Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, sees the brutal practice of destroying Palestinian homes and similar tactics as part of an experiment in social repression that can have broader implications as income inequality spreads across the globe, as he told Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Israeli author and human rights activist Jeff Halper who has challenged the Israeli practice of destroying Palestinian homes (usually for simply building after being denied a permit) attempts to answer the question why the world continues to accept such repeated brutalities perpetrated by the Israelis against a million-plus locked-down, very poor Palestinians.
Halper detects a quid pro quo, a violent marriage of convenience in which “Israel offers its expertise in helping governments pursue their various wars against the people and, in return, they permit it to expand its settlements and control throughout the Palestinian territory.”
Halper’s latest book, War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification, focuses on “global Palestine,” and “how Israel exports its Occupation, its weaponry, its models and tactics of control and its security and surveillance systems, all developed and perfected on the Palestinians, to countries around the world engaged in asymmetrical warfare, or domestic securitization, both forms of “war against the people.”
He contextualizes Israel’s globalization of Palestine within the capitalist world system. Inherently unequal, exploitative, violent and increasingly unsustainable, Capitalism must pursue innumerable wars against the people if it is to enforce its global hegemony. These are precisely the types of wars, counterinsurgency, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism, urban warfare and the overall securitization of societies, including those of the Global North, in which Israel specializes.
Halper, whose activism also includes work for over a decade as a community organizer in the working-class Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, is a coordinator of the Wars Against the People project of The People Yes! Network; he has served as the Chairman of the Israeli Committee for Ethiopian Jews; he was an active participant in the first attempt of the Free Gaza Movement to break Israel’s crippling economic siege on the Gaza Strip by sailing into Gaza in 2008; he’s an active member of the international support committee of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal on Palestine; and he was nominated by the American Friends Service Committee for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, together with the Palestinian intellectual and activist Ghassan Andoni.
Halper spoke recently with Dennis J Bernstein.
DB: Let’s talk a little bit about house demolitions, before we get into this book and what you’re talking about in terms of the way in which Israel perfects and then exports oppression. Talk a little bit about your work with the houses.
JH: Well, I’m an Israeli activist. I grew up in the States, actually, in Minnesota, but I’ve lived in Israel now for more than 40 years. I’ve been involved all those years with the Israeli peace movement. And for the last 20 years I’ve been the head of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, as you mentioned. We call ourselves ICAHD.
And that’s a political organization that’s trying to fight the Israeli occupation, and achieve a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But [we also operate] in order to give people an idea of what occupation means, which is kind of an abstract term sometimes, and how it works, and what Israel’s intentions are.
Now, as an anthropologist, I tried to read political intentions from what the powers are doing on the ground, not from what they’re saying. We took the issue of house demolitions as our focal point. Israel has demolished 47,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories since 1967, since the occupation began. [T]hat’s on the background of about 60,000 homes that were demolished in 1948, in what the Palestinians call the Nakba. Thousands and more are demolished inside Israel all the time, of Israeli citizens, all of whom are Arabs. For example, there is one Bedouin community in the Negev that’s been demolished now 90 times, and rebuilt.
DB: Same community.
JH: The same community. And we’ve all gone out and rebuilt with them, and it’s been re-demolished. Because they want to build a military settlement on top. And this is inside Israel. And a lot of these Bedouin men serve in the Israeli army. So one of the points of house demolitions is that we can’t really separate the occupation from Israel itself.
We think the two state solution is gone, it’s over. And basically Israel has created already one state which is an apartheid state. I mean, there’s only one government, one army, one water system, one currency between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, in the entire country. We don’t even call the occupied territories, “occupied,” we call them Judea and Samaria. Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, the Palestinian side has been annexed.
So there is one country today. And what the house demolition issue shows is that, yes, in fact Israel is still demolishing homes, still ethnically cleansing the Palestinian population, after 70 years. And so what we do is we … first of all, we resist demolitions. I get in front of bulldozers, we resist. We also rebuild homes. We built 189 homes, which takes quite a bit of resources, activists coming from all over the world.
So if you think of it in political terms, 189 political acts of resistance, of Israelis and Palestinians, and Internationals together. I think that is meaningful. And then we take what we learn on the ground, our analysis is genuinely grounded, and we go abroad, like I am now here in the Bay Area, to try to work with the activists. First of all, to update them on what’s happening and to give them focus.
