bringing in huge amounts of Hindus to dilute the Muslim population up there and settle and build settlements, essentially. But secondly, Israel’s done it and gotten away with it. I mean, they openly say that. It’s possible to be done. Maybe the world doesn’t like it, and they might put out the occasional terse press release. But you know what, no one’s going to stop us and Israel would say, ‘you’re absolutely right. No one’s stopping us.’ Now. I’m not saying in the book that in India is doing all this because of Israel. That’s obviously not true. But there is an ideological alignment. Modi and Netanyahu are best friends, you know, there are – some viewers may have remembered some of these images of them splashing around on a beach with their shoes and socks off, you know, as best friends. I mean, it’s sort of crazy in a way, but also not. I mean, look at Netanyahu and Orban in Hungary, very similar. An alignment around ethnonationalism.

And one of the things that really worries me – and you asked before Nora, why I wrote the book, and I guess I touched on this in the book here and there – I have a fear that this century will be one that more and more nations move towards an ethnonationalist agenda. This is not just being led by leaders. I mean, not every Indian, 1.4 billion people, are all robots. There’s obviously a sizable percentage of Indians, including, as I said, Modi’s in Australia, as we speak now, huge numbers of Indian diaspora love Modi, love him, admire him, think he’s doing an amazing job. So it’s not just kind of Modi dragging people by the neck towards this agenda. There’s a lot of support for it within India, and opposition too, but not nearly enough. And India and Israel have this incredibly close alliance there. India is one of the biggest purchases of Israeli arms. They have a lot of income, huge – and I interview these people, and one person in the book, but there are many others, India is purchasing a lot of Israeli spyware, going after dissidents, human rights workers, critical lawyers, etc. So, to me, this is really about Israel trying to promote its own – I guess not just agenda, but its own makeup to a global audience and saying, ‘This is the reason why you should follow us. It’s successful, it works.’

And just one one final point. And I mentioned this throughout the book, that there’s a reason why particularly the last five to 10 years, so much of the global far-right, who also want to create ethnonationalist states in their own territory, obviously, in their case, it’d be Christian, deeply admire Israel, there’s a reason for that, right? And The Electronic Intifada has definitely covered some of this very well, that you often go to these rallies, and they’re waving the Israeli flag. Now, traditionally, those groups don’t like Jews, they’re anti-Semitic, they’re often neo-Nazis. So you might say, Sorry, what the hell is going on here? It actually makes perfect sense. Because Netanyahu, and again, I don’t want to focus on one level too much. I think most of the western press, overly focuses on him. He’s a terrible leader and a monster. And all that is true. But the problem in Israel is far, far greater, as people will know, that Netanyahu. He could fall as prime minister tomorrow, and these problems ain’t gonna really change. But his government particularly has decided to be openly supportive of many far-right politicians in groups around the world. And in some ways, the vision makes sense from their perspective. And the far-right says, ‘We really admire Israel’s almost, we don’t give a shit attitude, right? We don’t care. You want to build a Jewish supremacist state? No one’s gonna stop us.’

We also – and I remember, I have a quote in the book of Richard Spencer, this, you don’t hear so much about Spencer anymore, thankfully, but he was an alt-right leader, so to speak right at the beginning of the Trump, he’s still around, I saw his name on Twitter, sadly. But he was saying, ‘I’m a white Zionist. I’m a white, I love what Israel is doing.’ Yeah. And that is really such an important understanding. Because there are parts of the world where the far-right is growing. In your country, in my country and elsewhere, groups that traditionally hated Jews increasingly don’t really, I think, frankly, like Jews, but somehow, like this stereotypical view of the tough, racist Israeli soldier or Israeli state, projecting its power on the world and saying, ‘we’re going to be a proud Jewish supremacist state, you’re not going to stop us.’ And these people also say, ‘we’re not – we want to create a Christian, Christian ethnonationalist state in America, in wherever it may be.

