(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special Just Security “Racing National Security” symposium edited by editorial board member Matiangai Sirleaf. The goal of the symposium is to render race visible in national security to shift the dominant paradigm toward addressing issues of racial justice.)
On June 23, an Israeli soldier shot dead Ahmad Erekat, my 27-year old cousin, at a military checkpoint. He was driving a Hyundai, which he rented to run errands for his sister’s wedding. He had just picked up his mama from a salon and was driving from his village of Abu Dis, an East Jerusalem suburb cut off from the metropole by Israel’s separation barrier, to Bethlehem, another Palestinian city. Dividing the two Palestinian areas is a notorious checkpoint known as the “Container,” one of 705 road obstacles throughout the West Bank. The checkpoints are an invention of the Oslo Peace Process. They were imagined as temporary and necessary features to facilitate the incremental transfer of authority from Israel to the Palestinians. Instead, like Israel’s settlements, the checkpoints have multiplied and become a permanent feature of Palestinian life. The fact that the Container checkpoint separates two Palestinian areas, severely limits the movement of Palestinians, and undermines their potential for economic, social, and political development, is precisely the point.
As the Israeli soldier waved for Ahmad to approach the kiosk, Ahmad’s car seemed to veer out of control. Released video footage shows the car moved slowly at first and then jerked forward into the kiosk where four armed Israeli soldiers stood. The impact of the collision knocked a soldier to the ground but caused no serious injuries; the soldier jumps back onto her feet in time to witness her fellow soldier shoot multiple rounds of live ammunition into Ahmad’s unarmed body. Seemingly terrified by the accident, Ahmad attempted to get out of the car and to raise his arms above his head. The soldier shot him before his elbows reached his ears. He then crumbled onto the asphalt where he writhed in pain and bled out for over an hour. An Israeli ambulance arrived on the scene within ten minutes to treat the Israeli soldier but refused to medically assist Ahmad. The soldiers also refused access to a Palestinian ambulance. Ahmad’s father, Mustafa, arrived at the scene and begged to approach his son but was forced to watch him bleed to death.
Israel’s army spokesperson immediately declared Ahmad a “terrorist,” the accident an attempted car-ramming, and Ahmad’s killing a justified use of force. The State has refused to conduct an investigation or permit an international one. It has refused to conduct an autopsy. It has refused to study the car’s black box for malfunction or related Consumer Reports recounting numerous complaints of Hyundai vehicles losing control since 2012. It has refused to interview Palestinian witnesses. It has also refused to consider that Ahmad, who was to be married this summer and who was preparing for his sister’s wedding that day, had every reason to live. More, and as a form of collective punishment, Israel continues to hold Ahmad’s body hostage in the Greenberg Forensic Institute, an affiliate of Tel Aviv University, denying the family the dignity of burying their beloved son and beginning to heal what cannot possibly be healed.
Upon the spread of Ahmad’s story, I received dozens of calls and messages encouraging me to draw parallels between Ahmad’s callous killing and the systematic killing of Black people with impunity in the United States. “They left him out to bleed with his parent watching like they did to Mike Brown;” “They blamed him for his death like they did with Freddie Gray;” “There’s no accountability for his killing like there hasn’t been for Breonna Taylor [or Tony McDade or Sandra Bland or Philando Castile or…];” “tell them Palestinian lives matter.”
Ahmad was killed in the midst of one of the most significant and ongoing uprisings in U.S. history. The recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, precipitated by the confluence of COVID19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities together with the grotesque killings of Black people – epitomized by the murder of George Floyd – have mainstreamed concepts like defunding the police in a matter of weeks and catalyzed a generational shift in public consciousness of structural racism. Sympathetic friends and allies implored me to appeal to the fresh and fertile consciousness of indignant and anti-racist Americans so that they could better understand the injustice of Ahmad’s killing, indeed, the injustice of the Palestinian condition.
