Surveillance. It’s in the headlines and on the tips of tongues. As technology offers new possibilities for connection, it also offers new means to keep tabs on people. Surveillance has become seemingly ubiquitous, from the NSA reading emails to drones in the skies. A nation that has for 66 years been ruling over an indigenous population by force, Israel is one of the main countries practicing surveillance. And the Israeli defense industry has been reaping the profits from the oppression — including surveillance — of the Palestinian people.
One of the top occupation profiteers in Israel is the defense firm Elbit Systems. The largest non-governmental defense company in the country, its revenue stood at $2.83 billion in 2010. Using knowledge and expertise gained from assisting in the occupation of Palestine, Elbit has made millions exporting surveillance and defense materiel worldwide — and increasingly so to Latin America. While Israel’s role in arming dictators and oppressive regimes in Latin America during the last century is well known, Elbit is at the forefront of a new wave of Israeli arms industry involvement in countries in the region. Elbit has a presence in at least five Latin American countries, as well as along the US-Mexico border. Far from being benign, the application of its technology should raise concern among those working for human rights in the area.
Elbit in Latin America
In 2008, Mexico acquired two Elbit Hermes 450 drones and one Skylark drone for $25 million. This capability was expanded in 2012, when the government purchased two Hermes 900 drones for $50 million. The Hermes drones can be armed or unarmed and are believed to be in the hands of the Mexican Federal Police. While ostensibly to be used against drug trafficking cartels, since the election of Enrique Peña Nieto the Mexican state has increased its repression of both social movements and migrants from South and Central America making their way to the US. Using drones to monitor the jungles of Chiapas in a search for Zapatistas or to keep watch over demonstrations in Mexico City does not seem out of the question.
The Colombian Air Force in 2013 acknowledged it was acquiring one Hermes 900 and one Hermes 450. As Colombia’s biggest war is an internal one, surely these will be used in its counterinsurgency efforts against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN). Should the peace talks not pan out, the Hermes has multiple payload configurations which may be deployed.
Hermes 900 drones were bought from Elbit by the Chilean Air Force in 2011. Chile says the use is for “maritime patrol tasks” but acknowledges currently deploying drones on “strategic reconnaissance missions.” Drones in Chile have been used for surveillance of the Mapuche people. And it would be unsurprising were they not to be deployed against the country’s very active student and social movements.
Brazil is likely the largest consumer of Elbit technology in Latin America, where Elbit has its own wholly-owned subsidiary, Aeroelectronica Industria de Componentes Avionicos S.A., or AEL. Elbit has contracts to modernize Brazil’s F-5 aircraft, develop its AL-X aircraft, and a $187 million contract to upgrade its AMX fleet. In 2010, Brazil purchased two Hermes 450 drones, as well as a ground station, from AEL. Expanding its air surveillance capabilities ahead of the World Cup, in March 2014 Brazil also purchased Hermes 900 units from Elbit. As demonstrators against the World Cup have seen massive repression, it is likely that these drones played a role in those operations. Finally, Brazil acquired $260 million worth of unmanned turrets from Elbit in 2011. Put to use in Gaza on Israeli Merkava tanks, these turrets “consist of a 30mm automatic cannon, a 7.62mm coaxial machine gun, a laser warning system (LWS), commander panoramic sight and smoke grenade launchers . . . a suitable solution to asymmetric warfare challenges.” Asymmetric warfare such as entering the favelas or putting down anti-World Cup disturbances?
Elbit Building Walls
Along with equipping regimes south of the US, Elbit plays a key role in the infrastructure designed to identify, apprehend, or deter a certain class of humans along the US-Mexico border. In 2006, the Customs and Border Protection deployed Elbit’s Hermes 450 drones along the border as part of the Arizona Border Control Initiative. Also in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security awarded Kollsman Inc., a US subsidiary of Elbit, part of the $2 billion worth of funding for the Secure Border Initiative. Working with Boeing, Elbit proposed “1,800 towers equipped with cameras and motion detectors stretched across the border.” Finally, earlier this year, Elbit was awarded the first part of a $145 million contract, through its subsidiary EFW, to install “Integrated Fixed Towers” with sensors able to detect “‘a single, walking, average-sized adult’ and provide sufficiently high-resolution video of that adult at a range of between 5 and 7.5 miles under conditions of daylight and darkness.”
The technology Elbit is using to profit from the “Wall of Death” along the US-Mexico border was first deployed in Palestine along Israel’s Apartheid Wall. Stretching more than 700 kilometers when finished, and cutting through Palestinian farms and villages, blocking residents from their family and friends, healthcare and education, land and work, the Apartheid Wall is a key component of Israel’s settler-colonial project in the occupied West Bank. Elbit provides “intrusion detection systems” for the Wall. This involves the use of drones, armed Unmanned Ground Vehicles, and LORROS surveillance cameras. Elbit products are used in the Ariel settlement section as well as around Jerusalem and a-Ram.
In 2004, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Apartheid Wall was illegal, it must be torn down, and Israel must pay reparations for the damages caused by its construction, calling on the international community to ensure Israel’s compliance. Despite this ruling, Elbit continues to participate in the maintenance of the Wall, thereby being complicit in a grave breach of international law which is a war crime.
July 9 will mark ten years since the ICJ’s ruling, and in response to the international community’s lack of action and the ongoing reign of impunity, Palestinian organizations and coalitions have issued a call to make July the Month Against the Apartheid Wall. The call asks for individuals and organizations around the world to raise awareness about the Wall; to begin or strengthen boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against companies involved in the Wall; and to pressure governments to uphold their obligations as outlined by the ICJ.
It should come as no surprise that Elbit, as a prime occupation profiteer, is a major focus of this campaign. There have been successful campaigns against Elbit in the past, with activists getting a variety of funds and businesses to divest from Elbit, such as: the Norwegian State Pension Fund; Kommunal Landspensjonkasse, one of the largest life insurance companies in Norway; Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark; PKA Ltd., one of the largest Danish pension funds; and ABP, a public Danish pension fund.
From Chile to the US-Mexico border to Palestine, Elbit Systems is actively complicit with human rights abuses. July’s Month Against the Apartheid Wall provides a perfect opportunity to stand up to Elbit and to oppression worldwide. The Palestinian people have spoken and have recognized that their struggle is bound up with that of others, writing, “Israel has succeeded in illustrating that walls are an acceptable model for governments to exclude, marginalize, dispossess, discriminate and segregate one people from each other.” Please join them and concerned groups around the world to help take a small step to stop impunity.
Scott Campbell is a Palestine and Mexico solidarity activist based in the SF Bay Area. He is a volunteer with the Month Against the Apartheid Wall campaign. For more information on the campaign, see the website: icj10.stopthewall.org.