‘Wars on Gaza have become part of Israel’s system of governance’: An interview with filmmaker Yotam Feldman

In his new documentary, ‘The Lab,’ Yotam Feldman explores how Israel’s weapons industries interact with the country’s politics, economy and military decision-making. Israeli weapons, military technology and know-how become more valuable because they have been field-tested in its wars and combat against Palestinians and neighboring countries. A conversation with Yotam Feldman about his film, arms dealers and Israel’s war economy.

By Ofri Ilani, translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman

'Wars on Gaza have become part of Israel's system of governance': An interview with filmmaker Yotam Feldman

Perhaps we should start with the question of Israel’s international standing. In recent years it is often termed as “growing global isolation.” This isolation may diminish at times, but there is a wall-to-wall consensus about Israel becoming less popular with every war and military operation. You say that in fact the opposite is true. In your film, one can see officers from armies the world over coming to Israel to purchase arms – from Europe, India, Latin America, and of course – the U.S. So is this talk of criticism and isolation a show in which everyone partakes? Or is this criticism another force that we need to take into account?

I think that a view of Israel as an unrestrained savage that resides in a brutal neighborhood and therefore has to exercise excessive/immense albeit necessary force, has taken hold. It follows that this view is usually condescending-forgiving. More importantly, I believe that Israel’s security marketing succeeds where Israeli Hasbara [advocacy] is less fruitful. Many people fail to make the connection between Israel’s hi-tech weapons and the unrestrained military force about which one can read in reports by human rights NGOs. People think of these as two disparate phenomena merely existing in spatial and temporal proximity. If you read the Goldstone Report about the bombing of the ceremony at the police academy in Gaza on the first day of Cast Lead, and then read a marketing brochure of Rafael about the operational experiment involving “Spike 4” (the missile used by Israel in that incident), some effort is required in order for you to realize that these are different accounts of one historical event. The same goes for the drones used for assassinations in Gaza. On the other hand, It is possible that the Europeans understand all this and simply don’t care.

In the previous decade, following operation Cast Lead, there was a feeling that this cannot go on, that in this constellation, Israel would have to go to a third, fourth, fifth and sixth Gaza war, and perhaps on other fronts as well – but also that it cannot really be involved in so many wars.

After the disengagement (from Gaza) a process noticed only by a few outside the army occurred. War has stopped being an extraordinary, unexpected and dramatic event in the life of the nation, and has become a periodic activity which is a part of that national life. Thus, at any given time, Israel is either in the midst of a Gaza war or awaiting the next one. Between the 2005 disengagement and “Cast Lead,” we had “Summer Rains”, “Hot Winter” and several other Israeli military operations in Gaza. Yoav Galant, the commander of the southern front between the disengagement and Cast Lead, who can be seen in the film, played a major role in the formulation of this doctrine. He employed the metaphor of a lawn mower to describe it: war as routine, periodic maintenance beyond the borders.

One of the contributing factors has been the massive use of shielded or automatic unmanned vehicles, which allows for wars in which there is no proportion between the risk taken by one side and the risk incurred by the other. This has reshuffled all the moral, political and legal categories which had been applied to warfare. In the past, all these campaigns were based on the assumption that this is a conflict in which two parties accept the possibility of killing or dying, but here, in almost all cases, one party kills and the other dies. The military industries, which develop products for conflicts of the Gazan type, and coax the Israeli army to purchase them, are playing a pivotal role here. The result is disturbing, because it seems to me that the war in Gaza has become inherent to the Israeli political system, possibly a part of our system of government. This was particularly noticeable during operation Pillar of Defense which took place during the election campaign, but support for it unified all the contenders for power.

Do you think that the testing of weapons systems played a part in, say, Ehud Barak’s calculations during the recent wars in Gaza?

It’s hard to rule this out. This connection is much more immediate than the one made by General Dan Halutz between the second Lebanon War and his personal portfolio. There are very close ties between the military industries, on one hand, and the army and the political system on the other. The most profitable military company is Elbit, owned by Mickey Federman, one of Ehud Barak’s confidants and a key player in his electoral campaigns. This company specializes in advanced means of asymmetric warfare, exactly the type of wars conducted by Barak in Gaza in recent years. There are other such personal ties. Furthermore, this is a national economic interest. The Defense Ministry plays a double role as the authority overseeing the military system and a sales promoter for the Israeli military industry abroad. I think it’s inhumane to demand that Barak separate the two issues. I am not saying that they embark on military campaigns in Gaza in order to test systems and make money, but it does play a part.

And in the lower echelons, Israeli military industries invest a great deal of effort in order to make IDF officers purchase their products, and use them to boost their export potential. They do so also by hiring retired senior officers en-masse, as sales promoters and project managers vis-a-vis their former colleagues in the IDF. A prominent case is Elbit and General (Ret.) Yiftach Ron-Tal.