While I understood the impulse to use the parallels to illuminate the nature of the Palestinian question and have myself been a part of contemporary renewals of Black-Palestinian Transnational Solidarity, I did not make the comparison publicly. In part, I refrained because being in ethical solidarity means not inadvertently decentering the much-needed and overdue conversations about anti-Black racism in the United States. I also did not want to flatten the unique contexts that shaped Black and Palestinian lives into mere spectacles of violence. The differences between these two contexts are generative and precisely what have, historically and currently, animated transnational solidarity.
Black Palestinian solidarity, as an analytic and an activist praxis, helps pierce a formidable national security framework cloaking Palestinian life and reveals the racial nature of the Palestinian struggle. It also disrupts American exceptionalism, which insists that the United States is an imperfect democracy on the steady course of achieving its full potential and brings into acute view the anti-colonial nature of the Black freedom struggle in the United States. Black Palestinian solidarity thus illuminates the co-constitutive nature of racism and colonialism and urges not only equality and democratization of the colony but decolonization.
The critical framework of Black Palestinian solidarity provides tools to deconstruct specific U.S. and Israeli policy choices that depend on wholesale dehumanization along racialized lines. Within this frame, we can examine how Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy is predicated on the racialization, and dehumanization, of Palestinians within a legal framework, how an internationalist approach, which considers one’s domestic conditions as not bound by the nation-state but, instead, reflect global regimes of capital, violence, and governance, helps explain the militarized response to Black uprisings and, particularly, the significance of U.S. law enforcement trainings in Israel. I turn to these questions in the following sections.
Shoot-To-Kill: The Shrinking Civilian and the Always-Already-Guilty
Ahmad is the twenty-third Palestinian to be killed by Israeli forces in 2020 and the sixty-third to be held hostage after death. He is the latest casualty of Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy, which sanctions the extrajudicial execution of Palestinians perceived as threats. The policy is accompanied by a lack of accountability (i.e., failure to investigate incidents, denial of autopsies, refusal to release bodies for burial), which underscores an environment of impunity for state violence. While the shoot-to-kill policy appears as an unchecked use of force, the State has attempted to regulate it under the laws of military occupation as well as the laws of armed conflict.
Beginning in 2000 during the Second Intifada (a militarized Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation), Israel began to develop legal technologies that would allow it to use greater military force against the population it occupied. The legal advisers to the Army innovated a new category of armed conflict, “armed conflict short of war,” that allowed it to use military force against a population that could not legally fight back. Deliberately evading available legal regulations offered by the First and Second Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions because of Israel’s outstanding refusal to become a party to the treaties, the Israeli advisers argued that the conditions of resistance that they faced were sui generis, giving them the latitude to create new law where they insisted none existed. The novel framework permitted Israel to use preventative force to extrajudicially execute suspected or would-be assailants in what would later become widely known as “targeted killings” in national security circles.
A cornerstone of Israel’s legal technology has been what I call the “shrinking civilian,” the steady and shrinking scope of Palestinians recognized as civilians entitled to immunity from attack. The “shrinking civilian” framework has enabled Israeli law enforcement officers and soldiers to use excessive and disproportionate force against Palestinians as a matter of law and policy.
The “shrinking civilian” is predicated on the thorough racialization of Palestinians as innately dangerous subjects. Racial ideologies, reflecting settler-colonial desires to remove and replace the native population, render Palestinian bodies unwanted and sanction their killing with impunity. The native population is constructed as inherently “terrorist,” presumed guilty by virtue of its refusal to disappear. Thus, Palestinians are racialized as dangerous not because of how they may individually harm Israelis but because their national existence challenges Israel’s settler sovereignty (consider, for example, how the right of return of Palestinian refugees is constructed as an existential crisis for Israel).
