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What Were American Police Learning at an Israeli Counter-Terror Convention?

September 19, 2017

by Joshua Leifer

IN RECENT MONTHS, activists have drawn attention to the ties between Israeli counter-terrorism forces and U.S. law enforcement agencies. Jewish Voice for Peace’s “Deadly Exchange” campaign, for example, has focused specifically on Jewish communal institutions, such as the Anti-Defamation League, that sponsor various programs that bring American police to Israel and, in some cases, Israeli police to America.

Last week, the Intercept reported on the connections between the Anti-Defamation League’s police training program and the role these exchanges may play in the use of surveillance and stop-and-frisk measures against both Palestinians and Americans. Work to discover these connections has in the past been met with resistance, and even new laws restricting transparency. Israeli civilians also experience the effects of the growth of militarism.

Through trips to the West Bank and trainings in crowd dispersal and surveillance, American police from departments around the country learn to use against American citizens the violent techniques designed to maintain a fifty-year military occupation of a civilian population -- a system under which Palestinians are routinely surveilled, harassed, tortured, and detained without trial. Needless to say, these exchanges are not the source of police brutality in the United States. But the plethora of powerful technological and intellectual tools they expose American police to warrants attention.

So to better understand the links between American law enforcement and Israeli counter-terrorism training, I attended the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s “World Summit” in Herzliya, home to some of Israel’s richest neighborhoods, last week.

In addition to keynote speaker Sebastian Gorka -- a former White House aide and occasional wearer of Nazi collaborator medals -- the ICT conference drew former diplomats, politicians, retired military personnel, law enforcement officers, consultants, and think-tank employees from across the world. Enthusiastic IDC students, looking like they’d stepped out of a Model UN conference, staffed the event and waved admiringly to their professors in attendance. Neocons like former Bush official Douglas Feith brushed shoulders with professional activists like Robert Friedmann, founder of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, a group that sends American police to Israel for counter-terrorism training.

The speeches and panels took place in a medium-sized auditorium at the Sharon Hotel, which sits on the beach in Herzliya. At the lobby bar, RAND Corporation researchers discussed possible future work in Singapore. A short, older man with a weathered face, who introduced himself to me as a retired general, ordered a half-liter beer. “First one of the day,” he said proudly, grinning to the Israeli woman behind the bar, who looked back at him in vague annoyance. As the sun began to set, men lumbered around the hotel’s beachfront back patio, recounting the day’s speeches underneath the palm trees. If not for the constant patter of speakers warning of terror threats on the horizon, the conference could have been mistaken for a golf retreat.

NEARLY ALL of the major keynote speakers at ICT came from the hard right. Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Education Naftali Bennett both hail from the pro-settler Jewish Home party. In addition, Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman and Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan were promoted as headline speakers, as were Gorka and U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Centrists Tzipi Livni and Ofer Shelah also spoke. So did Avi Gabbai, the newly elected head of the Labor Party, who delivered an address to a room that was two-thirds empty.

One event session involved a roleplay of an ISIS attack on the Vatican. According to the Jerusalem Post, ICT founder and Government School dean Boaz Ganor played leader of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during the skit. Former Mossad deputy chief Naftali Granot played part of his military council, announcing that, “We (ISIS) will focus now on mainly what we are more capable of: inflicting damage on the infidels in various countries using suicide and other terror operations.” Various other IDF and security officials played other roles in planning the “attack.” Another panel attended by Facebook staff discussed how the site’s computers are “programmed to scan content for buzzwords associated with terrorism.”

THE FINAL EVENT on Tuesday’s program was listed as “Special Event for Law Enforcement Personnel (By Invitation Only).” Standing in the lobby, I overheard a man who identified himself as major donor to IDC loudly declare to a group of IDC students staffing the summit that he wanted all reporters out of the building before the law enforcement event. My red press lanyard made me a marked man. I went looking for conference officials and law enforcement personnel to talk to before it was too late.

I saw a group of American police standing in an overflow room stocked with coffee, juice and kalamata olives, where a TV streamed the ongoing speeches. I met a deputy inspector from a U.S. police department. I asked him about what U.S. police were learning at a counter-terrorism conference in Israel. “Terrorism is a crime,” he told me. “While they’re obviously different in terms of ideology, there are a lot of similarities between ISIS and gangs like MS-13.” The officer is part of the anti-terror NYPD SHIELD program, founded in the wake of 9/11 to improve information-sharing between law enforcement groups. SHIELD had proved useful in combatting conventional crime too, he added.

There were other law enforcement officials at the conference as well. According to the convention program, Denis Monette, a former Nassau County assistant police commissioner, appeared as a part of a workshop during the summit’s fourth day. Monette also serves as a representative for Congressman Peter T. King, who in 2016 called for a federal Muslim surveillance program.

The invite-only police event began and I exited the conference. This year’s ICT summit made headlines largely because of Sebastian Gorka’s keynote speech, where Gorka told the audience that the West is at war with “wrong versions of Islam.” But while Gorka is undoubtedly a disquieting individual, the conference’s underlying themes -- the ever-present specter of internal threats, sotto voce Islamophobia, wide-eyed enthusiasm for military technology -- possibly exceed Gorka’s bombast in the danger they pose to civil liberties in the U.S. and abroad.

Joshua Leifer is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared on Jacobin and Dissent. He is currently based in Jerusalem.