But in general, as you are saying, to raise this issue that’s so difficult to raise in the mainstream American media, or even in universities. You can get fired for raising this issue.
DB: And you do.
JH: And people have been, that’s right. So we’re trying to go from the micro to the macro. From actually resisting demolitions on the ground, but really from there with our pictures and our maps and our analyses, to say “Why is Israel demolishing these homes? Where is it going with this whole thing?” And then bringing that analysis forward to try to mobilize the international community to finally end the occupation.
DB: Before we jump into the bigger picture, I want you to paint a little bit more of a picture of the nature of house demolition. So, what happens? Somebody shows up at your house? How’s that work?
JH: Well, there are three kinds of demolitions, actually. Just briefly, you know if you think of demolition, you think well, these must be homes of terrorists. That’s what Israel leads you to think, but it’s not true. Of the 47,000 homes in the occupied territories that have been demolished, about 1 percent were demolished for security reasons. It has nothing to do with security or terrorism or anything like that. Those are what we call punitive demolitions. In fact, Israel demolishes most homes in military incursions.
For example, last summer, the summer of 2014, in the assault on Gaza, 18,000 homes were demolished, and not targeted. It’s kind of collateral damage that have not been rebuilt. And you think, “It’s the Middle East,” but it can be pretty freezing in Gaza in the winter. And these homes have not been rebuilt. The third way of demolishing, that we work most on, is that Israel simply has zoned … it uses very dry-grade, Kafkaesque mechanisms to control Palestinians.
So it zoned the whole of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as agricultural land. So, although most of it is desert, the Aegean Desert, when a Palestinian who owns land comes to the Israeli authorities and says, “I want to build a home,” their answer is, “Sorry, but this is agricultural land.” Of course, if you want to build an Israeli settlement … I mean there are 600,000 Israelis. They live on that same land in the occupied territory. But, of course, Israelis sit on the planning councils.
So if you want to rezone from agriculture to residential, it takes you a second. So it’s really the manipulation of law and planning. And so that’s the point. Palestinians since 1967, we’re talking about 50 years now, have not been allowed to build new homes. You have children, and your children have children, and you have nowhere to live. And if you build a home, you are building illegally, right, because … you don’t have a building permit. And so immediately you get a demolition order from the Israeli army and they can come any time. They can come tomorrow morning, they can come next week, they can come in five years, maybe you’ll win the lottery [and] they’ll never come. Who knows? So even if you’re living in your home, year after year, you are not living as securely, relaxed. Your home is not your castle.
DB: Because there always could be that knock on the door.
JH: I talked to many Palestinian women that say to me, “The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is I look out the window, to see if there are bulldozers, the army, police. And if the coast is clear, I get dressed and wake up the kids and start making breakfast.” That’s the psychological state that Palestinians are living in.
DB: Let’s talk about this book. Let’s talk about how you say Israel uses the occupied territories as a training ground, a weapons and control of people training ground, which is then exported. It’s sort of Israel’s front line, forward trade. This concept, and these weapons, and this technology, and these techniques, are then sold to the rest of the world. Set that up for us.
JH: Over all the years of my activism, it was kind of a question that was in the back of my mind, nagging me all the time. And that was, “How does Israel get away with this?” After all, we’re in the Twenty-first Century, we’re well after the period of colonialism. Human rights [and] international law have entered into the public consciousness. I mean, they kind of matter to people.
Here you have a brutal occupation, on T.V. all the time. I mean, this isn’t happening in the Congo or Vietnam. This is in the glare of television cameras, in the Holy Land, no less! How does Israel get away with it? And the usual explanations … you know, AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and Christian fundamentalists and the Israeli lobby, and guilt over the Holocaust … it just doesn’t work. That doesn’t explain why China supports Israel the way it does, and Nigeria, India.
There was some big elephant in the room that we weren’t talking about, that I wasn’t seeing myself, to explain that. And as I sort of looked up at Israel’s place in the world, I suddenly discovered, in a way, that actually, the quid quo pro is that Israel delivers to elites all over the world. Whether you are here in the global north, (the United States or Europe), in the middle, (Brazil, India, China, Turkey, Mexico), or a poor country in the global south, you all have elites, that are struggling for control.
