It is hard to ignore the striking parallels between the recent scenes of police brutality in cities across the United States and decades of violence from Israel’s security forces against Palestinians.
A video that went viral late last month of a Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing a black man, George Floyd, by pressing a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes has triggered a fortnight of mass protests across the US – and beyond.
The footage was the latest disturbing visual evidence of a US police culture that appears to treat Black Americans as an enemy – and a reminder that rogue police officers are all too rarely punished.
Floyd’s lynching by Chauvin as three other officers either looked on, or participated, has echoes of troubling scenes familiar from the occupied territories. Videos of Israeli soldiers, police and armed settlers beating, shooting and abusing Palestinian men, women and children have long been a staple of social media.
The dehumanisation that enabled Floyd’s murder has been regularly on view in the occupied Palestinian territories. In early 2018 Israeli snipers began using Palestinians, including children, nurses, journalists and the disabled, as little more than target practice during weekly protests at a perimeter fence around Gaza imprisoning them.
And just as in the US, the use of violence by Israeli police and soldiers against Palestinians rarely leads to prosecutions, let alone convictions.
Floyd’s murder has shocked many white Americans into joining the protests. Hallaq’s murder, by contrast, has been ignored by the vast majority of Israelis
A few days after Floyd’s killing, an autistic Palestinian man, Iyad Hallaq – who had a mental age of six, according to his family – was shot seven times by police in Jerusalem. None of the officers has been arrested.
Faced with embarrassing international attention in the wake of Floyd’s murder, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare statement on the killing of a Palestinian by the security services. He called Hallaq’s murder “a tragedy” and promised an investigation.
The two killings, days apart, have underscored why the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Palestinian Lives Matter” sit naturally alongside each other, whether at protests or in social media posts.
There are differences between the two cases, of course. Nowadays Black Americans have citizenship, most can vote (if they can reach a polling station), laws are no longer explicitly racist, and they have access to the same courts – if not always the same justice – as the white population.
That is not the situation for most Palestinians under Israeli rule. They live under occupation by a foreign army, arbitrary military orders govern their lives, and they have very limited access to any kind of meaningful legal redress.
And there is another obvious difference. Floyd’s murder has shocked many white Americans into joining the protests. Hallaq’s murder, by contrast, has been ignored by the vast majority of Israelis, apparently accepted once again as the price of maintaining the occupation.
Treated like an enemy
Nonetheless, comparisons between the two racist policing cultures are worth highlighting. Both spring from a worldview shaped by settler-colonial societies founded on dispossession, segregation and exploitation.
Israel still largely views Palestinians as an enemy that needs to be either expelled or made to submit. Black Americans, meanwhile, live with the legacy of a racist white culture that until not so long ago justified slavery and apartheid.
Israel still largely views Palestinians as an enemy that needs to be either expelled or made to submit
Palestinians and Black Americans have long had their dignity looted; their lives too often are considered cheap.
Sadly, most Israeli Jews are in deep denial about the racist ideology that underpins their major institutions, including the security services. Tiny numbers protest in solidarity with Palestinians, and those that do are widely seen by the rest of the Israeli public as traitors.
Many white Americans, on the other hand, have been shocked to see how quickly US police forces – faced with widespread protests – have resorted to aggressive crowd-control methods of the kind only too familiar to Palestinians.
Those methods include the declaration of curfews and closed areas in major cities; the deployment of sniper squads against civilians; the use of riot teams wearing unmarked uniforms or balaclavas; arrests of, and physical assaults on, journalists who are clearly identifiable; and the indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets to wound protesters and terrify them off the streets.
It does not end there.
President Donald Trump has described demonstrators as “terrorists”, echoing Israel’s characterisation of all Palestinian protest, and threatened to send in the US army, which would replicate even more precisely the situation faced by Palestinians.
Like Palestinians, the US black community – and now the protesters – have been recording examples of their abuse on their phones and posting the videos on social media to highlight the deceptions of police statements and media reporting of what has been taking place.
Tested on Palestinians
None of these parallels should surprise us. For years US police forces, along with many others around the world, have been queueing at Israel’s door to learn from its decades of experience in crushing Palestinian resistance.
Israel has capitalised on the need among western states, in a world of depleting resources and the long-term contraction of the global economy, to prepare for future internal uprisings by a growing underclass.
With readymade laboratories in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel has long been able to develop and field-test on captive Palestinians new methods of surveillance and subordination. As the largest underclass in the US, urban black communities were always likely to find themselves on the front line as US police forces adopted a more militarised approach to policing.
These changes finally struck home during the protests that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after a black man, Michael Brown, was killed by police. Dressed in military-style fatigues and body armour, and backed by armoured personnel carriers, local police looked more like they were entering a war zone than there to “serve and protect”.
Trained in Israel
It was then that human rights groups and others started to highlight the extent to which US police forces were being influenced by Israel’s methods of subjugating Palestinians. Many forces had been trained in Israel or involved in exchange programmes.
Israel’s notorious paramilitary Border Police, in particular, has become a model for other countries. It was the Border Police that shot dead Hallaq in Jerusalem shortly after Floyd was killed in Minneapolis.
The Border Police carry out the hybrid functions of a police force and an army, operating against Palestinians in the occupied territories and inside Israel, where a large Palestinian minority live with a very degraded citizenship.
The institutional premise of the Border Police is that all Palestinians, including those who are formally Israeli citizens, should be dealt with as an enemy. It is at the heart of a racist Israeli policing culture identified 17 years ago by the Or Report, the country’s only serious review of its police forces.
The Border Police increasingly look like the model US police forces are emulating in cities with large black populations.