And those kinds of alliances, I think, not just disturbing, but I think there needs to be more discussed. And finally, finally, as a Jew, I say, how the hell is this not making the safety of all citizens worse, but including Jews, when you have an Israeli government, a self-described Jewish state, proudly cavorting with far-right groups who are openly anti-Semitic. I mean, it endangers all of us. I mean, citizens across the board, but including Jews. I think it’s just – it needs to be called out far more than it has been, I think.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah. And it underlines, you know, the fact that Zionism is a political ideology of ethnonationalism and supremacy. And, you know, this racist entitlement to someone else’s land and property. And so of course, you know, like, I’m just kind of struck by how because of the precedent that Israel has set – because of the precedent of impunity and of alliances with the major Western powers, the occupation itself, let alone the arms and the surveillance drones and the spyware, the occupation itself has been field-tested, and, you know, battle-proven and it’s able to be, you know, exported and marketed and propagandized as part of that kind of bigger spectrum of violence. You mentioned spyware, you have a whole chapter on cell phones, and how Israeli spyware corporations have, you know, exported this technology. You mentioned Mexico. Can you tell us a little bit more about NSO Group and Pegasus, and how that was designed and first used on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Antony Loewenstein: So, NSO Group was founded by three Israeli men, they all were veterans of the IDF, which won’t surprise people. And some of those people who were involved in the beginning were also veterans of Unit 8200. Some viewers will know what that is, that’s Israel’s sort of elite intelligence unit in which their day to day job is to essentially surveil all Palestinians. And they take that experience and they then shift that into the private sector. And in fact, there’s a really clear encouragement within that organization to support people’s so-called ingenuity. I mean, that’s how they framed it, the so-called startup nation ideology, which you guys have talked a lot about, which is not solely about weapons, but certainly it’s a big part of it, are weapons and spyware and a way to kind of promote Israel’s apparent ingenuity in these sophisticated technologies.

And NSO Group found a number of years ago, as a way to at the time to control Blackberry phones – remember those back in the day? Now, it’s obviously not Blackberries that are in the museum now, but there was BlackBerry – relics, and interestingly, their first big client was Mexico. And Mexico was important because at the time the Mexican government was unleashing this catastrophic, so-called war on drugs, they were trying to go after El Chapo, the drug cartel leader. And this is a sort of slight side note, and I mentioned this in the book, but some people will remember that weird, crazy trip that Sean Penn, the actor, took to Mexico to meet up with El Chapo and then did this weird Rolling Stone story and it was all very bizarre as he is, but the reason I mentioned that is, it seems very clear now that a key reason why the Mexican government in the end were able to find El Chapo was partly because of Sean Penn and his visit and almost certainly, either on his phone and or El Chapo’s phone, there was Pegasus that had been installed.

So they knew where the hell he was. Now, whether Sean Penn knew this or not, I haven’t asked him. He maybe wasn’t aware.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: He’s too busy hanging out with Zelensky these days.

Antony Loewenstein: Yeah, he is a very curious man. Let’s not get into that now. But indeed, but I only mention that because Mexico was a key client back then. And it was justified as a so-called vital tool to fight a war on drugs. The country, of course, was and is engulfed in mass violence. And but Mexico was almost the key first test case, and it was seen to be so called successful. El Chapo was captured. He’s now in a maximum security jail in America and almost certainly will die there. And but what of course happens, as it always does, it bleeds into other parts of society, police forces, military intelligence start wanting to use this unbelievably effective technology, spying on critics, dissidents, journalists, etc.

The Mexico example was then used as a wonderful marketing tool for NSO to then sell to many, many other countries. And no one really knows exactly how many countries but it’s dozens and dozens, probably under 100 of the world, but frankly, we don’t really know. I think the most accurate assessment was around 70 or 80 countries around the world. This is democracies and dictatorships, including the US, by the way.

And, but I think also what I say in the book, which is important that the issue here is not just NSO Group, they’re the most infamous, Pegasus is the most notorious spyware in the world. But there are many other companies in Israel doing exactly the same thing. And in fact, in the last few years since there’s been all these scandals around NSO Group, there has been a lot of other Israeli companies springing up, doing exactly the same thing. And in fact, there was a story recently in the Financial Times that the Mexican government, sorry, the Indian government, is looking for alternatives to NSO Group and Pegasus, ideally Israeli because there’s so much bad press around NSO – I don’t particularly know why the Indians really care, but apparently they do.

And one thing also that so much of the media coverage around this issue just drove me mental – the last few years, there’s been some good reporting in various outlets around Pegasus. All that’s true, the Guardian and others, Washington Post, there’s been some good stuff about it, for sure. Leaks and others. But one thing which is regularly either ignored or downplayed is, it’s almost framed like this is some rogue Israeli company, right? A rogue Israeli company is just kind of selling this crazy spyware and how do we stop this company? No, no, no. This is an arm of the Israeli state. It’s a private company, yes. And that, you know, it’s a company, it has a board and yeah, sure. But it’s been used by Netanyahu particularly, and the Mossad in the last 10 years, as a key diplomatic tool to try to attract new friends. I mean, this is a key part of what the Israeli government viewed spyware as for, as a way to make new friends.