And I put this within the context of the capitalist world system. You have a neoliberal world system. OXFAM came out with a report two weeks ago. Now, 1 percent of the population controls half the resources: most of humanity has been excluded as surplus humanity. You have more and more repression, especially as resources are being extracted from poor people. And they’re excluded. So there’s more and more resistance. … You had the Occupy Movement and you’ve got Black Lives Matter. There’s more and more resistance, so that the capitalist world system, itself, and all the different elites that are dependent upon it, somehow have to start looking more and more towards repression.
In other words, capitalism always tried to have a happy face: Ronald McDonald, and Hollywood and Walt Disney. But the more people are starting to see through it, and are starting to see those inequalities …, the velvet glove over the iron fist has to come [off]. And so the elites are getting more and more insecure. But the kinds of wars they’re fighting are not the wars we think of. You know, Rambo and F16s and tanks … they’re not those kinds of wars. They are what generals actually are calling, “Wars Amongst the People.” I took that to say what that really is, which is, “War Against the People.” In other words, urban warfare, counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism. It’s also called asymmetrical wars. There are a million terms.
So, really the elites in every country, and then if you take it within the world system, the capitalist elites certainly, the capitalist part of the corporation, and so on, are looking for, “How do we keep the people under control?” Now, where’s a better place to go for a model than Israel? The United States doesn’t have that experience. Europe hasn’t had colonial wars for 50 years now. So Israel is in the middle of an ongoing century-long war of counterinsurgency against the Palestinian people.
All these years, it has the tactics, it has the methods, it has the weaponry. It has the systems of security, systems of surveillance, all in place to export. And so that’s, I think, how you can explain how Israel gets away with it. It delivers for the elites. “We’ll deliver you the means of repressing your own populations, and in return you let us keep the occupation.”
DB: I’m not sure how to ask this question, but is there evidence of the training ground part of this, in which, say, for instance, weapons are introduced for the first time on the battlefield, or drones, in Palestine? How does this theory [work], in terms of testing the weapons first and then exporting war?
JH: Well, first of all I document it and write about it in my book. There are a thousand footnotes, in the book.
DB: We love footnotes.
JH: But what’s interesting is the Israeli arms dealers, security companies are proud of this. I mean we’re talking now … this could be seen in two ways. This could be seen as being critical of Israel, and the capitalist world. I think people understand that that’s where we’re coming from in this program. But I could be saying the same thing, and I could sound like the Israeli Chamber of Commerce. “Wow, that’s great, I mean Israel developing these effective systems, they’re helping keep the bad people and the terrorists under control, they’re securing us. Wow, that’s great.” And so [on].
DB: And they are training police departments in the U.S.
JH: That’s right, exactly. Especially, not especially, but also in California. So, in other words, the arms companies, and the security companies, (there’s about 500 of them in Israel, alone, which is an old country), think this is a great thing. In other words, they’re not embarrassed by it, and so the best source of information is just their web sites. Because what’s the point of developing a cutting edge surveillance system on Palestinians. You know there are 600 checkpoints in the West Bank. You’ve got millions of Palestinians that you can use as guinea pigs: literally in a laboratory. No wonder Israel is leading in airport security, and runs airports all over the United States.
But there’s no point in developing these systems if you’re not marketing them, if you’re not selling them, if you’re not making a name for yourself. So, in fact, all these 500 companies in Israel that sell this stuff, all have web sites. And they’re all blaring their product. So it’s not hidden. On the contrary, like I’m saying, if you put it within a certain context, this is actually seen as a positive contribution to the world. If you look at the world, from, you know, the way the media that you mentioned, present it, it’s good that Israel is helping us defend ourselves against terrorists.
But putting it in a critical way within the world system, we show that, in fact, security is not a neutral term. There really isn’t security. The security is really defined by the interests of the ruling classes. Writing the book, I’m aware of the fact that that’s language that kind of sounds old fashioned. But it really isn’t. It really is … even more today, it’s truer than it was before.
