You went to Berlin to the Free University. Why? I actually live in Heidelberg, although I’m writing my PhD at the Free University of Berlin. I followed my partner who….
You went to Berlin to the Free University. Why?
I actually live in Heidelberg, although I’m writing my PhD at the Free University of Berlin. I followed my partner who found a job in Germany. The very large emigration from Israel of young and educated people has meant that much of my family and friends have already left Israel, and Berlin is actually a favorite destination, where I meet many of my old friends from Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.
What motivated you to research Israel’s military sector and to support BDS? Did your upbringing and family background have a role in this, or was it something you came to later in life?
I did grow up in a leftist and critical family, and was taught to ask questions from a young age. I went to a very militaristic school, so I was taught a Zionist perspective as well, but I didn’t want to take part in the occupation directly as a soldier. In order to try to be a non-combat soldier, I volunteered for a year of social service in the town of Sderot, and there I had time to think about politics, to hear from my friends who were drafted into the army, and to see aspects of Israeli society that I never knew existed. I decided not to do any military service. By pretending to be crazy I easily received an exemption, like thousands do every year.
Only in university, however, did I become aware of the Palestinian side of the story, when Palestinians were invited by a political group called “The Campus Will Not Stay Silent” to speak about their experiences during the Second Intifada. I started to become politically active and joined the Alternative Information Center, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization.
Supporting BDS came naturally as I was part of the group of activists who were considering various strategies of combating the occupation. As an economist, I felt that BDS can have a very strong impact on the Israeli economy and society and was something that empowers Palestinians to use non-violent resistance.
Choosing my research topics was done in an activist environment, and I would usually write reports and studies on matters upon requests from activists. After writing my book on the political economy of Israel’s occupation, I realized that the Israeli military industry and Israeli arms exports are very important to complete the picture, to explain how Israel’s occupation fits into global interests, and so I chose this as a topic for my PhD.
It is said that the Israeli population is becoming more mentally and psychologically isolated from the rest of the world. Is that also your experience?
Absolutely not. Israelis strongly depend on a feeling of being part of the “west,” and part of Europe (even though Israel is not in Europe). The fascination of Israelis with the European Football Cup, with the Eurovision etc. is one aspect of this, but also the desire to travel in the world, to consume western culture, etc. I admit that when BDS started, I did not imagine that its most powerful impact would be precisely in the sphere of culture. Whenever a famous artist cancels a performance in Israel, the reactions are very powerful, because Israelis don’t want to feel isolated. The fact that Israelis are willing to pay double the prices for tickets to performances of artists who choose to violate BDS and perform in Israel is a testimony to that fact. Actually, this is the reason for BDS being a successful tactic; it targets a sensitive nerve of Israel’s culture, the need to be included.
Listening to Netanyahu and Lieberman, we get the impression here that the division between Jews and Palestinians in Israel itself is increasingly growing. Is that true?
On the political level, yes of course. The Israeli government is not ashamed to call for separation, and to demonize Palestinians as a group. On the local and personal level, there are also many cases of Palestinians and Jews working together, becoming friends, creating families together. Separation is never 100% successful. It is true that many Israeli Jews have little contact with Palestinians and know very little about them. Very few Israeli Jews bother to learn Arabic. But Palestinian Israelis, on the other hand, have frequent contact with Israeli Jews, speak good Hebrew and have a very good understanding of Jewish culture and politics.
How can you explain that an Israeli general has compared the situation in his country with Germany of the 1930s?
Major-General Yair Golan is well-known for being very direct and not too careful with what he says. In a lecture he gave in 2007 he admitted that the Wall of Separation’s main purpose is to separate populations, and security only comes as a second priority.
Currently Israel is witnessing a fierce struggle between two competing elite groups. The old military elite in Israel (to which Golan belongs) is in a state of crisis, losing much of its influence over the government and the business sector.
The military elite is not leftist, progressive or opposed to the occupation, but it believes in creating an “intelligent” occupation, a careful and planned use of force in order to keep the Palestinians under control. They are afraid of the populism of the Israeli government and how it encourages unbounded brutality of Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. Golan hinted that such populism and brutality are not signs of strength of Israel, but actually signs of weakness.
His statement was severely criticized, and gave the government the opportunity to make more populist statements. Minister of Defense Ya’alon (also a member of Israel’s military elite, and former commander of the army) was forced to resign and was replaced by Lieberman, who is not a member of the military elite.
Does militarism and war (also) serve to cover the tensions within Israeli Jewish society?