While Israel has used security frameworks – drawn from law enforcement and armed hostilities paradigms – to justify its shoot-to-kill policy, Israel’s right to kill is better understood as a form of settler-colonial eliminatory violence. This logic of collective punishment and violence as defensive force even in cases where Palestinians have posed no military threat undergirded Israel’s military strategy in the founding years of the State and continues to shape its use of force in the present. Consider that upon its establishment, Israel adopted Mandatory Britain’s emergency regulations and applied them to the Palestinians who remained in the new State. Upon a military commission finding that the Palestinians posed no threat, founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion maintained that the martial law regime against the native population was necessary to expand Jewish-Zionist settlement. The martial regime lasted for eighteen years and the emergency regime is still in place.
Although the “shrinking civilian” was initially developed within an armed hostilities framework built upon international humanitarian law, in September 2015 and during a height of sporadic attacks by Palestinians using knives and other makeshift weapons, the Israeli government amended the rules of engagement regulating police force, further blurring the line between armed conflict, law enforcement, and the regulation of Palestinian existence. The amendment permitted officers to use lethal force as a measure of first resort against Palestinians for the sake of “prevent[ing] endangerment.” As a preventative measure, a Palestinian who “is about to throw a firebomb” or “about to shoot fireworks” or is “stone throwing using a slingshot” is a legitimate target. Such a standard is, by definition, deferential to the subjective assessment of the shooting officer. Indeed, Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, has shown that the Police Investigation Unit within the Israeli Ministry of Justice has refused to investigate nearly all complaints against the police.
In 2016, following the relaxation of the rules of engagement, Israeli forces lethally shot ninety-seven Palestinians, including thirty-six children. Though Israel labeled the incidents as “alleged stabbings,” the Palestinian Center for Human Rights found that in 95 out of the 97 documented killings, there was evidence showing that the victims lacked the means to carry out a lethal attack. In May 2016, the U.N. Committee Against Torture condemned Israel’s revised rules of engagement as inconsistent with the Convention and other international standards. In 2017, the Human Rights Council confirmed that Israel often used lethal force against Palestinians “on mere suspicion or as a precautionary measure.” Still, according to Human Rights Watch, senior Israeli officials not only condoned the policy but “have been encouraging Israeli soldiers and police to kill Palestinians they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they are no longer a threat.”
In 2018, the Israeli High Court of Justice had a chance to review Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy as it was being used to suppress popular protests in the Gaza Strip, known as the “Great March of Return.” As the death toll mounted and indicated the widespread use of indiscriminate lethal force by sniper fire – over 95 percent of casualties were shot above the waist, including in the back as they fled – Israeli human rights organizations petitioned the High Court to restrain the military. They argued that lethal force should be used as a last resort against the protests, which were civilian in nature.
The High Court accepted the Government’s arguments that the protests were organized by Hamas and constitute a “new tactic in the struggle against Israel.” It found that law enforcement and hostilities paradigms are interchangeable, and the appropriate use of force is subject to the discretion of military officers. Its finding of a security threat to Israel was largely hypothetical and based on the possibility of a threat emerging, thus permitting lethal use of force as a preventative measure. The Court’s acceptance of the State’s argument that Hamas led the protests overdetermined its conclusions and foreclosed the possibility of Palestinian civilian protests.
The Court conceded the participation of Palestinian civilians but only as a matter of exception. In effect, the Court expanded the scope of the “shrinking civilian,” which has made otherwise disproportionate and excessive use of force permissible within the language of law. Between March and October 2018, Israel killed 217 Palestinians, including forty children, and injured 22,897; Palestinians killed one Israeli soldier. Notably, one soldier was convicted for killing an unarmed Palestinian boy and was sentenced to one month in military prison.
Today, Israel defends Ahmad’s killing and claims the right to use similar force again because it does not consider that Ahmad’s car accident could have been human or mechanical error. Like nearly all other Palestinians, he was considered always-already-guilty.
