Israeli soldiers in front of the barrier between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Photo: Getty
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How we grew up: an Israeli veteran on the dehumanising power of military control

Yehuda Shaul writes of how he and his friends learned to glorify power, and lost their ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable. Now, he and hundreds of others are working to end the occupation.

The current round of violence in Gaza has come to an official close. In Israel we have begun to summarise the events of the past few weeks and question the future. As summaries reenter the public discourse, I am reminded of past rounds of summarisation.  I try to grasp what has changed from one summary to the next.  From Operation “Defensive Shield” (2002) in the West Bank, to “Summer Rains” (2006) in the Gaza Strip – from “Cast Lead” (2009) to “Pillar of Defense” (2012) to the most recent operation in Gaza.

In 2002 a fighter jet dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of Salah Shehade, the former head of Hamas’ military wing, in a residential neighborhood. The bomb killed him in addition to 14 other innocent people, 11 of whom were children. The incident didn’t blow over quietly. Reservist pilots heavily criticised this type of operational activity in an open letter. The Supreme Court encouraged an independent inquiry into the situation, and as a result the government appointed a committee to investigate the operation. Throughout the last month we bombed dozens of houses inhabited by Palestinians – some targeted by the Air Force and others using artillery and mortar fire. These bombs killed hundreds of men, women and children. The bombing of the homes of Hamas members, who do not pose an immediate security threat to Israel, has become an explicit Israeli policy – even when it is known that innocent civilians are inside.

When Shahade’s home was bombed, there were people who questioned the morality of the action. Throughout the last month, over a decade after the aforementioned bomb, hardly anyone in Israel and among its allies around the world criticises the policy of bombing the homes of Hamas members. The lone voices that are heard speaking out against it are hastily silenced. After a month of fighting, over 2,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza. According to the UN, at least 1,400 of the deceased were civilian casualties, 458 of which were children. Israeli society remains silent.

What has changed? My reply begins with a memory from the year 2004, two months after I was released from my service as a soldier and commander in the Occupied Territories. During that period, my friends and I reflected back on our years of service and understood that as soldiers in the Territories we had each gradually erased our moral red line. We understood that in order to carry out our routine activities as soldiers, whose role is to control the territories and the civilian Palestinian population – we needed to erase the humanity of Palestinians along with our own humanity. And that’s what we did. This understanding led us to produce an exhibition of photographs and video testimonies of soldiers from Hebron, the city in which we served for a year. Our goal was to share with the Israeli public the things that we did daily there, in their name.

One of the many attendees of the exhibition, was Lieutenant Colonel Chen Livni, the Deputy Commander of the Nahal Brigade. We were all veterans of the Nahal Brigade and he had come to see what all the fuss was about. After a tour of the gallery, Livni said that he agreed with the facts that we displayed regarding the process combatants undergo in the Territories. However, he noted that he disagreed with us on one point. “You call this process moral corruption, insensitivity, or intoxication of power,” he said. “I call it growing up.” In response to Livni’s statement, one of my friends replied, “You’re right. That’s how people grow up in Israel. Which is the reason why we created this exhibition and are breaking our silence.” My friend was right. Adolescents in Israel grow up when they learn to impose military control over another nation.

Livni might have been right in this sense, as I would be obliged to say that 47 years as an occupying power have taught Israeli society a similar lesson to the one learned by every soldier who serves in the Territories. We have learned to glorify power, and have lost our ability to see Palestinians as people whose lives are no less valuable than ours. We have learned to avert our gaze from the tears of the hundreds of children who were killed over the course of the past month in Gaza. In addition to the dozens of families that were erased when one-ton bombs were dropped on their homes. The destructive images give rise to feelings of pride, rather than questions about the people for whom the rubble was once a home. The abject poverty in Gaza arouses contempt, instead of questions regarding the roots of poverty in a region that remains under Israeli control.

From 2004 to this day, my activism is guided by a refusal to accept Livni’s reality. This is not “growing up”, but rather brutalisation. In order to grow up, we need to stop thinking like occupiers, and to start thinking like human beings. As human beings, we can’t avert our eyes and close our ears. Most important, we cannot stop asking questions. Questions about our moral red lines as a society; questions about the moral price that we’ve paid, and will continue to pay, for the ongoing occupation; questions that are related at their core to the recognition of the value of all human lives in this region – both Israeli and Palestinian.

Yehuda Shaul is a co-founder and member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of almost 1,000 Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?