I wouldn’t say militarism and war, but rather an obsession with security. Israel hasn’t fought a real conventional war since 1973, instead it is constantly engaged in asymmetrical conflicts in civilian areas, where Israeli soldiers use heavy armaments in civilian areas. But the constant fear of retaliation, the threat of real and imagined terrorism, are exploited very cynically by the Israeli government to distract from the burning social issues in Israel.
A good example of this is the 2011 attack on an Israeli bus in the midst of large social protests in Israel. Netanyahu quickly announced that the attackers came from Gaza, and ordered a bombing against Gaza, killing five Palestinians. Even though the attackers did not come from Gaza, Palestinians chose not to react to the Israeli killing of innocent Palestinians, because such retaliation would serve the desire of Netanyahu to suppress the social protests. I think that we can learn from this example how well Palestinians understand Israeli society. Interestingly, the social protests ended eventually with very little effect, and the security issue continues to dominate Israeli political discourse.
If we look at the big military companies such as the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit, do they account for a large share of the Israeli economy?
The arms sector is a large section of Israel’s industrial sector, and the two biggest arms companies are the government-owned IAI, and the private Elbit Systems. There are conflicting numbers from various sources, and I estimate that 11% of Israel’s total exports are security and military exports, to which these two companies contribute more than half. Of course this is very significant for the Israeli economy, and no other country in the world has arms as such a high proportion of its total exports (not even the U.S, the world’s largest arms exporter). Nevertheless, one must remember that the majority of Israel’s exports, and industrial companies and workforce are civilian.
How is the Netherlands (and the EU) most complicit in supporting the Israeli military industrial complex? Through its subsidies and financing, its scientific research, its global production facilities, its purchases of Israeli military products and services, or its provision of tax havens for the companies’ profits?
All of the above, but the complicity is not just in helping to fund the Israeli arms industry, but also by legitimizing it. When Dutch and European politicians promote security cooperation projects with Israel, they are fully aware that the Israeli arms industry is based on the Israeli military experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, technologies developed in the course of repression of Palestinian resistance and control over a large population denied its basic rights. Therefore, all these ties between European and Israeli arms companies send a message that Europe accepts Israel’s occupation and even seeks to learn from it. This was said by General Yoav Galant (currently Israel’s minister of housing), that “foreign governments are hypocritical. On the one hand they criticize our actions, but then they come to us to learn how we do it.”
BDS campaigns in Europe have the potential to be a powerful force given that the EU traditionally has been one of Israel’s largest markets. Is this where you think BDS efforts can be most effective – or rather in the US or elsewhere?
In the end, the most effective BDS campaigns are not necessarily the ones that have the biggest monetary effect, but those that get the attention of the Israeli public. U.S-based BDS was very effective in making Israelis feel that “even our closest ally is changing its opinion on us,” but so did BDS actions in Germany. Europe remains Israel’s largest target both for exports and for imports, but BDS doesn’t seek to change that. BDS is not a tool to harm the Israeli economy, but to achieve political change through pressure.
The Netherlands play a very important role because of the importance of the Rotterdam port to Israel’s exports to Europe, especially of agricultural produce, which is of great symbolic significance. If the Netherlands will impose more strict controls over that import, it has a direct impact on the Israeli illegal colonies in the Jordan Valley, which is the most fertile land in all of Palestine.
Is BDS a bigger threat for the economy of Israel or for its image?
BDS does not seek to harm the Israeli economy, but to convince Israelis that it is unsustainable to violate international law. I don’t believe that the Israeli government will continue with its policies of apartheid and occupation long enough for BDS to cause a long-term damage to the Israeli exports. When Israeli companies will start moving to other countries to avoid BDS, the Israeli government will either collapse, or change its policies. The majority of the Israeli public today (unlike the situation in the 1970s and 1980s) is no longer willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of Zionism.
The Israeli image, however, is already strongly affected by BDS. The strength of BDS is that it is a movement based on research and information, and that through BDS, activists are able to educate the public about the situation in Palestine, and disseminate materials. The image of Israel in the world is changing as a result, and this is something that has no less of an effect on Israeli decision makers than the economic impact.
What could be important focus points for organizations such as docP and Stop de Wapenhandel (Stop the Arms Trade)?
In my experience, it is a very bad idea for someone from Israel/Palestine to tell organizations what their focus should be. Surely you know better than me who is your audience, what kind of message will be more effective to reach them and what they can do and organize locally. Palestine solidarity groups work in a wide variety of contexts – from student groups to church groups, from labor unions to social justice and environmental movements. My only recommendation would be to choose projects that can have an impact inside Israel, projects that involve major and well-known Israeli companies, politicians, etc. And that each such project should be accompanied by research. Activists can only be successful if they have a lot of information that they can disseminate as part of their activity. It is never enough to say “let’s boycott this company because it is Israeli.” You must explain why.