So there’s lots of evidence, and this is in the book, of going to places like Saudi Arabia, or UAE, or Morocco, or other places, some of which didn’t have official relations, some, in fact, still don’t have official relations with Israel, and almost dangling this spyware over them and saying, if you want to be friends with us, or be better friends with us, or public friends with us, we will sell you the most popular spyware and effective spyware in the world. And it works. I mean, the whole so-called Abraham Accords, you know, this Trump-era deal between Bahrain, UAE and Israel, was always an arms deal. Clearly was an arms deal, right?

And there’s now an attempt, obviously, to expand that to Saudi and others. And I know, I noticed at the moment, the Biden administration apparently is encouraging Israel and Saudi to become better friends and sort of join the Abraham Accords. Now, I don’t know obviously, if that’s going to happen, but ultimately, if it does, it ain’t gonna be because either side particularly is fond of democracy, right? And all this issue, I guess, around spyware is important because what Israel has done in the last particularly 10 years is two things – one, as you said at the beginning Nora, that it is increasingly used on Palestinians themselves in Palestine. A few years ago, there was reporting that a lot of the key Al-Haq and others, their heads were spied on by Pegasus, through, well, presumably by the Israeli government or the Israeli intelligence.

There’s evidence that Israeli Jewish citizens are also being spied on including some who have been protesting Netanyahu in the last few years. And it’s sort of obvious to say this, but it’s worth saying the occupation always comes home. You know, when the US was fighting its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which seemed like over there, so far away from the US, inevitably, not just because, you know, police forces were buying all this military equipment that was then used on American streets.

But you had all this inevitable blowback on American society, increased violence, increased veterans, trauma, all the obvious things that you would expect. It’s the same in Israel, that one of the things that’s been so unsurprising but depressing is, all these massive Israeli protests in the last sort of five or six months against Netanyahu and his extreme government. Most of them, most of them, meaning Israeli Jewish protesters, haven’t really said or thought or cared about the fact that there’s a military dictatorship down the road, there are a handful of Israeli Jewish protesters going every week, some of whom I know, I’m sure some viewers will know these people, too, who are doing noble, amazing work, you know, the Israeli – carrying the Palestinian flag, talking about the occupation being completely, you know, unacceptable for any kind of real democracy moving forward. But ultimately, there seems to be no real focus on that by most people. They want to maintain a Jewish democracy.

And the only way you can, inverted commas, “maintain a Jewish democracy,” is repressing your Palestinian neighbors down the road, that’s the only way it can work. Because they’re not going to accept the so-called Jewish democracy, and frankly, why would they? So, the proliferation of spyware, which sort of started with NSO Group has now morphed and metastasized into these many, many other companies, most of which, in fact, all of which, there’s no regulation on any of these industries. And that’s – this, of course, is the key point. No country wants to regulate, because every country wants to use it. So, on the one hand there sounds a bit depressing, because you think well, how would that ever change?

But I guess I’m sort of hoping, maybe foolishly, that all it would really take is, I mean, there’s, for example, the EU at the moment is considering banning the presence of Israeli spyware companies on its territory. A lot of Israeli spyware companies are based in the EU, not just in Israel, particularly Cyprus and elsewhere. And whether it gets up I don’t know, because European countries also are a bit of a big fan of spyware, Greece being the most prominent example. They use spyware a lot on political opponents, on journalists, on dissidents, on critics – And this is a so-called democracy in the heart of Europe, right? So again, so many countries are so reliant on Israeli spyware and surveillance and repression tech, that are they likely to be deeply critical of Israel beyond maybe the occasional press release? Not likely, no. So until that link is broken, economic boycotts and other ways, I don’t think little will change, because the occupation is seen as too financially beneficial, both to Israel itself, but also other nations that benefit from it too.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. You have a chapter on social media and how Israel works to pressure Silicon Valley giants to censor Palestinians, especially at a time when is when Israel’s brand is continuing to fail, as more and more people especially, you know, the younger generation is seeing Israel for what it really is. And of course, this is sending Israel into an accelerated panic, doubling down on its propaganda, trying to criminalize the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement around the world. In the US, for example, we have dozens of states passing these anti-BDS measures.

