The latest Israeli bombardment of its internally – and seemingly eternally – occupied open air prison of Gaza followed a familiar pattern. First, there was the disturbingly drastic casualty disparity: a 21-to-one overall, and 33-to-one for children, Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio (in the three previous Gaza bombings since 2008, the overall statistic was 35-to-one). Next, there was the Biden administration’s simultaneous approval of a US arms sale of $735 million worth of precision-guided munitions to Israel.
True, this time around there was slightly stronger reporting on the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) violations of the discrimination and proportionality principles of the laws of war, and bit louder congressional outcry against the arms sale and Israeli actions. Still, as expected there’s been scant discussion – at least in mainstream American and allied media – of not just the scale and scope of US support, but the extent of Israel’s internal and external militarism. Moreover, far less is known about Western-complicity in creating – and ever-enabling – an IDF state-within-a-state, and the powerful local military-industrial complex (MIC), that both fuel Israel’s unique brand of politico-economic and cultural militarism.
Fittingly, in Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Victor Frankenstein hails from a prominent Genevan family – Switzerland’s French-speaking region – but is born Naples, Italy. He is later educated and conducts his fated experiments in southern Germany. Specifically, Dr. Frankenstein invents his monster in the city of Ingolstadt – currently not far from the only Army Combat Training Center (CTC) outside the US, and home to the joint NATO-American Military Engineering Centre of Excellence (MILENG COE). Furthermore, the aviation department headquarters for the Defense and Space division of the massive multinational arms manufacturer Airbus sits adjacent to the city limits. Incidentally, in 2018, Israel Aerospace did a $600 million drone deal with Airbus to outfit the German military. In other words, Victor, and the entire Frankenstein analogy, has strangely coincidental connections to nearly all of the Western powers enabling Israel’s early aggression and arms dealing.
Militarism By the (Broad) Numbers
"Prussia was not a country with an army but an army with a country."
– Attributed to Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau
Very early in Israel’s history, its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, outlined his vision of the country as "a nation under arms." Some 75 years later, by the numbers – and with a clutch assist from a sequence of Western imperial powers – that’s precisely how the state turned out.
In 2020, Israel spent $21.7 billion on its military – a country with the population of New York City ranking 14th on the planet. That’s an allocation of $2,508 per capita, and 12 percent of its budget spent on defense – both tops in the world. By contrast, the first "bad boy" power, Russia, comes in at less than $500, and China around $200, per capita. Israel spent more than its presumed past or present implacable neighboring foes – Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq – combined too, and $6 billion more than its current favored nemesis, Iran. Israel also spends more per capita on defense than Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, and even Turkey, combined.
Israel produces so many weapons that it then exports them – earning handsome profits that are the veritable mainstay of its economy. And the country is no slouch here either. Israel is, in fact, a key supplier of advanced weaponry, including drones, missiles, and radar technology. In 2020, it was the 12th-ranked global arms supplier raking in more than $345 million in weapons sales to 16 countries. And that’s down from 1.46 billion in 2016. With a population 1/164th its size, in 2020 Israel exported half the value of arms around the world as China. Fully 55 percent of those arms were shipped to increasingly right-wing states run by fascist-inflected strong men – India’s Hindu-chauvinist Modi, Brazil’s Bolsinaro, Azerbaijan’s "mini-Stalin” Aliyev, the Philippines’ Duterte, and Thailand’s coup-artist-in-chief General Prayut.
Underwriting all that is the United States, the source of 83 percent of Israel’s total arms imports since 1950 (much of the rest – particularly between 1953-1967 – came from France). Uncle Sam is also by far the most generous supplier of military aid, now providing Israel a record sum of $3.8 billion annually. That bump, from about $3.1 billion, stems from a mammoth 2016 deal signed by President Obama, worth $38 billion over 10 years. By comparison, America – the self-styled Holy Land "honest broker” – allocated just $19 million in all forms of aid to the Palestinians. It’s rather disingenuous to frame the conflict as a fair fight, when Israel receives 200 times more support from the biggest, baddest big brother in the global schoolyard.