“Black is a Country”: Black Internationalists Resist the U.S.’s “Internal Colony”
The enduring prevalence of extrajudicial executions of Black people in the United States has recently been a catalyzing force of mass protests since a deputized civilian killed Trayvon Martin in 2012. Martin was among 313 Black people killed by police, security guards, and vigilantes with impunity that year; his killing continued an American legacy. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement explains that such killings are “an integral part of the government’s current overall strategy of containing the Black community in a state of perpetual colonial subjugation and exploitation.” Indeed, the Equal Justice Institute found that in the seventy-three years between 1877 – the end of Reconstruction – and 1950, at least 4,084 Black people were lynched across twelve southern states alone. The Institute explains that historically, “racial terror lynchings” were used as a form of collective punishment to enforce a rigid and hierarchal racial order aimed at preserving white supremacy. After the Second World War, police officers, originally mandated to recapture runaway slaves (deemed “criminal” fugitives) and to quell slave rebellions, took on the primary role of enforcing that order.
In its 1951 submission charging the United States with the crime of genocide, the Civil Rights Congress explained, “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet.” Among the litany of incidents that the petition documents is the story of seventy-year old Nicey Brown, who was beaten to death by a drunken police officer in Selma, Alabama in 1945. The policeman’s attorney appealed to the sensibilities of the all-White jury, warning them, “If we convict this brave man who is upholding the banner of white supremacy by his actions, then we may as well give all our guns to the n — s and let them run the black belt.” The jury deliberated for a few minutes and acquitted the officer.
This case was not about “qualified immunity” – the officer was drunk and off-duty when he bludgeoned Brown to death. This was about protecting the value of whiteness, defined in oppositional relationship to the devaluation of blackness as well as the negation and erasure of indigenous sovereignty. Defined as a property value, whiteness can be understood as the right to ownership – of land, self, and country. Race can thus be understood as “colonialism speaking,” a technology invented to ensure the externality of racialized subjects from the national body politic and their geographic separation and containment.
In its turn to the United Nations demanding accountability for genocide, the Civil Rights Congress furthered the understanding of white supremacy as “a matter of concern for mankind everywhere” and continued the Black internationalist tradition. Black internationalists in the United States conceive of themselves as an “internal colony” whose conditions, and futures, mirrored other colonized peoples. These conditions, aimed at limiting Black life in the United States, include ghettoization, exclusion from gainful employment, medical experimentation, forced sterilization, exclusion from quality housing, lack of access to quality health care, education, and credit, and the systematic taking of life with impunity. The criminal justice system – featuring over-policing, racial profiling, selective enforcement, mass incarceration, disproportionate sentencing, lack of adequate representation, and hyper-surveillance – works both to make Black people vulnerable to exploitative deprivation as well as to protect those takings for the enrichment of a White racial class in the United States. Similar to historic slave patrols, police and policing today are merely the enforcement arm of a settler-colonial political economy.
As explained by James Baldwin in 1966, “the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” Baldwin’s understanding of the police as an exogenous enemy apparatus also explains their systematic and disproportionate use of force against Black protesters. “Occupied territory is occupied territory,” he writes, “and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces.” Indeed, Black protest in the United States has historically been treated like an insurgency and reflects the steady militarization of police in the twentieth century.
Pointing to the historical fact that U.S. nationalism was born in the crucible of “state aggression” against rebellious slaves and indigenous nations, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore connects the broad acceptance for punitive carceral regimes today to an American national identity rooted in military culture. Additionally, K-Sue Park has shown that counterinsurgency tactics, prevalent in the United States’ ongoing “war on terror,” were originally developed among “informal civilian forces recruited to assume the risks of frontier conflict [against indigenous peoples] with promises of property.”
As authors in the Racing National Security series, and many other scholars, have shown, militarized regimes of repressive power have historically circulated between the colony and the metropole. For instance, Aslı Bâli traces the history of SWAT operations, a feature of law enforcement first used to squash the 1965 Watts uprising, to U.S. counterinsurgency methods used in Vietnam. During the War, the Johnson administration passed the Safe Streets Act and allocated surplus weapons from Vietnam to U.S. cities to quash rebellions. In 1990, Congress inaugurated the 1033 program which authorizes the transfer of excess military equipment to law enforcement specifically to wage the “war on drugs.”