This approach bears fruit. A key player in the military industries told me that the operational testing in Gaza of Elbit’s BMS (Battle Management System – a special internet-like system for ground forces), a huge project worth $1 billion, has allowed Elbit to raise its price in a deal signed a year later with Australia. The same goes for Rafael. The company stated openly that it would capitalize on the escalation that preceded operation Pillar of Defense – with the first operational use of Iron Dome – to raise around half a billion shekels (rougly $135 million) through the issuance of bonds. A salesman for the IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) told me that assassinations and operations in Gaza bring about an increase of tens of percentage points in company sales.

Still, it’s somehow difficult to feel convinced. There is a feeling that the increased threats, the need to build walls, fire more defensive missiles and launch more units on all fronts, will lead to a “we’ve run out of money” outcome, or perhaps this is reversed at a certain point?

The question is who’s money is running out. Unlike in the past, a substantial part of the military industries nowadays are private. On the other hand, the state plays a role in the success of these companies, through its investment in the Israeli army, national research and development projects. From this perspective, as shown by Shlomo Swirski, the military industries are responsible for the transfer of public funds to an upper-middle class which makes its living from these industries, directly or indirectly. Some of this money ends up back in state coffers through taxes and revenues for government arms makers, thereby contributing to a conflict state economy, and some of the money remains in private hands.

Is there anything new here? There have always been Israeli arms dealers, and in general, states have always profited from wars.

When I started making this film, I met witharms dealer Yair Klein at his house, above the flea market in Jaffa. We had a lengthy talk about the film’s thesis and my proposed synopsis. Prima facie, Klein would have made a classical protagonist for such a film. A former officer with the elite Haruv unit who sold Colombian militias the tactics employed by the IDF in the Jordan Valley against Palestinian militants crossing the Jordanian border, at a time when Rehavam Ze’evi was the home front commander and did as he pleased. But during my conversation with him, I realized he actually had no idea what I was talking about. His generation doesn’t grasp the current reality. The magnitudes are completely different nowadays. Profits from Israeli arms are more than tenfold higher, but more importantly – the Israeli products are different.

Klein sold lethal weapons and training. Today Israel offers an entire political model for asymmetric warfare, a conflict between a state and irregular combatants. This model has both lethal and “soft” elements. Israel exports Rafael missiles used for assassinations in Gaza, IAI drones, General Aviv Kochavi’s combat methods and separation walls by Magal, but also legal experts, experts on population administration in the vein of Israel’s civil administration over the West Bank, and even war ethics. Perhaps this is the reason why the Left has a stronger foothold these days in such business. Yossi Beilin sells “security products,” Shlomo Ben Ami held a senior position at Global CST which has provided the Colombian government with arms and training services, and Ehud Barak entered this line of business at its peak, following 9/11.

You’re actually saying that since 9/11, Israel has once again become the educator of the human species in the main issue on the international agenda – asymmetric warfare. Thus, the Jews are once again at the forefront of thought – as was the case with Moses, Jesus, Spinoza, Freud, Einstein, Kafka…

I don’t know if it’s appropriate to think of Israeli military educators as Jews. The military genealogy of the officers described in the film begins with Yigal Alon, goes through Meir Har-Zion and Ariel Sharon and ends up with Ehud Barak and Aviv Kochavi. For these people, Judaism does not necessarily play a critical role in their identity.

But obviously, on these issues, the countries of the world have a special approach towards Israel and the Israelis, which may be nurtured to some extent by the historical context which you have raised. It has to do with the fact that Israel’s asymmetric conflict with the Palestinians, and possibly in Lebanon too, preceded conflicts which erupted only after 9/11. Israeli products and methods are used in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conflict with the FARC in Colombia, wars against drug lords in Mexico, ethnic conflicts in Kashmir, as well as economic conflicts, embodied by gated communities for the affluent in South Africa, Latin America and the US. This has a tremendous effect on Israel. Its military exports have tripled from $2 billion annually at the beginning of the 2000s to $7 billion annually last year (2012), and Israel has become the world’s fourth-sixth military exporter throughout this past decade.

You mention the mathematical formula developed by Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Israel for the optimal number of casualties in a targeted assassination. Can you explain this formula?

Ben-Israel used a mathematical equation to explain the Israeli doctrine of targeted assassinations. This equation is derived from the entropy equations of physics, which describe the behavior of gas molecules and the measure of their order. As you raise the temperature, the molecules behave in a more chaotic manner. Ben-Israel adapted the equation to the question of how many Palestinian resistance members one has to eliminate or arrest (we cannot go into the intricate mathematical details here). In the application to the Gazan case, the context is primarily Israel’s assassination policy.

Listening to this, it makes sense. After all, it is a way to kill as few people as possible and still bring about the collapse of the enemy’s combatant force…Can one say that the IDF has really become more efficient at avoiding the killing of civilians?