Furthermore, since the US took over as Israel’s main patron in 1967, Washington’s largesse has tacked towards mainly military financing – which accounts for nearly 80 percent of all aid sent Tel Aviv’s way. Israel isn’t just the lead recipient of US foreign military financing (FMF), it is the FMF program – since 2000, 55 percent of all these funds were dedicated to Israel, more than the rest of the world combined. Instructively, 32 percent of the rest was directed at two once adversarial neighbors – Egypt and Jordan – led by a general and a king, respectively, whom Washington convinced to make peace with Israel absent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state both once (rightfully) demanded. Forget photo shoots on the White House lawn, real handshake that matters hands these three problem children $91 bribery-billions worth of guns not to shoot at each other.
The big losers, as always? The Palestinians. Only they’re likely used to it – given the consistent and prolonged tortured track record of Western empires backing their far more powerful opponents.
"In its seven decades of existence, Israel has received more foreign
aid in various forms than any other state in history."
– Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, from An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Force Made a Nation (2020)
It had been an imperialist team effort, even if Uncle Sam has long since taken on the single-side supporting portfolio. Backing Israel was essentially a three nation enterprise that has unfolded in three basic phases. First there was Palestine’s official imperial "Mandate" power, Great Britain. Despite the carefully calculated Israeli myth of British antagonism to their colonial-settler cause, it was London that first breathed life into Israeli state-building dreams with the 1917 Balfour Declaration of British support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Furthermore, future Israeli Zionists repeatedly proved willing to collude with their imperial masters, whether through providing volunteers for Britain’s World War I campaigns against the Ottoman Empire, offering up intelligence and their (technically illegal) paramilitary militias to help suppress the Palestinian Arab Revolt (1936-39), or basing, supplying – and also assisting – the Royal Army’s fight against German General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps during the Second World War.
Describing the nascent Israeli community’s duplicitous dual-track strategy with respect to Great Britain, David Ben-Gurion said, at the war’s outset in September 1939, that "We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper [limiting Jewish immigration to preserve a reduced Arab majority] as if there were no war." In point of fact, while the three main extralegal (under British Mandate laws) Israeli militias – the Hagana, Irgun, and Stern Gang – did wage a guerrilla, and even terror bombing campaign against the Brits, London never seriously stood in the way of Israeli goals.
In fact, it was their very inaction, a sort of British abstentionism – and double standards for the more strictly suppressed Palestinians – that enabled the IDF’s precursor militias to first form, then develop into a serious professional army by 1948 (the end of the Mandate). Furthermore, by mostly looking the other way, and accepting much-needed militia aid to suppress the Arab Revolt, the exhausted, broke British authorities enabled the early ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Beginning in December 1947, the Israeli paramilitaries expelled (or sometimes massacred) about half of the eventually 750,000 Palestinians permanently displaced – before the Union Jack was lowered and the British troops departed in May 1948, and before any of the (actually overmatched) neighboring Arab armies invaded.
Moreover, even when Israel immediately unilaterally declared independence, the British Cabinet had agreed that their civil and military authorities in Palestine should not actively oppose the setting up of a Jewish State, nor reoccupy Palestine from their bordering colony of Transjordan or their massive Royal Army base in Eypt’s Suez Canal Zone. In fact, Britain didn’t even punish Israel when, in 1949 – hours before the final ceasefire was to commence – the new nation shot down five Royal Air Force planes (killing two pilots) in Egyptian airspace that had been monitoring Israeli troop movements for compliance with their agreed withdrawal from captured territory.