The ruling classes are much more organized, they have much more fire power, are much more coordinated with each other, and so on. And actually, with scarcer and scarcer resources, they have a much more focused agenda, in terms of extraction and control. So actually, the term “ruling class” should be more in use today. The ruling classes have their interests and they package it under the word “security” because who doesn’t want to be secure? And what I’m saying in the book, and that’s why the subtitle talks about global pacification, is I’m saying, “We’re actually being pacified.”
In other words, we’re being repressed to a point where we can’t resist. So you wanna be secure? Fine. Do you want to be pacified? And once you start using words like “pacification,” that raises questions that the word security doesn’t raise. Who’s pacifying me? How are they pacifying me? Why are they pacifying me? And so my book, I hope, it gives you sort of a window into the way the large world system works. I call it Globalized Palestine. In a sense, Israel over Palestine is a microcosm of the Global North over everybody else. And so I think it is a very useful book for beginning to understand global realities that we live in.
DB: You know, it’s interesting, if you read back some of the literature of the capitalists of the early 50’s, the visionaries among them understood about the problems that would be faced in terms of the shrinking resources. And they talked extensively about the kinds of, sort of, defense and weapon systems, and the way in which our way of life would have to be protected. This is just part of that curve.
JH: That’s right. And to her credit, the only one that really is using the word capitalism, that word up front in her analysis, is Naomi Klein. With The Shock Doctrine and now her new book on climate change and capitalism [This Changes Everything]. But it’s like that joke: One fish asks another fish, “How’s the water?” and the other fish says,”What water?” You know, you are living in this system. And it is so encompassing, and it affects everything that we do. Who our enemies are. How we dress. What our values are. How we talk. What language … everything. What we eat. And it’s an unsustainable system. But it’s a system that we’ve kind of internalized. We don’t even think about it anymore.
And so that’s, I think, the value of critical analysis, and bringing back that language, including language like pacification, is that really shows us that we’re in fact living in a very political water. And not just some normal, everyday reality that is inevitable.
DB: And how would you describe the security relationship, the security sharing relationship, between the United States and Israel?
JH: The United States is the primary global capitalist power. You know, it has a tremendous global reach. American corporations, more than any others, are dependent on the smooth flow of capital coming from what’s called the Third World, or the global south. And of course, you’ve got, with the neoliberalism in the last 50 years, you’ve got again, within the United States the 99 percent/one percent split. Even here there’s a lot of agitation, and people are starting to get it, and so on. And so the United States has a tremendous stake in this. But the United States is locked into the old concept of war.
For example, the Pentagon just spent, I don’t know, a trillion dollars on a new F-35: cutting edge stealth bomber. You know, a great toy. But it has no military use whatsoever. Even the generals say, “We don’t need [it].” [Robert] Gates, when he was Secretary of Defense, tried to cancel it. But you know how Congress works; you have every congressional district putting together pieces of it. So it’s jobs. But you’re locked into these huge, expensive weapon systems. … So that’s where Israel comes in.
And, of course, the United States is a tremendous, tremendous supporter of Israel. And I don’t think it’s just because of shared values. I think it’s because Israel really delivers for the United States. It provides very sophisticated, high-tech components, for weapon systems. For example, this F-35, Israel couldn’t produce that. But a lot of the cockpit, and the electronics and avionics, and the targeting systems are Israeli. And Israel becomes a kind of a surrogate for the United States, especially in countries where it’s hard for America to work. You know, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, the parts of Africa that are rough.
You know, American business people are constrained because there are laws against bribes and giving bribes, and working with the mafias. These countries, a lot of them, are mafia-type countries. Israel doesn’t have any of those constraints.
DB: For instance, if you went through Central America in the 1980’s and you saw the new Salvadoran death squad army or the Guatemalan death squad, if you didn’t look at the main insignia you would think they were wearing Israeli uniforms. They were certainly trained by Israelis.
JH: And they had their Uzis.
DB: And they had their Uzis.
JH: And they were armed. And don’t forget Israel was a key part of the Contra-Iran scandal around the Nicaraguan conflict. Israel is really more than an agent of the United States. I think Israel is really providing that key strategic support in “Wars Amongst the People” in a way that the United States really isn’t geared to doing. It’s too big, the Pentagon is too big, the systems are too fancy. And Israel is supplying that middle- to lower-level type technology that’s the most effective.
