Al-Jazeera / June 12, 2020
Two decades of Israeli-US police cooperation includes training in racial profiling and violent suppression of protests.
Following the killing of George Floyd, as US riot police fired rubber-coated bullets, tear gas canisters, pepper spray and stun grenades at protesters, Palestinians shared tips on social media on how to best deal with the assaults.
Many in the Palestinian territories are well experienced with such tactics by security forces while living under a decades-long occupation by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip.
According to the organisations Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Researching the American-Israeli Alliance (RAIA), one common theme shared between United States and Israel is the exchange of tactics and expertise in state violence, which has been ongoing for 18 years.
Months after the September 11 attacks, US law enforcement delegates attended their first official training expedition to Israel to exchange “best practices” in “counter-terrorism”.
Since then, thousands more from across the US – including agents from the FBI, CIA, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – have been schooled at these meetings in both Israel and the US, sponsored by far-right Israeli lobby organisations.
But instead of promoting effective security for communities, the programme facilitates an exchange of tactics used in police violence and control including mass surveillance, racial profiling and the suppression of protests and dissent, according to the JVP and RAIA’s 2018 report (PDF) titled Deadly Exchange, which details the extent of the cooperation.
Among the thousands of US law enforcement officers who have reportedly participated in the exchange over the years was Anoka County (North Minneapolis) Sherrif James Stuart, who travelled to Israel in December.
Eran Efrati – executive director of RAIA, who has studied the subject for the past decade – told Al Jazeera that when training with Israel, US police delegates witness “live demonstrations of repressive violence in real-time, in protests across the West Bank, patrols in East Jerusalem, and visits to the Gaza border”.
“Delegates meet with the Shin Bet and chief officers in Israeli military prisons to discuss investigation tactics, with Palestinian Authority agents and police, to learn about how Israel uses their collaboration in suppressing Palestinian dissent, and with representatives from the Department of Defense and others to learn about Israel’s security expertise,” Efrati said.
Leila, a campaign organiser at JVP who asked that only her first name be used, told Al Jazeera the exchange programme is just one aspect of violent policing in the United States that has existed for decades.
“The violence that we’re seeing today in the US is 100 percent the result of white supremacy and anti-blackness and institutionalised racism in the US,” Leila said.
“The exchange programmes create the opportunity for US armed forces and Israeli armed forces to come together and swap tactics, and deepen the harmful practices and policies that already exist in both countries.”
Among the topics covered during these exchanges, delegates learn how to suppress and infiltrate demonstrations, and how to coordinate with the media over coverage, Deadly Exchange found.
The training also involved sales of “crowd-control” weapons exchanged between the two governments, including US-made tear gas canisters that were heavily used in protests in Oakland, California in 2011 and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, as well as Israeli surveillance technologies.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is among those to have criticised police – including departments in Oakland, Baltimore, Ferguson and Boston – for contracting tech companies to use surveillance software to profile residents based on their religion, race and political affiliation, the report said.
Some US practices have been influenced by the infamous Israeli infiltration of Palestinian communities as well.
Lawrence Sanchez, a CIA officer who worked to establish the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) “Demographics Unit”, which consisted of informants known as “mosque crawlers” spying on Muslim communities, acknowledged the team drew inspiration from Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian Territories, according to the report.
The NYPD has also sent undercover officers to infiltrate Black Lives Matter protests and collect multimedia records of protester identities, activities and text messages.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security justified their surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists by referring to them as “Black Identity Extremists” and “domestic terrorists”.
“These practices reflect the increasing use of security rhetoric to justify the surveillance and infringement of rights of US citizens and residents based on their race and political positions, a practice already fully institutionalised in Israel,” Deadly Exchange said.
“Like Palestinians who are arbitrarily defined as security threats and put on the Shin Bet’s list, people of colour and racial justice activists in the United States are subjected to systematic surveillance and can be placed on gang databases or government watch lists with little recourse or opportunities to hold the state accountable.”
‘Build a better world’
The campaign to end the “deadly exchange” started in 2017 and has so far seen a few successes.
In 2018, Durham, North Carolina became the first city in the US to ban police training with foreign militaries – including with Israel – after a coalition of community organisations successfully lobbied the city council.
Aman Aberra, a coalition member of the group Demilitarize From Durham2Palestine that spearheaded the campaign, told Al Jazeera it came together by combining the Palestine Solidarity Movement and Black organisers in Durham.
The key to the campaign, Aberra said, was to unite visions of divesting from Israeli “apartheid” and occupation, and to ensure public safety locally especially for marginalised, Black and poor communities often targeted by police.
“What Demilitarize is trying to do is build an internationalist movement to build a better world for everyone that’s safe, where we have structures that support us, where we have healthcare and housing, and where we’re not being threatened by state violence,” Aberra said.
In December 2018, Vermont state police also cancelled training in Israel after pressure from local organisers.
Leila said the JVP’s campaigns to end police exchanges with foreign forces and states with well-documented histories of human rights abuses are ongoing in Seattle and Washington, DC, as part of larger coalition efforts to defund and dismantle policing.
In the wake of mass protests against police brutality worldwide since Floyd’s killing, politicians have introduced legislation to reform police departments, while others believe that will not work and complete overhauls are necessary.
“There is a lot of power in communities and movements coming together, refusing to accept the structure and funding of police instead of their communities, refusing to accept that departments are trained and armed like the military, and the systemic and brutal violence they inflict on communities,” Erfati said.
“Organisers and movements are also coming together calling for investment in their communities instead of military industries. In this moment, we are seeing some amazing results of this long-standing organising.”
Mersiha Gadzo is a journalist and online producer for Al-Jazeera English; prior to joining Al-Jazeera she worked as a freelancer in Bosnia & Herzegovina and the occupied Palestinian territories