Just seven years later, Israel colluded with Britain (and France) in that grand conspiracy of an imperial last hurrah – the joint invasion of the Suez to punish the independent-minded canal-nationalizing of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser – the fittingly, if prep-school-boyishly titled: Operation Musketeer. Naturally, since it then hastily kicked off the invasion without warning the two elder empires, Israel actually had more in common with D’Artagnan – the young, foolhardy, brave and clever man who sought to become the fourth musketeer in Alexandre Dumas’s novel. Only this adventure proved pure fiasco after the US and Soviet Union actually agreed to pressure a ceasefire. Nevertheless, the campaign was an early example of a running theme, whereby great powers see an ever-willing Israel as a useful proxy tool to wield against their respective nationalist or Islamist Arab opponents. America would perfect the formula, but after Suez, Israel’s top patron-position passed to Paris.
France has always been the most apt to put the imperialist in neo-imperialist, especially in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, Paris saw Israel as a natural partner for shoring up its position in Francophone Lebanon and especially in its rebellious Algerian colony. Thus, though France’s stint as supreme-sponsor was relatively short (1954-66), it was also paradigm-shifting – setting up Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Sinai Peninsula in the preemptive 1967 Six Day War, and laying the foundations for Israel’s nuclear weapons program (which Tel Aviv still deliberately neither confirms nor denies).
Beginning in 1954, France began supplying Israel with the modern fighter jets, tanks, mobile artillery, and armored personnel carriers it would need for its surprise June 1967 assault into Egypt and Syria. Furthermore, France secretly colluded with Israeli leaders and researchers to establish an expensive nuclear weapons program so successful that by 1966 – just two years after China conducted its first successful test – Israel was ready to produce its first bomb. Today, Israel now possesses an equal ability as Britain to deliver multiple warheads, largely on account of its nuclear submarine fleet – the purchase of which is the subject of one of the key current corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a further bit of almost unimaginable irony, Israel then exchanged nuclear technologies and know how with the Shah’s brutal regime in Iran – then one of its then main oil suppliers – even though nowadays ole Bibi bets he can get Uncle Sam to bomb Tehran’s nascent nuke program.
Despite France’s overt and furtive support – and Washington’s increasingly benevolent posture towards a potentially useful Israeli proxy – during this period running guns to Tel Aviv was a touchy subject, given the international outcry over Palestinian displacement and the West’s dependence on Arab oil supplies. Thus, in many cases, Israel’s more prominent benefactors sought more roundabout supply chains – for example, in the 1960s the US laundered weapons supplies through West Germany. Then, when even the petroleum-poor Western Germans balked – fearing the Arab countries would recognize Communist East Germany – an additional laundering-leg was added, as the West Germans agreed to indirectly finance French and Italian arms for Israel (talk about Victor Frankenstein’s fictional life journey in reverse!).
Nevertheless, after the 1967 War, and once Israel settled in for a forever occupation – and now actual or de facto annexation – of the Golan Height, Gaza, and the West Bank, Uncle Sam stepped in for good. Since then, Washington has provided Israel diplomatic, military, and economic top-cover as reliable and right as the "neither-snow-nor-rain" US mail. Between 1967 and 2017, America used its veto in the UN Security Council 43 times to protect Israel from international censure or sanction. In the lead-up to the most recent violence, the US was the only Security Council member to oppose a statement urging Israel to cease evicting Palestinian families from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. No doubt America’s latest vote of "veto imperialism” metaphorically greased the skids of the Hamas rockets soon flung Israel’s way.
Furthermore, in America’s own rendition of Britain’s early (ethnic cleansing-) abstentionism, the Johnson and Nixon administrations – and frankly every one since – decided not to take any action, or say much (publicly) at all, about Israel’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); not that Israel ever bothered to sign the thing. Plus, further extending this Israel-only special treatment, despite countless violations of both Jus Ad Bello and Jus In Bello laws of war and the Geneva Conventions, Washington has deliberately ignored at least three of its own regulations – the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, Arms Export Control Act, the Leahy Law – forbidding countries that use weapons offensively, or commit human rights abuses, from receiving US military aid. Neither the Israeli government, nor any IDF unit, has ever been penalized under these statutes, ensuring that Tel Aviv has a free-flowing spigot of singularly conditions-free blank-check weapons largesse.