But you write, “Without a huge international campaign of isolating Israel over its human rights abuses, or some targeted court cases against Israeli weapons firms that sell equipment to repressive states, the industry will continue to thrive.” Antony, can you talk about the resistance to Israel and its industries of surveillance, war and violent ethnonationalism, and what you hope your book can teach us about the future for Palestine?

Antony Loewenstein: Well, in some ways, what I see happening in Palestine itself, with so many Palestinians using and expressing and visualizing their experience, is actually revolutionary. What I mean by that is that, yes, I go into detail on the book of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, all the obvious social media companies being massively pressured by Israel to either censor Palestinian words or images, or shadow ban them and arrange – and that’s often successful, so to speak, they are being demoted, disappeared, invisibilized, is that a word? But people know what I mean. That’s happening.

But to me, it almost feels like a real futility. Because I mean, not – I mean, Israel, of course, probably wouldn’t see it that way. They see it as a, you know, noble way to get the message out to the world. But I think a key reason why in the last 20 years, so many, and even more so in the last five or 10 years, why a lot of Western countries, in public opinion polls, there is a real noticeable shift in how people feel about this issue. Now you don’t see much evidence of that at the top elite political levels. It’s not really impacting Joe Biden’s policies or the British government’s policies, or my country Australia’s policies. But I’m sure some viewers will be aware, this is the first year that a majority of Democratic voters said that they’re more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis. There was an amazing poll of Jewish Americans a few years ago, when a quarter of them said that they thought Israel was an apartheid state, a quarter thought Israel was committing ethnic cleansing.

Now, all this, obviously, on one level, it’s hard to say exactly why these views are changing. But to me, seeing Palestinians narrate their own lives is a key part of this. I don’t think people’s views are shifting or evolving, or in my view, maturing, because of what they’re reading, something in the New York Times, like yes, those papers do now and then have the occasional different perspective. Yes, they do sometimes have Palestinians, thank God, now and then. And some of the reporting is a bit better, now and then, but in general, I think it is because of so-called alternative media or social media. So this is happening in spite of mainstream media, not because of it. And so that does give me hope, in a way.

Now how that translates into any political, real movement. political pressure, is obviously up to activists and others to work out. And I’m often very disappointed with some of the members of Congress who at least now and then mouth some criticism, I mean, it’s better than it was back in the day, namely five, 10 years ago, it’s still pretty weak. And let’s say even someone like Bernie Sanders is still I mean, I guess in the US political context, he’s framed on this issue as a radical, but it’s obviously very far from that, you know, even talking about maybe we should condition military aid. Okay. I mean, yes, great. But –

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, it’s recycled liberal Zionist talking points that have always been there.

Antony Loewenstein: And I think Bernie probably has those kinds of views, I mean, to some extent, I mean, I think he’s probably been pushed a bit in the last five or 10 years and a bit better direction. But nonetheless, yes, still pretty weak. Yeah. But there are how many now in Congress, five? 10? Mostly all Democrats who are, I mean, pretty weak, but better than existed before, Rashida Tlaib, I think, Ilhan Omar, these people are, I think, are contributing to a change in conversation. I wish their policies was stronger, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s not just what they’re saying in Congress. But it is also what they’re just saying, in general. It’s about how they expressing it. And the fact that they do now and then get a platform on mainstream media. They’re not just talking to the alternative press. Not that there’s anything wrong with the alternative press, but they aren’t – So, last week, MSNBC had Rashida Tlaib on for 10 minutes, talking about the Nakba and ethnic cleansing. Now, that seems to be not unimportant. I mean, that to me there, how does that impact people’s views on the issue? It’s hard to say.

But I do think that giving those kinds of views and airing in a wide mainstream platform does matter. I do – now obviously, there have to be parts of the mainstream media which are open to it. There was on – But, so I think that’s encouraging. I do think parts of I think the pushback against parts of BDS, pushback meaning what you said, that there’s legislation in various parts of the US, various other countries are pushing for it, it’s basically outlawed in Germany, it’s seemingly illegal to even literally protest for Palestinian rights in Germany. And I have a section in my book about this.

