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By the end of 2020, a total of 82.4 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced from their homes according to the UNHCR. The number of forcibly displaced persons globally has doubled since 1990 and is likely to increase significantly in the coming decades due to a convergence of factors, including armed conflict and other forms of violence, as well as climate breakdown, which will compound pressures to migrate.
Displacement occurs in the context of a capitalist economic system in which profits are made both through the sale of arms that are instrumental in causing conflicts and wars, and through the militarization of migrant routes and borders. Alongside the steady increase in the value of the arms trade and the spiraling number of forcibly displaced persons, the market for border security is growing with an expected worth of US$65-68 billion by 2025. War is highly profitable and the war on migrants is becoming increasingly so too.
Israeli military technologies, central to a system of settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation, are big players in the international arms industry. “Tried and tested” on Palestinians, Israeli arms are sold to states and private agencies around the world and Israeli arms companies are now established partners of European Union border security agencies, such as Frontex, supporting the militarization of EU borders.
The Israeli arms industry is part of a global process of border militarization in a world increasingly characterized by profit-driven conflicts and militarism, all leading to further displacement — more migration and more people seeking refuge. The struggles for freedom of movement and against militarism need to work on making these links clear so that we can tackle these challenges at the root.
Frontex and EU border militarization
Frontex has a huge role in the militarization of European borders, the criminalization of migrants and the monitoring of their movements. One of Frontex’s main objectives is to identify migrants and organize operations to return them to their countries of origin. The agency increasingly works together with third countries, such as Libya, Sudan, Turkey and Belarus, coordinating containment and deportation efforts beyond EU jurisdictions.
In 2020, humanitarian groups claimed the EU is using aerial surveillance to spot stranded migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, alerting Libya’s coast guard to intervene — a move that facilitates illegal pushbacks, while non-governmental rescue operations are actively prevented and criminalized. Intercepted migrants are placed in arbitrary detention facilities in Libya, where they face human rights violations including torture, sexual violence and denial of health care. Also, on the border between Greece and Turkey, human rights organizations have documented pushbacks of refugees to Turkey by official coast guard agencies, among them Frontex and national coast guards.
The expansion of the agency has been a staple of EU policy in recent years. Frontex has now secured a €5.6 billion budget until 2027, with plans to hire 10,000 armed border guards by the end of that period. Its budget has grown by a staggering 7,560 percent since 2005, with its new resources used to buy equipment including ships, helicopters and drones. Fortress Europe, meanwhile, is increasingly covered in border walls and fences: since the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, European countries have built or commenced building 1,200 kilometers of fencing — a distance almost 40 percent of the length of the US-Mexico border.
What does Israel have to do with it?
This whole process is one in which both EU security agencies and European states purchase military equipment, including small arms, drones, ships and cybersecurity technology as part of their border security policies — much of which is sourced within the EU. This is also where the Israeli arms industry comes into the story. As the Israeli Database of Military and Security Equipment (DIMSE) shows, Israeli arms play a significant role in the militarization of EU borders.
Israeli arms that have been purchased among others by Italy, Greece and Germany include drones, radar systems and patrol vessels. But even more interesting are the direct military and security relations between Israel, the European Union and EU security agencies.
While US “aid” to Israel’s security capabilities of around $3.8 billion a year is well-documented, the collaboration of the EU with Israel can often be overlooked by critics. As an EU-associated state, Israel has enjoyed close economic and diplomatic ties with the EU for many years. Through research and innovation funds, the EU has invested billions in Israeli companies and organizations, including arms manufacturers like Elbit, Verint System and Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). Among dozens of EU-funded projects since 2007, IAI and Elbit reportedly landed contracts to develop drones for European security agencies like Frontex and EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) to “autonomously” stop “illegal migrants” and “non-cooperative vehicles.”
After conducting test flights between 2018-2020, IAI was awarded a contract in 2020 to provide Frontex with the Heron drone for maritime patrols. As the Times of Malta reported, the EU border agency carried out a first test flight in Malta at the beginning of May 2021. Different flight reports showed Heron drones making operational flights at the Libyan border in June 2021.
The main issue here is that drones are an effective way to elude the EU’s obligation under international law to save the lives of those trying to cross the Mediterranean — as they were obliged to do when patrolling with ships. Furthermore, in the new arrangement, Frontex continues to be present in the area from the air so they can be aware of different migrant boats setting out from the Libyan shores and to feed that information to the Libyan Coast Guard.