DB: What do you think of when you hear, “Is there a chance for peace?” Or the Israeli Prime Minister saying he’s searching desperately for a partner for peace? What goes through your mind? How do you respond to that? Here in the U.S. press, in the New York Times, they simply quote it like stenographers.
JH: That’s right. I think people are getting it. I don’t want to say, “even Americans,” but it’s not easy for you guys, with your media. It’s not too easy for you.
DB: It’s real hard. You have to really look up something.
JH: Obama, for example, two days ago signed into law a bill giving Israel $40 billion in new American arms over a ten-year period, 2018-2028, and basically outlawing BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that people are using like we did with South Africa, to put pressures on Israel, to end the occupation. Now it’s American law, or it’s going through, at least, to be American law, that the United States won’t deal with companies or countries in Europe or other places that support BDS. So it’s very actively supporting Israel. It isn’t just some generalized thing. And as long as that happens, especially Congress, as long as Congress is in Israel’s pocket, uncritically, we have to say here from Bernie Sanders to Trump.
We’re talking across the board Israel has nothing to worry about. And so it can pursue these interests of itself, in terms of keeping the occupation. That is why Israel doesn’t … there’s no pressure on Israel to end the occupation. Because if it has the American Congress on its side, on the one hand, and Germany on its side in Europe, that keeps Europe in line. Nobody can touch us. We’re home free. And they can insult Obama, and they can say terrible things about Kerry. I mean, Netanyahu is a conservative Republican, and he says it.
You know, he can go to Congress, here he gets Republicans to invite him to the American Congress, both sessions of Congress, including the Democrats come. And in his 20-minute talk, this is a number of months ago, his 20-minute talk against making the agreement with Iran.
So here he’s going against the President and American government policy, a foreign head of state, invited by the American Congress including the President’s own party, to speak out against an American government policy. And in his 20-minute talk he was given a standing ovation 42 times! The Israeli press was laughing. The Israeli press said it’s like the North Korean parliament.
So it’s hard, it’s almost hard to explain the degree to which Israel has penetrated into American politics. It’s almost like a domestic American issue, like apple pie, and that’s what makes it very difficult. But I think that Americans aren’t aware of how isolated they’re becoming, in the world, because of this uncritical support for Israel. Because it isn’t only supporting Israel against Palestinians. Palestinians have a special emblematic status among oppressed peoples in the world. Here’s a little people that’s standing up to Israel, the Israeli army, the American neo-colonialism, Europe, and it’s resisting. It hasn’t been defeated. So that gives hope to oppressed peoples.
But beyond that, when you are in the U.N. in repeated votes and it’s the United States, Israel and Micronesia, against everybody else, including your European allies, you know, it sends a message to the world that the United States is completely out of sync, and it’s hostile to human rights. And that I think isolates the United States in a way that the American people don’t really appreciate.
DB: Wow. Well, that is all a mouthful Dr. Jeff Halper. We just have 30 seconds left, but let me just ask you this. You must have been arrested. People don’t love what you’re doing in Israel. Are you afraid to do what you do? Why do you do what you do?
JH: I mean, I always say jokingly, but it’s true, “Israel is a vibrant democracy if you are Jewish.” If you’re Jewish you have that privilege. You have that space to do it. Nobody bothers me.
DB: By the way, that’s what Jeane Kirkpatrick said about South Africa, she said it’s a partial democracy, the whites have a chance to vote.
JH: Exactly. And that’s the situation. But if you’re not Jewish it’s a pretty repressive place to live, pretty violent. And now, of course, there’s legislation going through the parliament to marginalize us as well. If we go to parliament the left groups, just the left groups, are going to have to wear a tag. As if we’re foreign lobbies.
DB: Maybe a yellow star?
JH: We’re playing with what that tag is going to look like. But really it’s true. They’re not even aware of the background, the implications. You know, Israel is becoming so fascistic, really. I mean I’m not just using that as a slogan, that it’s replicating very dark times of other countries. It’s an irony that here Israel would do something like that.
DB: So are you afraid?
JH: No, I’m not afraid. I mean, certainly things could happen. And it’s getting harder and harder to protest in Israel. But I’m not afraid. You know, I just keep plugging on, what can I tell you?