All of this sets up an interesting – if imperfect – indecency quid-pro-quo: Washington backs Israel, even building up its local Mediterranean military-industrial complex, then Tel Aviv uses its mini-MIC to back, arm, and train a host of unsavory authoritarian pariah states on Uncle Sam’s plausibly-deniable behalf.
"Military Supplier of Last Resort"
"In Israel, old weapons never die. They don’t even fade away; they
just get recycled to some remote corner of the Third World."
– Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, from The Israeli Connection: Whom Israel Arms and Why (1987)
The West – particularly the Big Three Brits, French, and Americans – have been underwriting Israel’s military-industrial complex from the first. It began with a British bargain with the devil of necessity. During World War II, as German Panzers raced towards Cairo and the Suez Canal, Palestine transformed into a garrison state seemingly overnight. Someone needed to buildup a war-supply economy for the overstretched British, in order to feed and equip the thousands of troops based or passing through the area. Only the Jewish community – bolstered by German immigrants and industrial infrastructure recently shipped in through an earlier deal with the Nazi regime – had the required resources, and willingness, to step up. Indeed, ironically, some Jewish experts from Europe’s largest munitions manufacturer – owned by a Hungarian Jewish billionaire forced to hand the firm over to the Nazis in 1944 – came to Palestine and helped lay the groundwork for Israel’s nascent war industry.
Furthermore, part of the reason the Zionist community began producing its own weapons in the first place had to do with British Mandate law. Since sectarian or ethnic-based militias or armies were illegal, so too was arming or training them. Even though London looked the other way when Jewish leaders violated such strictures, the very existence of the laws and power of the Royal Navy still made it quite difficult to import illicit arms.
So these future Israelis set about styling a future Israeli weapons industry. What’s more, once the war broke out, the 100,000 or so British troops stationed in Palestine became so reliant on this infrastructure that London was willing to ignore the fact that (they knew) the new industrial plants were also producing extra guns – to outfit the Zionist militias for a future civil war – on the side. Of course, rather awkwardly, some of those weapons were first trained on the U.K. authorities themselves in the postwar Irgun- and Stern Gang-led guerrilla and terror campaign designed to drive the Brits out.
After a near totally decisive win over the Palestinian and Arab forces in 1947-49, Israel’s MIC-development never looked back. In one extra instance of Israeli-oddity, Tel Aviv even invested the majority of enormous funds from the 1952 Holocaust Reparations Agreements with West Germany into military programs, including its infant nuclear weapons project. So successful were these efforts, that by the mid-1950s the war industry was not only becoming the country’s largest industrial sector, but Israel began shipping weapons overseas.
Nor did they stop there. Between 1953-64 Israel’s investment in the MIC skyrocketed some 900 percent, whilst Tel Aviv simultaneously – in an almost unheard of rarity – increased its arms imports by about 800 percent in the years 1955-68. By 1981, the war industry employed more than 300,000 Israelis – about one-quarter of the country’s workforce. At that point Israel already ranked fifth in global arms sales, outpacing even China. In the astute assessment of Israeli historian Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, "as it were, the economy abandoned oranges for hand grenades."
Yet matters got – and remain – really ugly once Israel shifted to a weapons export economy. Few now remember, but it was Israel, after all, who acted as middleman missile-launderer for the Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra scandal: when, you know, Tel Aviv gleefully assisted Washington’s plan to secretly sell weapons to its supposedly sworn-enemy in exchange for Tehran’s putting pressure on the Lebanese terrorists – that the U.S. just never negotiates with – to release American hostages, and then funnel the overcharged profits to the right-wing death squads of the Nicaraguan Contras that Congress had prohibited the president from supporting. Got that?
