U.S.-Mexico Border: An Israeli Tech Laboratory

Migrants running from tear gas fired by American border agents near the fence at Tijuana. (Credit: Hannah Mckay/Reuters)

When hundreds of Central American migrants arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, in late November, planning to claim asylum in the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the San Ysidro border crossing in anticipation of their arrival. In protest of the closure, asylum seekers rushed the fence separating Mexico and the United States, and border patrol agents fired tear gas at them through the fence. Images of children and their families running through clouds of CS gas went viral on social media. Palestine solidarity activists speculated that the agents used the same U.S.-manufactured tear gas as is used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against Palestinians and has been used against activists in the United States from Standing Rock to Ferguson, MO.

Such collaboration between U.S. and Israeli defense establishments is not new. In 2004, Hermes drones manufactured by Israel’s Elbit Systems were the first unmanned aerial vehicles deployed at the U.S. southern border. A decade later, Customs and Border Protection awarded the company’s subsidiary, Elbit Systems of America, a $145 million contract to construct its integrated fixed towers system in Nogales, Arizona. And in October 2017, when camera crews gathered in San Diego, California, for the unveiling of President Donald Trump’s border wall prototypes, the only foreign contractor on display was ELTA, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries.

In an interview published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, excerpted below, I spoke with journalist and author Gabriel Schivone about the use of Israeli technology at the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond. Schivone has published widely on issues of human rights and homeland security technology along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as on the Israeli arms trade in Central America, the Mexican drug wars, and other topics. His book Making the New “Illegal”: How Decades of U.S. Involvement in Central America Triggered the Modern Wave of Immigration (forthcoming from Prometheus Books) includes a chapter on Israel’s military role as a proxy for the United States in Guatemala’s “Dirty War.”

Subscribe to the Journal of Palestine Studies to read the complete interview on the Journal’s website.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | The Great March of Return: An Organizer’s Perspective]

One issue on which the United States and Israel have been cooperating for a while is the U.S.- Mexico border. When Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he promised to build a “great wall” and to make Mexico pay for it, which ignored the fact that the wall already existed, both physically and virtually through all kinds of security technology. How did this come about?

I’m glad you point that out, because nobody else will—the media, both major political parties, and even, detrimentally, some activists, as well as others, all act as if the wall hasn’t existed for most of our lifetimes, yours and mine. […] Yet this wall and all these barriers have been here for twenty-five years. In 2006, they were greatly expanded when the Israeli giant Elbit was brought in as a subcontractor through Boeing’s $1 billion award to provide the “virtual wall” system under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 signed by [President George W.] Bush. After five years and a billion dollars spent, the Obama administration scrapped the sluggish and expensive project in 2011. But then in early 2014, they gave Elbit’s U.S. subsidiary, Elbit Systems of America, a new $145 million contract to build the integrated fixed towers project, a similar “virtual wall” concept, to provide fifty-two Israeli surveillance towers all across southern Arizona along the border with Mexico.

Other examples of Israeli technology and expertise on the border include Israel’s NICE Systems, which provided CCTV surveillance technology to notorious Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio (who was found guilty of racially profiling Latinos in 2013) for one of his jails in 2000; the Golan Group, a huge Israeli conglomerate, which did a training program for a select group of ICE agents in 2007; and a squad of Israeli Hermes drones, which were the first drones used to patrol the southern border skies, in 2004. These are just a few of the examples.

You and [your research partner] Todd Miller recently returned from a trip to Palestine and Jordan. What took you there, and how was your experience?

The trip was the second phase of an investigation we started here in Tucson in 2014 and 2015. We looked at what is essentially a boundary-building complex—military, security, NAFTA, Homeland Security—based here in Tucson and which is part of the University of Arizona. It’s a futuristic, sci-fi–like campus called Tech Parks Arizona, which its CEO calls a business incubator. They invite and lure small, medium, and large companies to open offices on the campus, which is at the far end of town in the middle of the desert. And the way that they sell their campus and state-of- the-art facilities is as a headquarters for these companies’ research and development activities. They say to them, “You can use the facilities; you can use the grounds as a laboratory, as a testing range for command centers, security systems, your surveillance towers, etc.” After seeing how lucrative it has become, they want to go global and make southern Arizona the nexus of the boundary-building business.

Their big idea is called Global Advantage, which is a business project based on a partnership between Tech Parks Arizona and the Offshore Group, which is a Mexican business-advisory firm that offers “nearshore solutions for manufacturers of any size” in its manufacturing complexes just across the border in Sonora, a state in northern Mexico. Tech Parks Arizona provides the lawyers, accountants, and scholars, as well as the technical know-how, to help any foreign company—starting with Israeli companies as their “proof of concept” clientele—land softly and set up shop at the campus. Tech Parks Arizona offers these companies its research and development resources and facilities, as well as aid with legal issues, such as business regulation, and even finding qualified employees. Tech Parks Arizona identifies their Israeli clientele through the Global Advantage program’s Israel Business Initiative, which lures Israeli companies to come and set up offices in Tucson.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Special Issue: Queering Palestine]

The way they package it to the Israelis is by telling them, “You can come here and set up offices and do your research and development at the Tech Parks grounds and then just walk across the border and watch the products being manufactured. Instead of taking your mass production to China or India, we have the full package right here for you.” [Todd Miller and I] talked to the CEOs and business executives of the Offshore Group and Tech Parks Arizona about their partnership with Global Advantage, and they told us that they consider Israel their proof-of- concept client before they approach other clients, like South Korea. From the beginning, they said, the number one surefire sell has always been Israel.

When I interviewed Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild about his endorsement of Global Advantage—asking him, “Why Israel?”—he told me, “If you go to Israel and then come to southern Arizona and close your eyes and spin yourself a few times, you might not be able to tell the difference.” [. . .]

The doors swung wide open to this regional nexus in which the United States, Israel, and Mexico became partners in the “laboratory” that is the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, with its high-tech testing grounds in southern Arizona. They all loved the state/corporate idea of fusing Mexican low-wage manufacturing with Israeli boundary building and homeland security companies. [. . .]

How is this technology being employed at the U.S.-Mexico border versus in Palestine? Are the same products being used in each case?

Several products have similar uses, with some modifications. For example, the armed Hermes drones have been conducting killings of civilians en masse in Gaza for years; at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Hermes drones were unarmed. Other times, the marketing language differs. Elbit’s surveillance towers, as well as the motion sensors and sundry technology of other companies, are often billed as “preventing infiltrators” (Palestinian civilians, as well as economic migrants) in Israeli state-business discourse; in the United States, it’s “preventing illegal immigrants.” Both share the stated claim of preventing “terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.”

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Narrating Palestine: The Palestinian Oral History Archive Project]

Who is this technology targeting in the United States, and why?

In short, low-income communities, and migrant and indigenous groups. Take Guatemala, for example. Guatemala has been the most lucrative laboratory for Israel, going back decades. Israeli public and private security firms, military advisers, and others were all over Central America in the 1980s during the U.S.-led terror wars, with Israel a proxy for the United States. Their biggest industries and products went to Guatemala. Israel’s role has actually expanded there, especially in the private security sector after the so-called peace accords of the mid-1990s, as well as northward into Mexico, where Israel has provided training under state security contracts, and of course at the U.S.-Mexico border. Israel, in other words, casts a long shadow over migrant and refugee trails that are traveled by mostly low-income and indigenous peoples. In addition to the U.S.-Mexico border, Israel has invigorated the death squad governments and military dictatorships of Guatemala in particular, as well as elsewhere in South America.

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