The National – 23 July 2013
Over the past decade, Israel has surged up the arms trade’s international rankings. Despite having a population smaller than New York City, Israel has emerged as one of the world’s largest exporters of armaments.
Last month, defence analysts Jane’s put Israel in sixth place, ahead of China and Italy, both major weapons producers. Surveys that include Israel’s growing covert trade put it even higher, in fourth place, ahead of Britain and Germany, and beaten only by the United States, Russia and France.
The extent of Israel’s success in this market can be gauged by a simple mathematical calculation. With record sales last year of $7 billion (Dh25.7 billion), Israel earned nearly $1,000 from the arms trade per capita – up to 10 times the per capita income the US derives from its manufacture of weapons.
The Israeli economy’s reliance on arms dealing was highlighted this month when local courts forced officials to reveal data showing that some 6,800 Israelis are actively engaged in the business of arms exports. Separately, Ehud Barak, the defence minister in the last government, has revealed that 150,000 Israeli households – or about one in 10 of the population – depend economically on the weapons industry.
These disclosures aside, Israel has been loath to lift the shroud of secrecy that envelopes much of its arms trade, arguing further revelations would harm “national security and foreign relations”.
But a new documentary lifts the lid on the nature and scope of its arms business.
The Lab, which won a recent award at DocAviv, Israel’s documentary Oscars, is due to premiere in the US early next month. Directed by Yotam Feldman, the film presents the first close-up view of Israel’s arms industry and the dealers who have enriched themselves. The title relates to the film’s central argument that Israel has rapidly come to rely on the continuing captivity of Palestinians, in what are effectively the world’s largest open-air prisons. Massive profits are made from testing innovations on the more than four million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Attacks such as Operation Cast Lead of winter 2008-09 or last year’s Operation Pillar of Defence, the film argues, serve as little more than laboratory-style experiments to evaluate and refine the effectiveness of new military approaches, both strategies and weaponry. Gaza, in particular, has become the shop window for Israel’s military industries, allowing them to develop and market systems for long-term surveillance, control and subjugation of an “enemy” population.
The film highlights the kind of inventions for which Israel has become feted by foreign security services. It pioneered robotic killing machines such as the airborne drones that are now at the heart of the US scheme of extra-judicial executions in the Middle East. It hopes to repeat that success with missile interception systems such as Iron Dome, which goes on display every time a rocket is fired out of Gaza.
Israel also specialises in turning improbably futuristic weapons into reality, such as the gun that shoots round corners. Hollywood is also a customer, with Angelina Jolie marketing the bullet-bending firearm in the film Wanted.
The “stars” of the Lab are not smooth-talking salesmen but former Israeli officers-turned-academics, whose theories have helped to guide the Israeli army and high-tech companies in developing new techniques and arsenals.
Shimon Naveh, a manically excited philosopher, paces through a mock Arab village that provided the canvas on which he devised a new theory of urban warfare during the second intifada.
In the run-up to an attack on Nablus’ casbah in 2002, feared by the Israeli army for its labyrinthine layout, he suggested that the soldiers move not through the alleyways, where they would be easy targets, but through the buildings, knocking holes through the walls that separated the houses. Mr Naveh’s idea became the key to crushing Palestinian armed resistance, exposing the only places – in the heart of overcrowded cities and refugee camps – where Palestinian fighters could still find sanctuary from Israeli surveillance.
Another expert, Yitzhak Ben Israel, a former general who is now a professor at Tel Aviv University, helped to develop a mathematical formula that predicts the likely success of assassination programmes to end organised resistance. Mr Ben Israel’s calculus proved to the army that a Palestinian cell planning an attack could be destroyed with high probability by “neutralising” as few as a fifth of its fighters.
It is precisely this merging of theory, hardware and repeated “testing” in the field that has armies, police forces and the homeland security industries of the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America lining up to buy Israeli know-how. Or as Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a former defence minister who became the industry minister, explains in the film, Israel’s advantage is that “people like to buy things that have been tested. If Israel sells weapons, they have been tested, tried out. We can say we’ve used this 10 years, 15 years.”
But the film’s convincing thesis offers a disturbing message to those who hope for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Israel has made its arsenal more lethal and its soldiers ever safer, its society has become increasingly tolerant of war as the background noise of life. If Israelis pay no price for war, the army and politicians face no pressure to end it.
Rather, the pressure acts in the opposite direction. Regular attacks on Palestinians to test and showcase its military systems provide Israel with a business model far more lucrative than one offered by a peace agreement.
Possibly worse still, as foreign governments queue up to learn from Israel’s experience, the question arises: who else among us faces a Palestinian future?