The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel exports the technology of occupation around the world
By Antony Loewenstein
In The Palestine Laboratory, Walkley Award-winning Australian-Jewish journalist Antony Loewenstein details how Israel uses occupied Palestinian territories as a testing ground for developing tools of oppression, before selling them around the world. Loewenstein’s book is a brilliant piece of investigative work, bringing together mountains of research and interviews, which lays bare the relationship between Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians and their booming arms industry.
Loewenstein was based in East Jerusalem from 2016–20, reporting on Israeli repression in the West Bank and Gaza. He describes the everyday harassment and humiliation inflicted on Palestinians by Israeli police.
Early in the book, Loewenstein recounts the dominant narrative based around fear that was instilled in his Zionist upbringing: “Jews were constantly under attack and Israel was the solution. No matter that Palestinians had to suffer to make Jews feel safe.”
Later in life, Loewenstein came to realise that “this felt like a perverted lesson from the Holocaust”.
Now, Loewenstein is a vocal critic of the Israeli government’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians and the use of Palestine as a weapons testing ground. He describes how Israel tests rockets, drones, aerial defence systems, missiles, cyberweapons and radar in Palestine, before selling them around the world.
“Palestine is Israel’s workshop,” writes Loewenstein, “where an occupied nation on its doorstep provides millions of subjugated people as a laboratory for the most precise and successful methods of domination.”
“Israel has developed a world-class weapons industry with equipment conveniently tested on occupied Palestinians, then marketed as ‘battle-tested’ … The Palestine laboratory is a signature Israeli selling point.”
Loewenstein highlights the inextricable link between Israeli arms and surveillance companies and the Zionist state. Many Israeli companies are funded by the government, started by ex-Israel Defence Forces (IDF) personnel or Israeli intelligence staff, and extensively work for the government with an interchangeable rotation of staff.
“Cashing in on the IDF brand has successfully led to Israeli security companies being some of the most successful in the world,” writes Loewenstein.
Israel has grown to be the 10th-largest arms exporter in the world, making US$12.5 billion in sales last year — its biggest amount ever.
‘Israel sells weapons to anybody’
Loewenstein, speaking to Green Left Radio last month, summed up Israel's arms policy: “Israel will sell weapons to pretty much anybody.” In the book, he lists a portion of the almost-endless list of brutal regimes that Israel has supplied weapons to.
Israel sold weapons to various violent regimes in Latin America, such as in El Salvador in the 1970s and Costa Rica in the 1980s.
Israel supplied guns and armoured vehicles to the brutal Duvalier family dictatorship in Haiti, which killed 30–60,000 people during 1957–86.
The Zionist state helped arm the vicious Somoza regime in Nicaragua, which ruled from 1936–79 and was responsible for killing tens of thousands. Israel accounted for 98% of Nicaragua’s arms imports by the 1970s, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. After the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza regime in the late 1970s, Israel then sold weapons to the Contras — paid for by the CIA — to wage a bloody war against the revolutionary government.
Loewenstein details Israel’s willingness to overlook atrocities committed against Jewish people around the world by the governments it sold weapons to.
Israel provided weapons to the Argentinian military dictatorship during 1976–83 that killed or disappeared up to 30,000 people. At the time, the country was a haven for high-profile Nazis like Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann. Declassified documents show that Israel knew about the dictatorship’s torture of Jewish people in prison, but remained silent because it wanted Argentinian support for its West Bank occupation. While Argentinian concentration camps were filled with Nazi symbols and pictures of Hitler, and special torture techniques were applied to Jewish women, Israel claimed that arms sales to the country would help protect Argentinian Jews.
Israel supplied fighter jets, drones, missiles and battleships to the Sri Lankan government and helped train their police to brutally repress the Tamil struggle for self determination. A United Nations report in 2015 concluded that Israeli-made weapons contributed to the killing of innocent people and proliferation of war crimes — an estimated 40–70,000 Tamils were killed by government security forces during the final months of 2009.
Loewenstein highlights Israel’s strong ideological, economic and military ties with Apartheid South Africa — it was one of the last countries to maintain relations with the regime. By the 1980s, Israel was their main weapons supplier, ignoring the UN Security Council arms embargo.
Nelson Mandela, shortly after being released from prison in 1982, said: “The people of South Africa will never forget the support of the state of Israel to the Apartheid regime.”
In 1969, Israel struck a deal with the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship in Paraguay, which at the time harboured Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele — who experimented on and killed hundreds of Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp — to pay 60,000 Palestinians in Gaza (about 10% of its population) to move to Paraguay.
Loewenstein, speaking to Democracy Now! in June, called the Israeli arms industry a “dark stain on the Jewish legacy 75 years after the Holocaust … The legacy seems to be backing and supporting and arming the worst regimes in the world.”
