Max Ajl

Dew drops as dual use remote sensors; mechanized micro-drones the size of wasps wandering the skies; and cannons blasting water at such high velocity as to turn globules of liquid into bullets and shells. These are the new technologies coming out of Israel’s military-industrial-security workshops. Once in hand, the Israeli army tests its tools through the colonization of Palestine. Then the government markets them in an ever-expanding arms bazaar, where governments the world over search for ever-more-innovative ways to encase and surveil their citizens as social contracts collapse and social control surges.

This is no oncoming dystopia. It is the here-and-now. The role of such technologies in what Jeff Halper calls “global securitization” is the topic of his important new book, War Against the People

Halper’s central contribution is to take on endlessly multiplying theories discussing the damage Israel does to that unicorn of International Relations theory, the U.S. “national interest.” Instead, he argues, the Zionist state has been continuously central to U.S. power, even as modes of militarism shift along and amidst broader changes in the world capitalist system.

Halper tries to weave the enduring Israeli occupation of Palestine into a world-spanning argument, creating theoretical linkages between rising bellicosity amongst Israelis and their state with surging security policies in the global system. Through this analysis, he marks the nexus of high-tech repression and profit in Palestine and across the world. Theoretically, Halper builds off Immanuel Wallerstein’s distinctive division of the world into core, semi-periphery, and periphery states, suggesting that in the 1970s capitalism reached a limit and “began feeding off itself,” as core states began to impoverish peripheral states, as well as immigrant populations on the margins of the core.

Halper calls this militarized neoliberalism. Accumulation began to proceed “by dispossession,” in David Harvey’s well-known formulation, commodifying land, encroaching on the commons, destroying peasant societies, busting up unions, and ripping social compacts to pieces.

Here, “neoliberal securitization” dominates, proceeding by planetary “pacification.” Clearly, Israel is expert at such work. It has had to carry out a low-level counterinsurgency since even before the birth of the state. And as “theater war,” or the old style of interstate war, within which ranks of tanks and flights of aircraft attacked one another, passed into fourth-generation warfare, Israel’s role became more central and more global. 

Speaking concretely, Halper identifies the passing of an older stage in which the United States used Israel to help smash the briefly incandescent Palestinian revolution in Black September in 1970 and the leftist Lebanese National Movement, or to smuggle U.S. weaponry to the Contras in Nicaragua. Now Israel has a new use. As the United States leans ever more heavily on a dynamic mix of cyber-warfare, drones, militarized policing, micro-surveillance, and other means of population control and interstate conflict short of old-school shooting wars, Israeli weapons have become increasingly useful.

Halper presents Israel as a U.S. mini-me, the former with its highly refined Matrix of Control over the Palestinian Territories, the latter with a Global Matrix of Control. He lists the technologies Israeli produces and incubates in often dizzying detail, describing their military use and the intelligentsia’s descriptions of their strategic potential. Halper notes the massive array of Global Southern states to which Israel vends it wares, from Azerbaijan to Colombia. These details are crucial to understanding the scope of Israel’s global role in repression and arms-brokering, as well as ways to potentially challenge it. This gathering of detail is an impressive labor. Anyone suggesting that Israel is a perpetual putz messing up U.S. global designs will have trouble making such an argument in the face of the facts Halper heaps up, and for that he deserves his due.

But Halper’s argument about the U.S. economic interest in Israel could have been stronger yet if he followed his own evidence more carefully. For example, he insists that there has been a global move to next-generation warfare, with old-style heavy weaponry—ships, tanks, and planes—decreasingly central amidst a surge in counterinsurgency wars and next-generation conflict.

Yet in his description of the illegal Israeli aggression against Syria, he writes of how a combined war-plane/computer virus assault took out a nuclear reactor—high-tech warfare meets old school technology. Clearly, this example shows that one cannot do without the other. Halper overstates the extent to which older implements of theater warfare have become passé. 