I mean, I’m a German citizen, as well. I’m an Australian and a German citizen. And I mean, I obviously I understand the so-called “reasons,” in inverted commas, why Germany says they’re doing it, but it’s absolutely a gross historical travesty, that somehow being in, inverted commas, “pro-Israel,” means that you support the most extreme forms of Israeli nationalism, along with censoring any kind of critical views. And I have German friends who say to me that the atmosphere here is really toxic on this issue. I mean, what’s so weird in Germany, this is an aside, is that even parts of the so-called German left, parts of the left, are very pro-Israel. It’s a very, it’s a very weird situation over there. But I say that I think there is a growing civil society resistance and move to challenge Israel. In the US, particularly, in the UK, in parts of Europe, the question is, does the rise of also a more far-right movement, evangelicals and others who are very pro-Israel, because Israel does finally, seems to be saying in the last five years, you know what, ‘if you liberal American Jews don’t like us anymore, we don’t really care.’ I mean, they weren’t the backbone, frankly, of diaspora support for decades.

But more and more, I hear Israeli far-right politician saying ‘you don’t like us, so what? We’ll move to evangelicals or the Orthodox,’ and I was just reading, in fact, the last few days that by probably 2065, which is a while away, but not that long away, an Israeli demographer was saying that by then, pretty much a majority of Israeli Jewish citizens will be Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox. So the so-called, not that I’m saying liberal Zionists have done very much for freeing Palestinians at all liberating this issue, but when that becomes a potential reality, and not that far away, and I’m generalizing here, but mostly fairly pro-Israel, and very supportive of what Israel is doing, those Orthodox groups – there are some anti-Zionist, but mostly quite supportive of Israel and its policies, as is the case for South Africa, back in the day, Nora, without outside pressure, this issue is not going to change.

We can’t wait for Israeli Jews to wake up one day and go, gee, this occupation is pretty awful. It ain’t gonna happen. outside pressure, and boycotts is part of that, hugely part of it. And I’m hoping that there are some states that bravely at least say, as a public policy, if we’re not going to do full economic boycotts, at least military boycotts or at least some kind of tangible policy beyond just rhetoric. Because I feel that the fear that I have, and I’m not alone in this, is that Israel is moving closer and closer to a second Nakba. I mean, they’re openly, and I say they, there are key Israeli ministers, as I know, some of you viewers of EI will know, who openly talk about it.

There’s the most recent public opinion poll found a sizable minority of Israeli Jews advocating ethnic cleansing. And, you know, years ago, I would have said, oh the world is not going to accept that. Now my view has shifted, I think the EU will release a terse press release, they tut-tut Israel, the Arab countries will express outrage, but actually are going to be not that unhappy about it, because they hate Palestinians. I’m talking about Arab leaders here. It will require bribery of Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon to maybe take in these Palestinian refugees. And the idea that people sort of say, well, how would that happen? Well, it’s obviously hard to imagine exactly how that would work.

But there’s some war, there’s some horrific uprising, hard to imagine exactly. And then Israel has given, inverted commas, a “justification” to massively remove and almost finish, so to speak, as some Israeli politicians say, what happened in ‘48. Now, that sounds very apocalyptic. But I think unless people are aware of where this potentially is going, and this is not just Netanyahu’s government, by the way, this is people much more across the political spectrum. Then, without knowing that, and I think those views need to be heard in much more American mainstream media and mainstream political elite culture that says this is where Israel is potentially going. What are you gonna do about it? Issuing an occasional terse press release and saying, you know, Israel really shouldn’t expand settlements ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: No, it’s not. Yeah.

Antony Loewenstein: Or shouldn’t.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Right. Exactly, exactly. Well, that’s Antony Loewenstein. His new book is called The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. It’s out now from Verso press, we’ll have links to the publishing website. And some of your most recent articles. I know, you wrote something on this topic of exporting the weapons of Israeli weapons technology in the New York Times about a year or so ago –

Antony Loewenstein: That was – let me correct you, that was the New York Review of Books.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Much better.

Antony Loewenstein: Yes. Well, the New York Times, yes. So I mean if they want to publish on this, I’m available. I’m still waiting for the call.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, exactly. We’ll be waiting for that one, but the New York Review of Books at least. So we’ll put links to that and much more on the podcast post that accompanies this episode. Antony, again, congratulations on the book. Thanks so much for your work and for being with us on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.

Antony Loewenstein: Thank you so much for having me, Nora. It’s been great.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).