Frontex’s move of pulling investment in maritime patrol vessels and diverting it to drones is a way to spend money without having the responsibility to save lives and enables them to organize pushbacks through third countries. Beyond Israeli drones, the EU is operating European air vehicles and testing new robot systems, including long- and short-range drones.
Israel is essentially a go-to for countries looking to secure and militarize their borders. Israeli companies, specialists and top military generals have become increasingly visible at border and homeland security trade shows in the past 20 years. In that time, Israel became one of the top-ten largest defense exporters in the world and a leading supplier and consumer in the border security industrial complex. Israel’s military industry has been lobbying for years to get a share of EU multi-billion euro spending on border militarization.
In February 2021, a group of European journalists published the “Frontex Files,” a list of meetings between Frontex and various lobbyists, among them Israeli security companies such as the above-mentioned Elbit, as well as Shilat Optronics and Seraphim Optronics, which specialize in facial recognition technologies. Another company involved in Frontex operations is Israeli Shipyards, which produces naval vessels.
Another development that international researchers and activists have been observing is the increase in the usage of surveillance technologies to track movement and personal data via smartphones. Immigration agencies across Europe are showing new enthusiasm for laws and software that enable phone data to be used in deportation cases. In this context too, Israel’s cyber technologies are in high demand, with the infamous spyware provider, NSO Group, having long been used by European intelligence agencies.
Cellebrite, another especially problematic Israeli company, is reportedly involved in numerous human rights violations worldwide and already has 7,000 contracts with government and private groups — including the national police of 25 EU member states. Privacy International reported that the Israeli company is advertising its technologies used to extract data from mobile devices toward a new target: authorities interrogating people seeking asylum. In 2017 Cellebrite’s technology was operated in a test-phase by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. In 2018, it was reported that the British Police are using Cellebrite’s mobile forensic technologies to access the search history of suspects and that the UK’s Immigration Enforcement Authority made a £45,000 deal with the firm in the same year. Between 2014 and 2016, Cellebrite also participated in EVIDENCE (European Informatics Data Exchange Framework for Courts and Evidence), a lucrative research and development program from the EU.
The Other Side of the Coin
The other side of the coin is the usage of these technologies and arms here in Palestine-Israel. Israel uses military and security technologies to maintain its system of settler-colonialism, apartheid and occupation. Israel’s violations of international law and perpetration of war crimes during its incessant attacks on Palestinians in Gaza in May 2021 are well documented and research by antimilitarist activists about which arms were used in the attacks on Gaza is in progress in order to track new developments in the Israeli military industrial complex.
Israeli security and military companies work in direct connection with the Israeli military, providing equipment and weapons for its operations. This relationship means that military operations in Gaza and the West Bank are used as a laboratory for Israeli arms companies, where they can develop, test and then market their weapons as “combat proven.” It will not be long before Israeli companies will promote their new equipment again as “battle tested,” after the latest attacks on Gaza — an assault in which at least 129 Palestinian civilians were killed, 65 of them children, over 1,000 homes were destroyed and over 1,000 more severely damaged, leaving over 8,000 people without a home.
For an arms industry that has relied for years on marketing “combat proven” products, the next battle cannot come soon enough. EU funding for these companies inherently fuels Israel’s capacity to sustain its war crimes and violations of human rights and International Law, making the EU complicit in those violations, as well.
This takes us back to the Heron drone, which Frontex is now operating in the Mediterranean Sea. Heron drones have a dark history of use against Palestinians. Already after “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, an investigation by Human Rights Watch concluded that dozens of civilians were killed with missiles launched from Israeli drones. The Heron was also widely used in the last major outbreak of attacks in May 2021.
On June 1, less than two weeks after the ceasefire, Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) published a press release detailing a $2 billion sale of Heron drones. The press release read: “Drones from the Heron family are the most prominent of the IAI drones and played an important and crucial role in collecting intelligence in operation ‘Guardian of the Walls.’” CEO of IAI, Boaz Levy, continued: “The deal is a testament to our customers’ strong satisfaction with the Heron UAVs, including their operational and technical performance.”