Police Exchanges in Israel Continue the Militarization of U.S. Law Enforcement
In continuation of this trend, U.S. law enforcement began training with the Israeli police, military, and secret service following al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001. Israel touts itself as a leader in national security and has increased the selling power for its weapons technologies by boasting that that they are battle-tested – primarily on Palestinians. In 2017, Israel sold $9.2 billion worth of weapons globally, 31 percent of which were drones and drone missiles. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security established an office in Israel to consecrate the police exchanges and, in 2012, the NYPD opened its own branch in an Israeli District Police Headquarters. Organized by official Israeli and U.S. government agencies as well as private security firms and NGOs like the Anti-Defamation League, thousands of U.S. police officers have traveled to Israel for training in counterterrorism methods. While the United States needs no training in achieving totalizing force, the police exchanges have transported several Israeli counterinsurgency technologies to U.S. cities.
Perhaps of greatest significance is the fact that Israeli officers are training U.S. law enforcement officers – responsible for peacetime order – in methods that Israel applies to Palestinians, whom it considers a foreign and enemy population. This irony was not lost on Black activists who have borne the brunt of militarized law enforcement and have been explicitly called “terrorists” by President Trump. Trump’s pronouncements, however, are not novel. They are the most recent iteration casting Black protest as a national insurgency and justifying state violence to quell – and prevent – them.
During the heavily militarized occupation of Ferguson in 2014, featuring Kevlar vests, armored tanks, and tear gas, activists noted that the St. Louis County Police Chief had traveled to Israel for a week-long counterterrorism training only three years before. Rachel Gilmer, the Co-Director of the Dream Defenders, recalls that moment as “ma[king] clear what the state was about and the level it would go to, to repress revolutionary uprising from Black people.” She continues that seeing tweets from Palestinians providing advice on how to respond to tear gas following the events in Ferguson “[made clear] that borders mean everything and mean nothing because they’re using the same tactics on people all over the world and profiting weapons corporations globally that sustain the supremacy of a ruling class.”
Accordingly, since at least 2014 Black and Palestinian activists have increasingly engaged in campaigns targeting these links between U.S. and Israeli militarized law enforcement. Activists have challenged technologies used by U.S. prison systems and the Israeli military, like G4S surveillance systems, the police exchange program, and organized campaigns to end U.S. military support to Israel – which amounts to $3.8 billion a year. In doing so, activists have demonstrated how a vision aimed at global decolonization can be operationalized in local projects.
Black Palestinian solidarity has helped build analytical bridges between the fight for Palestinian existence under apartheid and the struggle for liberation from the “internal colony” of Black existence in the United States – and beyond, to the U.S. occupation of Hawai’i and Puerto Rico, to ongoing settler-colonial expansion on Standing Rock Sioux lands, as well as interventions in Venezuela and Bolivia. The emphasis on profitable military technologies spanning the globe reflects a concern not merely with Black and Palestinian lives but a broader concern with U.S. imperialism. Bâli aptly describes this phenomenon as the “military-industrial-policing complex,” which has gained increasing attention during the current Black uprisings. Activists have connected the abolitionist demand to defund the police with a more robust social welfare program that makes prisons obsolete. They have insisted that the United States can afford these programs by reducing its military budget; hence, the emergent social media hashtag to #DefundPolice #DefundMilitary. Though ambitious, the Minneapolis City Council has already voted to disband its police department and Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced legislation to reduce the military budget by $350 billion.
As lofty as these calls may seem, what is clear is that within these demands and praxes of transnational solidarity are seeds for a decolonial future. One in which young men like Ahmad can attend their sister’s wedding and dance all night and fathers like George Floyd can watch their daughters flourish. These are among the most generative offerings of Black Palestinian solidarity.