Yes, from a certain aspect. There is no doubt that one component of the theory of asymmetric warfare is a certain degree of restraint, restraining the element of excessive violence during war and the Israeli interest is not to just kill civilians. This begs the question why precision munitions still kill hundreds and thousands. A few explanations can be offered, and one of them regards the definition of “involved” (pesons, i.e. combatants vs non-combatants). The Israeli definition of this term has a wide scope and includes the 89 graduates of the (Hamas) traffic police course killed on the first day of Cast Lead, as well as many killed in what are called “signature strikes” – drone attacks carried out on the basis of the target’s “suspected” activity. Such activity may be anything resembling the launching of rockets, but also the use of a mobile phone to photograph, which may result in the classification of its owner as an enemy scout. There is an ongoing debate in the U.S. on the possibility of automatic targeting in such attacks. A technology which bases attacks on behavioral patterns already exists, but it hasn’t been decided whether it is morally acceptable.

One of the protagonists in the film is Shimon Naveh, who implemented critical theories by Deleuze and Guattari for the incursion into the Nablus Casbah during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Do you think his use of their philosophy was perverse?

Many social science faculty members were shocked to read about Naveh, if only for not having expected this state and military infringement on what they experience as their autonomous sphere. All in all, I agree with Naveh’s statement that Deleuze does not belong only to those who affiliate themselves with him. I believe it’s better not to have a sterile space for this discussion. It’s better for it to be “contaminated” by external factors, which will require posing questions, perhaps questions about the philosophy of Deleuze. Could it be that its adoption by Naveh says something about this theory itself?

Because I find it hard to imagine any military use of Foucault or Walter Benjamin. Furthermore, the presumed academic sterility is just an illusion. On the other side of the wall of the Tel Aviv University lecture hall in which students who study Deleuze and hear of Naveh sit, seminars at the university’s security studies program are held, and over there – the students study Naveh and hear of Deleuze. And walls between rooms – as shown by Naveh in Nablus – are quite unstable.

The film can be affiliated with a genre of other recently-made Israeli films which opted to turn the camera towards those wielding power, rather than the victims: The Law in These Parts and The Gatekeepers. Do you endorse this affiliation?

Viewers and filmmakers have become more sensitive to films whose Israeli cinematographer takes money from the Culture Ministry to make films in the name of Palestinian victims. Tolerance for such films has run out, and rightly so. Another reason is what was referred to as “fascism” two years ago – [Culture and Sport] Minister Limor Livnat’s influence on cultural institutions.

On the other hand, Jews still want to make political films, and in order to minimize the pretense, they ask questions about those in power, those who resemble them – instead of questions about the victims. This allows for a more rational understanding of a political situation. Instead of invoking the emotional outrage effect in the face of a certain reality, they ask questions about this reality: what is its internal structure and who profits from it? This is something I support because political action has to be both emotional and rational. It’s important to elicit rage, but it’s also important to apply tools which can steer this rage in the right direction.

Does the film lead to a clear moral conclusion? Can a viewer come out, accept your economic analysis, yet feel contented about Israel having such a profitable resource, which provides employment and strengthens the economy?

I think that question is relevant to any material project. After all, a capitalist can read Marx’s Das Kapital and try to strip it of the moral and political conclusions, regarding it as an exhaustive account of social relations and then derive a bourgeoisie ethic from it – for example, how to boost the surplus value and produce more capital from labor. I can imagine people actually doing that. The same goes for this film – I think that many of my assertions – about the conflict becoming an economic resource – would be endorsed by Ehud Barak too, and many arms dealers or CEOs in the security industries, although perhaps slightly modified.

Nevertheless, I try to muster some optimism regarding the film’s political effect, and presume that most viewers would sense that there is something immoral about deriving money from blood, or profiting from an ongoing military occupation. One of the proofs which bear out this optimism is the fact that the arms industry is not the focus of the discourse in Israel. There is no correspondence between the relevance of this issue to the economy and to life and its minimal presence in the public discourse. In comparison to other countries, very few exposés and articles about arms are published in Israel and the topic is not discussed widely, even though everyone has an uncle in Elbit or IAI. This shows that people do sense that this content is problematic, that there is something which should not be discussed extensively.

Can one derive a political strategy from the film – for the sake of ending the occupation, attaining equality and peace?

I think one conclusion has to do with where critical political energy is channeled in Israel. People tend to focus on a political and military elite, while overlooking an economic elite, which profits from the application of military strength and makes it possible. The border lines between the Israeli arms industry and the Israeli hi-tech industry are very slight, and practically non-existent.

A second conclusion follows from global aspects of the local conflict. States in which an overwhelming majority of citizens denounce the Israeli army’s actions in Gaza, actually make these actions possible by purchasing arms tested there. This is essential to the Israeli security industry, the only industry of its type which exports more than it sells in the local market. Therefore, such purchasing is also necessary for the IDF, which makes sure these industries develop new arms for it to use in the next wars in Gaza. Perhaps if the citizens of these states knew about this they would protest and raise hell, but this too brings about some difficulty. I don’t know if we want Swedes telling their government, “don’t buy Israeli missiles,” instead of, “don’t buy missiles.”

First published in Hebrew on the Eretz Haemori blog.