Along similar lines, he repeatedly describes the United States denying Israel permission to export American technology to China, and suggests that Washington has not allowed Israel to develop an independent defense-industrial base. In so doing, he presents us with a question he does not answer: why does the United States insist on maintaining a monopoly on core systems of coercion, such as jet fighter technology? And why does the Washington slam Israel with restrictions when it seeks to export or share technology with China? Clearly, the control of such weapons systems for both profit and military force is of critical importance to the United States, as is keeping the Israeli army dependent on U.S. technology.

Furthermore, China complicates Halper’s claims about an increasingly uniform comprador class in the Global South. Although China does have a growing and avaricious capitalist class, it does not fit quite so neatly into his framework. That class is not merely an accomplice to global capitalism but a rival to U.S. power to the extent—certainly real—that the legacy of the Revolution forces it to continue carrying out a national project. American military planners are well aware of that project. Hence their unease at supplying it with the means to defend itself.

Furthermore, Halper flattens out the world-system too much, not registering important differences between the BRICS and European capitalism. The latter emerged in the crucible of warfare and colonialism. The continuous reliance on war to restructure markets and nations is not incidental but central to the workings of Euro-Atlantic power, and marks it out as distinct from the capitalism of the BRICS countries, which profit more often by trade than by war.

Additionally, looking at the period from 1917-1973 as one of global revolution and the post-1973 era as one of global counter-revolution, would have been a more useful periodization than deploying the untestable concept of “accumulation by dispossession.” Capitalism did not begin to feed on itself in the 1970s, but on the social gains of the societies of the South and indeed the North—the great victories of the many revolutions and liberation struggles of the post-war period, and the blossoming societies that victorious social movements had built up. Israel has played a key role in precisely the legacy of counter-revolution to these gains, through its repressive technologies.

A more central issue is how Halper links capitalism to Israeli and U.S. militarism. His astonishing level of detail concerning Israeli military technology and its arm trade is central, he notes, to any counter-systemic project—that is, a project meaning to overturn the capitalist system and put a more equal one in its place. This is fair. Capitalism is not some blob, some formless abstraction like Hardt and Negri’s everywhere-and-nowhere Empire. It grew historically and exists concretely.

But this weaving of the multiple planes of analysis is not carried though with total success. Militarism, racism, and capitalism in Israel are tightly tied through Israel’s settler-colonial social structure, which in turn could not endure without perpetual warfare. And this is so not merely because the state profits from its counter-insurgency against Palestinians, but because eternal warfare hides completely the class war going on amongst the Zionist population. In this way, what appears to be external is in fact inseparable from Israeli colonial state formation. The colonial conflict with the Palestinians and the class conflict within the dominant colonial caste interact constantly, if not always visibly. One way they interact is the settlement project, as the Israeli elite steals land from Palestinians and gives it to poorer Israelis. Another is within the corporations, usually linked to militarized accumulation, which are at the core of  Israeli wealth. 

Yet the non-tracing of corporate control and the concrete networks which link U.S. and Israeli corporations must surely be the weakest point of this otherwise excellent book. Such studies are not in profusion, but they exist. Larry Lockwood’s Imperialism and the Israeli Economy is an older one. Newer, and one whose elision is quite striking, is Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s The Global Political Economy of Israel. Both show that U.S. corporations have invested massively in the Israeli military industrial build-up since the late 1960s and through to the present, with Israeli corporations trading in the same stock markets and often owned partially or wholly by a trans-national elite.

Such gaps mar this otherwise exceptional, useful book. For the author’s ambition is plainly political—to raise the questions of securitization and militarism as central for us to confront. But absent a truly unifying framework, our political practice can remain scattered, leading to diffuse struggles against a smorgasbord of oppressions. Important clusters of contemporary critical theory, with their frequently fragmenting tendencies, may help to combat inequity, but can also isolate oppositional activity in theoretical silos. If Halper does not quite perfectly lay out a solution, it is to his credit that he clearly identifies the problem, and brings us an important step in the right direction. 

Max Ajl is an editor at Jacobin and Jadaliyya, and is on twitter @maxajl. He thanks Sobhi Samour for comments.