The ‘Palestinian Chair’: Israel’s direct role in US police violence

Published in Israel
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By Ramzy Baroud

The banning of deadly police practices by many American states and cities following the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is, once more, shedding light on US-Israeli collaboration in the fields of policing, security and crowd control.

From California to New York, and from Washington State to Minneapolis, all forms of neck restraints and chokeholds that are used by police while dealing with suspects are no longer allowed by local, state, or federal authorities. Even the US president, Donald Trump, felt pressured enough to issue an executive order outlawing police use of the chokehold.

This is only the beginning of what promises to be a serious rethink in police practices that disproportionately target African Americans and other minority and marginalised communities across the United States.

The refashioning of the American police, in recent years, to fit a military model is a subject that requires better understanding than the one currently offered by mainstream US media. Certainly, US racism and police violence are intrinsically linked and date back decades, but the militarisation of the US police and their use of deadly violence against suspected petty criminals – and often non criminals – is a relatively new phenomenon that has largely been imported from Israel. 

While an urgent conversation is already under way in US cities regarding the need to reimagine public safety, or even to defund the police altogether, little is being said about the link between the US ‘war on terror’ and the American elites’ fascination with the ‘Israeli example’ in how the Israeli military deals with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.

‘The Israeli example (could serve as) a possible basis for arguing…that “torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm”,’ read the CIA General Counsel report of September 2001.

Equally important to the content of this argument made by the CIA was the actual date of the report – only a few days after the 11 September attacks in New York. That was the beginning of a new form of the Israeli-American love affair, which entirely redefined the nature of the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, removing Israel from the category of ‘client regimes’, and casting it into a whole new category – that of a model to be emulated, and a true partner to be embraced.

The language used by the CIA and other structures within the US intelligence community quickly seeped into the military as well, and eventually became the uncontested political discourse, epitomised by the words of the former US president, Barack Obama, in June 2010 when he said that ‘the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.’ ‘Unbreakable’ indeed, since Israel, the long-time recipient of American financial support and military and intelligence secrets became a major exporter of ideas, security technology, and ‘war on terror’ tactics to the USA.

It is, however, critical that we do not reduce our understanding of this troubling rapport between the USA and Israel to only military hardware and intelligence sharing. The new American infatuation with Israel is essentially an intellectual one, as the USA began viewing itself as inferior to Israel in terms of the latter’s supposed ability to navigate between sustaining its own democracy and successfully defeating Palestinian and Arab ‘terrorism’.

For example, former US President George W Bush regarded extremist Israeli politician and author, Natan Sharansky, as a mentor. In January 2005, The New York Times reported how Bush had invited Sharansky to the Oval Office to discuss his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. A barely visible Israeli politician thus became the moral authority for Bush’s invasion of sovereign Arab countries. It was during this period that Israeli torture tactics, including the infamous ‘Palestinian Chair’, became the crown jewel of the American military’s systematic violence used in America’s immoral wars from Iraq to Afghanistan, to elsewhere.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2016, Rachel Stroumsa argued that the ‘Palestinian Chair’ was ‘but one of many examples of ties and seepages between the security practices of Israel and America’, adding that ‘the CIA explicitly justified its use of torture in depositions to the Senate Intelligence Committee by citing High Court of Justice rulings.’

The political, military, and intelligence marriage between the USA and Israel in Iraq quickly spread to include the US ‘global war on terror’, where Israeli weapon manufacturers cater to every American need, playing on the country’s growing sense of insecurity, offering products that range from airport security, the building of watchtowers, the erection of walls and fences, to spying and surveillance technology.

Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, made a fortune from building surveillance towers and sensors, in addition to many other products, across the USA-Mexico border. The company, like other Israeli companies, won one bid after another, because its products are ‘combat-proven’ or ‘field-proven’, referred to as such because these technologies have been used against, or tested on, real people in real situations; the ‘people’ here, of course, being Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. The fact that thousands of American police officers have been trained by Israelis, as evidenced by the burgeoning of violent military-like tactics used against ordinary Americans, is only one link in a long chain of ‘deadly exchanges’ between the two countries.

Almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, ‘the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs have paid for police chiefs, assistant chiefs and captains to train in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,’ Amnesty International said in a recent report. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Israeli army manual, which holds little respect for internationally-recognised rules of conduct, infiltrated numerous police departments across the USA. Even the typical look of the American police officers began changing to resemble that of a combat soldier in full gear. The growing Israeli role in shaping the American security state allowed Israel to push its political priorities past its traditional stronghold over the US Congress to individual states and, eventually, to city councils across the country.

Even if some Israeli tactics that are currently applied by the US police are discontinued under the collective chants of ‘Black Lives Matter’, Israel – if not stopped – will continue to define Washington’s security priorities from Washington State to Texas, because the relationship – Obama’s ‘unbreakable bond’ – is much stronger and deeper than anyone could have ever imagined.

- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

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