Thing is, that anecdote – instructive as it is – barely scratches the surface of the rogue’s gallery of monsters Israel has armed over the years; and, of course, continues to arm. Consider a cursory continent-by-continent overview of the horrifying highlights:
- Eight African Bad Boys: including three fellow settler-colonial states – White Rhodesia, Western-Sahara-occupying Morocco, and Apartheid South Africa (with which Israel secretly violated international arms-sanctions and even shared nuclear secrets); one set of genocidaires – Rwandan Hutu rebels; plus Idi Amin’s Uganda; Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia (and even its Soviet-backed Marxist Derg successor regime); an always up-to-no-good Sudan; and that three-decades-worth of Congo-plundering madman Mobutu Sese Seko.
- Ten Asian Authoritarians: including three ethnic cleansers – Burma/Myanmar (still massacring its Rohingya minority), ever-in-ethnic-civil-war Sri Lanka, and China (which has bought high-tech Israeli surveillance and security systems for its ongoing suppression of the Uyghur); one internal mass-murderer – Indonesia (the minor-matter of 500,000 political murders over about a single year in 1965-66); one fellow apartheid-like domestic military occupier – India (does anyone even remember the almost invisible Kashmiris anymore?); one recent aggressive warmonger – Aliyev-the-Younger’s Armenian-invading Azerbaijan (Israel’s second best weapons’ customer – after Modi’s India – which bought 69 percent of its arms from Tel Aviv in 2020); one proud and practiced extrajudicial killing enthusiast – Duterte’s Philippines; and three run-of-the-mill on again-off again authoritarian governments – Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea.
- Eight South and Central American (Mostly) Military Regimes: including four death-squad aficionados – Guatemala, El Salvador’s nun- and priest-assassination-penchant government, General Pinochet’s Chile, and the Nicaraguan Contras; plus your basic liberty-squelching strongman-types in Argentina, Paraguay, Haiti, and Honduras.
To summarize this most historic of historic ironies: Israel’s U.S.-enabled and subsidized war industry has made the world a genuinely more violent, repressive, and authoritarian place for almost seven decades. That’s frankly difficult to grapple with for a whole host of otherwise incongruous reasons.
Endgame: Militarism as a Way of Life
All of this militarist aggressive obscenity matters on its merits – Palestinian and basic human rights, plus Israeli civil liberty – but it hurts America too. There’s an almost absurd irony at work here, whereby America’s (by far) top military aid investment has made, and makes, its own homeland less safe. Even that decidedly non-peacenik, Petraeus – when still US commanding general of the Greater Mideast – confessed to a congressional committee that "perception of US favoritism towards Israel," "foments anti-American sentiment," thereby presumably putting his own troops at risk.
Of course, given just a bit of backstory, that makes sense. After all, in a 2004 videotaped address "to the American people," Osama bin Laden explained some his own motives for the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Center thus:
…it did not cross our minds to attack the towers but after…we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982…when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the US sixth fleet….
As I watched the [Israeli-] destroyed towers in [Beirut] Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way [and] to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.
Pretty straightforward but staggering, stuff, that. Yet few at the time (or since) made the link, let alone considered a consequent policy change. Instead, come September 14, 2001 – with the almost unanimous approval of an open-ended endless war authorization (AUMF) – America essentially decided to become Israel.
And, just as the Monster indirectly caused Victor Frankenstein’s death – due to pneumonia contracted chasing his creation across icy wastes – the US decision to model an Israeli-style MIC-led, permanent state-of-emergency, garrison-state, could destroy its democracy.
As for Israel, with the real threat of communal – or even internal Israeli Jewish-Arab civil war – brewing during and after its latest military campaign, recall the very end of the Frankenstein story. Feeling "polluted by crimes," the Monster heads off to "ascend [his] funeral pile triumphantly" – and commit suicide.
That’s called tragedy.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, the director of the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and co-hosts the podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught history at West Point. He is the author of three books, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War, and most recently A True History of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2021 Danny Sjursen