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The Palestine Laboratory

Published 17 Jul 2023

On Tuesday 4 July the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW hosted an address by Antony Loewenstein, author and political analyst, on the Israeli government’s use of its presence in Palestine to develop an international market in surveillance technology. As background, Loewenstein observed that, when he was growing up in Melbourne in the years after World War II, Israel was seen as deserving unqualified support: Israel, Zionism and Judaism had been seen as pretty much the same thing. But there was now increasing scrutiny among Jews of what is happening in Palestine under Israeli occupation. In his view, the existence of a Jewish state discriminates, by definition, against non-Jews. Media coverage, nevertheless, continued to simplify the situation as a two-way battle between Israelis and Palestinians.

Since its establishment, Israel (as detailed in his recently-published book The Palestine Laboratory) had been occupying increasing areas of Palestine and in that time had developed a range of tools and technologies for maintaining the occupation – “smart walls”, facial recognition, biometric data – designed to control and divide Palestinians. Technology such as Pegasus spyware, manufactured by the Israeli NSO group, was now exported throughout the world; it enabled governments to control mobile phones, emails and photos. And this was the tip of the iceberg. Israel had battle-tested these new technologies on its five million Palestinian captive population. Palestinians were powerless in this situation to affect Israel’s role: they were notionally governed by the corrupt Palestinian Authority but real power lay with the Israeli occupiers.

Israel had been an arms exporter to apartheid South Africa until its collapse in 1994. Today, Israel exports surveillance equipment and armaments to a large range of countries, many with dodgy human rights records – Rwanda, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia. It supplied surveillance technology to India, self-described as the world’s biggest democracy but in fact increasingly an ethnocentric dictatorship favouring the Hindu ascendancy and looking to Israel‘s role in Palestine as a model for India’s role in Kashmir and elsewhere.

Israel supplied drones to the EU to combat refugee movements over the Mediterranean, which is increasingly leading to drownings (with diminishing rescue attempts). Israeli surveillance towers had been installed on the US-Mexican border for “security” – essentially to combat unauthorised migration; this had been unchanged under the Biden presidency. These towers had first been tested in Palestine.

Israeli Celebrite phone hacking technology was increasingly employed by Australian police and government authorities for surveillance of private citizens. The normalisation of surveillance was now almost complete, with bipartisan support in such countries as Australia and the US,  and was little reported on by the media. Nazi and far-right movements in Europe – traditionally anti-Jewish – were admirers of Israel’s ethno-nationalism as applied in Palestine.

In response to audience questions and comments, Loewenstein said that the incoming Albanese government’s electoral commitment to recognising Palestine could imply recognition of the deeply-flawed Palestinian Authority, but would be a supportive gesture towards Palestinians. The government’s return to abstaining on UN resolutions critical of Israel (rather than opposing them) and to supporting a two-state solution was welcome.

But Australia (he said) should do more on human rights issues arising with Israel’s occupation. There is a marked lack of independence in Australian policy, with Australia generally reluctant to go beyond US policy lines, in relation to Israel as on other issues. There were signs of changing opinion in the younger populations of the US and Europe, turning against uncritical support and financing of Israel. Israeli public opinion, however, still showed little recognition of Israel’s practices in Palestine, marked by ethnic cleansing ever since 1948. The dominant perception of Palestinians among Israelis was as a threat. This was reinforced by Israelis’ experience of military service in the occupation.

Loewenstein saw little hope of a Mandela or a Ghandi arising among the Palestinians: if anything their commitment to armed resistance had grown under the continuing Israeli violence.

Asked if there were countries to which Israel would not sell security equipment, Loewenstein said the list was small: Iran, Syria and North Korea. (The picture was opaque with China and Russia.) This was an important means of achieving Israel’s international influence: Israel fully realised that weapons and spyware were of such fundamental importance that most governments were prepared to mute any criticism of Israeli behaviour as an implicit part of the deal.

Asked if Australia’s foreign influence legislation – which clearly targeted China – should be applied to Israel, Lowenstein outlined the extent of Israeli “soft power” diplomacy in Australia. Along with the US and Taiwan, Israel was the lead sponsor of visits by politicians and journalists. The Israeli lobby’s influence with the media was pervasive. There should be more accountability of these practices. In this context, he was critical of legislation in the US and Britain forbidding authorities such as local governments from banning purchases of Israeli products.

Antony Loewenstein (right) with AIIA NSW councillor, Ralph Housego