A chilling part of the book focuses on Israel’s development of mass surveillance technologies, such as spyware, facial recognition software and surveillance systems.
Loewenstein explores how Israel’s export of mass surveillance technologies, tested on Palestinians, is a moneymaker for the country and a valuable tool for willing buyers to monitor their own populations or oppressed minorities.
Israeli tech firm NSO Group — whose founders worked for the IDF’s secretive intelligence arm, Unit 8200 — developed the notorious Pegasus spyware, a sophisticated mobile phone hacking tool. Unit 8200 whistleblowers confessed in 2014 to using the technology to spy on Palestinians in the West Bank. The spyware is now used in at least 45 countries, often to spy on human rights activists and journalists.
Israeli companies secure contracts to provide expertise or equipment for airports, power plants and even events like the Olympic Games.
Israeli start-up AnyVision secretly films Palestinians — the company and the Israeli government will not reveal the cameras’ locations — in the West Bank to train its artificial intelligence and facial recognition systems. AnyVision operates in more than 40 countries, including the United States and Russia, and is used in casinos, gyms and factories.
A Unit 8200 whistleblower revealed that Israeli surveillance can listen to every phone conversation in the West Bank and Gaza. The insidious and far-reaching nature of Israeli surveillance of Palestinians provides the perfect testing ground to refine technology before selling it around the world.
Loewenstein explores the case of Mer Security, an Israeli firm that operates in more than 40 countries with 1200 employees. Mer Security president Chaim Mer admitted that the global success of the company is mainly due to winning a contract in 1999 to install hundreds of cameras in Jerusalem’s Old City to allow police to monitor occupied Palestinians; potential clients could see the surveillance systems in use.
Loewenstein points out that most people within Israel have remained silent on the use of mass surveillance technologies to blatantly violate Palestinians’ privacy and human rights. It was only during the country’s COVID-19 response, Loewenstein argues, when the government turned many of its surveillance tools on the rest of the population to monitor cases and track social media for evidence of social gatherings, that some media outlets and politicians expressed outrage about their use on Israeli Jews.
Loewenstein also details how Israel benefits from increasingly militaristic, racist border policies.
For example, the European Union has signed several contracts with state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit Systems to supply unmanned drones — developed and tested during many attacks on Gaza — used to track migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
Armed with Israeli surveillance technology, the EU’s border agency can essentially watch migrants drown, or intercept boats that appear as if they might make it to European borders. Economic researcher Shir Hever, interviewed in the book, said that “drones are a technological upgrade for the coastguard — it gives them the option to let refugees drown”.
This cruel, inhumane policy makes an already-dangerous area even more lethal. The International Organisation of Migration Missing Migrants project estimated that at least 22,748 people — including 848 children — have died since 2014 in the Mediterranean region.
Israeli firm Cellebrite also sells spyware to the EU that hacks refugee’s mobile phones to track their journey and communication history.
Loewenstein told GL Radio that one of his motivations for writing The Palestine Laboratory was to provide “a warning that Israel remains … the most influential ethno-nationalist state on the planet, a nation that proudly discriminates against anyone who’s not Jewish”.
In the book, Loewenstein argues that other autocratic regimes look to Israel for inspiration in how to build their own ethno-nationalist states. He cites Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts in India to create a Hindu fundamentalist state as one such example.
Not only is Modi’s India the biggest buyer of Israeli tools of oppression, but also ideologically shares the aim of building an ethno-nationalist state, argues Loewenstein. India’s forced settling of Hindus in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir is akin to Israel’s settler-colonialism in places like the West Bank.
“Israeli Heron drones fly over Kashmir, just as they fly over the Palestinian occupied territories,” remarks Loewenstein.
Finally, Loewenstein describes the lengths the Israeli government and Zionist lobby go to in the attempt to normalise the colonial occupation, silence Palestinians and attack voices opposed to Israel. For example, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs developed an app called ACT.IL, through which an army of trolls harass social media companies and media outlets for publishing any content critical of Israel.
Despite Zionists’ attempts to normalise Israeli occupation and silence criticism, global condemnation of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is growing. But governments, eager to get their hands on the latest spyware and weapons, continue to do business with Israeli weapons companies.
Activists have taken targeted actions to pressure governments and institutions to break ties with Israeli weapons companies. Sustained public pressure recently forced RMIT University to end its partnership with Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest weapons manufacturer.
Only sustained grassroots resistance will force governments to stop buying Israeli drones, missiles and guns; the same weapons that have killed more than 14,000 Palestinians — mostly women and children — in Gaza since October 7.
[Download The Palestine Laboratory ebook for free at Verso.]