Israel’s technologies, which are taking part in a system of apartheid, settler-colonialism and occupation, being tested on Palestinians and are sold to dictators around the world, are now also being used to prevent migrants from entering Europe. Among these thousands of people are of course Palestinian refugees that have been immobilized on Greek islands or pushed back to Turkey in their attempt to find some relative freedom and safety away from Israeli apartheid.
Towards a Joint Antimilitarist Struggle
Sustaining a tradition of international cooperation among political movements is crucial in these times of economic and militaristic globalization. Solidarity actions and nonviolent interventions — both of which are acts performed by “outsiders” of a conflict in cooperation with parties in the conflict — are important, but even more significant is the formation of a joint struggle against militarism.
In the last few years, we have seen some formations of this joint struggle, one of which is the international campaign Abolish Frontex. In June 2021, actions in seven countries, including Belgium, Germany and Morocco, targeted the agency. The actions marked the launch of the international campaign, which calls to defund and dismantle Frontex and Europe’s deadly border regime. The network sees in modern borders colonial and racist constructs, institutionalized by the EU’s border policies.
The Abolish Frontex campaign calls for a halt to the militarization of borders and for freedom of movement, residence and livelihood for all. Crucially, the campaign also addresses the EU’s contributions to reasons that force people to move in the first place and the repression against solidarity activists in Europe. The campaign’s network is decentralized and autonomous and is composed of groups, organizations and individuals from inside and outside the EU, ranging from Senegal and Niger to Greece and Italy.
Veterans of the international joint struggle against militarism, War Resisters International Network has been active now for 100 years, with over 90 affiliated groups in 40 countries. International movements such as the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Black Lives Matter and Jewish Voice for Peace are some key examples of antimilitaristic movements that continue to build forms of internationalism that cut through separations between struggles.
On the local and somewhat less visible level, joint antimilitarist struggle must involve the identification of common cause between groups and opportunities to build coalitions. In the Israeli antimilitarist struggle for example, a variety of different political and activist groups collaborate with each other. Here, anti-occupation groups cooperate with religious Jewish groups in the fight against Israeli arms exports to countries that violate human rights. Antimilitarist groups collaborate with climate-change groups in a joint struggle that sees the connection between Israeli settler colonialism, the occupation of Palestine and the destruction of the environment in the region.
One such group, the Israeli feminist and antimilitarist New Profile, sees parallels between the local struggle for the demilitarization of Israeli society and the importance of an international joint struggle against militarism, placing an intersectional feminist angle on the political agenda. Aside from local activism, education work and support of military-service objectors, New Profile is a part of WRI, Abolish Frontex and other international coalitions and groups.
The Struggle to End Militarism is Necessarily Global
Militarism is characterized by hierarchy, discipline, obedience, order, aggression and hypermasculinity and is defined by the norms and values of traditional state military structures. It is not limited to the armed forces, as other institutions take up its values and practices — whether police or security agencies, such as Frontex.
Militarism around the world will continue to sustain the racist, violent structures and borders that look to uphold a colonial and oppressive status quo. It is not just an “issue” for peace organizations and movements, as it is tied to much of the oppression and violence experienced today worldwide. We need to demilitarize the institutions and structures that sustain this status quo. This must take place as part of a radical international joint struggle where activists collaborate and learn from one another.
The struggle to demilitarize European borders, for instance, needs to be part of a global antimilitarist struggle that resists agencies like Frontex but also takes on the military industrial complex, as exemplified by the Israel-EU nexus. It needs to look at global and local structures and processes of militarism and conflicts that not only produce the technology to create borders, but also are at the root of why people need to flee in the first place.
Such a struggle involves not being stuck in only “solidarity” work: movements against militarism need to promote a fundamentally different social, economic and political order. That is, they need to put capitalism, racism and patriarchy on the political agenda — issues that are often avoided by political organizations and movements in the Global North because they require acknowledgement of our own contradictions and privileges, a questioning of our way of life and a commitment to concrete changes.
If we aspire to building a sustainable alternative to a world of profit-driven militarism and violence, we need to see it as part of the deeper challenge of overcoming global capitalism and racist colonial power relations. Therefore, the antimilitarist struggle must accentuate the relation between international feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, queer, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles on one side and target the allied opponents of progressive values and basic human rights on the other.
Jonathan Hempel is an Israeli researcher and activist, focusing on militarism and arms exports.