Many dozens of Minneapolis police officers were trained by Israeli experts in “counter-terrorism” and “restraint” techniques at a conference in Chicago in 2012.
Derek Chauvin’s chokehold, using his knee to press down on Floyd’s neck, is an “immobilisation” procedure familiar to Palestinians. Troublingly, Chauvin was training two rookie officers at the time he killed Floyd, passing on the department’s institutional knowledge to the next generation of officers.
Monopoly of violence
These similarities should be expected. States inevitably borrow and learn from each other on matters most important to them, such as repressing internal dissent. The job of a state is to ensure it maintains a monopoly of violence inside its territory.
Many white Americans have been shocked to see how quickly US police forces have resorted to aggressive crowd-control methods of the kind only too familiar to Palestinians
It is the reason why the Israeli scholar Jeff Halper warned several years ago in his book War Against the People that Israel had been pivotal in developing what he called a “global pacification” industry. The hard walls between the military and the police have crumbled, creating what he termed “warrior cops”.
The danger, according to Halper, is that in the long run, as the police become more militarised, we are all likely to find ourselves being treated like Palestinians. Which is why a further comparison between the US strategy towards the black community and Israel’s towards Palestinians needs highlighting.
The two countries are not just sharing tactics and policing methods against protests once they break out. They have also jointly developed longer-term strategies in the hope of dismantling the ability of the black and Palestinian communities they oppress to organise effectively and forge solidarity with other groups.
Loss of historic direction
If one lesson is clear, it is that oppression can best be challenged through organised resistance by a mass movement with clear demands and a coherent vision of a better future.
In the past that depended on charismatic leaders with a fully developed and well-articulated ideology capable of inspiring and mobilising followers. It also relied on networks of solidarity between oppressed groups around the world sharing their wisdom and experience.
The Palestinians were once led by figures who commanded national support and respect, from Yasser Arafat to George Habash and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The struggle they led was capable of galvanising supporters around the world.
The Israeli scholar Jeff Halper warned several years ago that Israel had been pivotal in developing what he called a “global pacification” industry
These leaders were not necessarily united. There were debates over whether Israeli settler colonialism would best be undermined through secular struggle or religious fortitude, through finding allies among the oppressor nation or defeating it using its own violent methods.
These debates and disagreements educated the wider Palestinian public, clarified the stakes for them, and provided a sense of a historic direction and purpose. And these leaders became figureheads for international solidarity and revolutionary fervour.
That has all long since disappeared. Israel pursued a relentless policy of jailing and assassinating Palestinian leaders. In Arafat’s case, he was confined by Israeli tanks to a compound in Ramallah before he was poisoned to death in highly suspicious circumstances. Ever since, Palestinian society has found itself orphaned, adrift, divided and disorganised.
International solidarity has been largely sidelined too. The publics of Arab states, already preoccupied with their own struggles, appear increasingly tired of the divided and seemingly hopeless Palestinian cause. And in a sign of our times, western solidarity today is invested chiefly in a boycott movement, which has had to wage its fight on the enemy’s battlefield of consumption and finance.
From confrontation to solace
The black community in the US has undergone parallel processes, even if it is harder to indict quite so directly the US security services for the loss decades ago of a black national leadership. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther movement were hounded by the US security services. They were jailed or felled by assassins, despite their very different approaches to the civil rights struggle.
Today, none are around to make inspiring speeches and mobilise the wider public – either black or white Americans – to take action on the national stage.
Denied a vigorous national leadership, the organised black community at times appeared to have retreated into the safer but more confining space of the churches – at least until the latest protests. A politics of solace appeared to have replaced the politics of confrontation.
A focus on identity
These changes cannot be attributed solely to the loss of national leaders. In recent decades the global political context has been transformed too. After the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the US not only became the world’s sole superpower but it crushed the physical and ideological space in which political opposition could flourish.
The US not only became the world’s sole superpower but it crushed the physical and ideological space in which political opposition could flourish
Class analysis and revolutionary ideologies – a politics of justice – were shunted off the streets and increasingly into the margins of academia.
Instead, western political activists were encouraged to dedicate their energies not to anti-imperialism and class struggle but to a much narrower identity politics. Political activism became a competition between social groups for attention and privilege.
As with Palestinian solidarity activism, identity politics in the US has waged its battles on the terrain of a consumption-obsessed society. Hashtags and virtue-signalling on social media have often appeared to serve as a stand-in for social protest and activism.
A moment of transition
The question posed by the current US protests is whether this timid, individualised, acquisitive kind of politics is starting to seem inadequate. The US protesters are still largely leaderless, their struggle in danger of being atomised, their demands implicit and largely shapeless – it is clearer what the protesters don’t want than what they do.
We are caught in a moment of transition, it seems, destined for a new era – good or bad – we cannot discern clearly yet
That reflects a current mood in which the challenges facing us all – from permanent economic crisis and the new threat of pandemics to impending climate catastrophe – appear too big, too momentous to make sense of. We are caught in a moment of transition, it seems, destined for a new era – good or bad – we cannot discern clearly yet.
In August, millions are expected to head to Washington in a march to echo the one led by Martin Luther King in 1963. The heavy burden of this historic moment is expected to be carried on the ageing shoulders of the Rev Al Sharpton.
That symbolism may be fitting. It is more than 50 years since western states were last gripped with revolutionary fervour. But the hunger for change that reached its climax in 1968 – for an end to imperialism, endless war and rampant inequality – was never sated.
Oppressed communities around the globe are still hungry for a fairer world. In Palestine and elsewhere, those who suffer brutality, misery, exploitation and indignity still need a champion. They look to Minneapolis and the struggle it launched for a seed of hope.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.