Decisions last week by two American police departments to withdraw from a training seminar with the Israeli police are fueling debate within Israel and the United States about the merits of the BDS movement – the 2005 Palestinian civil society call to boycott cooperation with official Israeli institutions, even where the activity itself is otherwise innocuous. BDS activists aim to pressure Israel to end the occupation, grant equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel and realize the right of return for Palestinian refugees, much as sports boycotts were a tool to pressure South Africa to end Apartheid. Yet thus far, most of the American individuals and institutions canceling their Israel-related activities have done so not as part of a general boycott but rather due to concerns about complicity in specific and serious human rights abuses. That was true for Airbnb’s decision to stop listing properties in unlawful Israeli settlements, and it is true of decisions by the Vermont State Police and Northampton, Massachusetts police department to cancel their planned training in Israel.
Since 2001, U.S. government agencies, together with nonprofit groups like the Anti-Defamation League, have sponsored police seminars for American police officers to learn from the Israeli experience in dealing with terrorism. A number of American civil society groups oppose the cooperation, expressing concern over the influence of Israeli military style policing tactics on U.S. police officers, at a time when the Movement for Black Lives is highlighting police brutality and unlawful use of lethal force against people of color.
Of particular concern is the “us against them” approach of the Israeli security forces, many of whom treat Palestinians as security threats while publicly articulating a commitment to protect Israeli Jews, including Israeli residents of West Bank settlements.
Israel is an occupying power in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and with the exception of periods of active combat in certain locations, international policing standards apply to encounters between security officials and Palestinian demonstrators and suspects. That is true inside Israeli towns and cities, at demonstrations along the Gaza border fence, and inside the West Bank. Of course, police should protect Israelis, but a half century of control over millions of Palestinians creates obligations to protect Palestinians, too.
Those obligations are unfulfilled. Security forces fail to protect Palestinians from attacks by settlers (indeed, their obligation is to safely remove the settlers from the West Bank). They use lethal force even when not strictly necessary to protect life, and use excessive force against demonstrators, including at nonviolent protests. Just 3 percent of investigations into police complaints filed by Palestinians hurt by Israeli citizens resulted in a conviction.
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The problem begins at the highest level, with public statements by senior police officials encouraging a shoot-to-kill policy against Palestinians suspected of attacking Jews. “Everyone who stabs Jews or harms innocent people – should be killed,” Jerusalem District Police Commander Moshe Edri said, following the fatal shooting in 2015 of a Palestinian child suspected of stabbing two Israeli Jewish youths. Police Minister Gilad Erdan warned that “every attacker who sets out to inflict harm should know that he will not likely survive the attack.” Military officials have a somewhat better record of public instruction, and it was Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot who admonished: “I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl holding scissors.”
Treating Palestinians as potential attackers and Jews as members of a club to be protected extends to inside Israel, including surveillance, racial profiling and excessive use of force as part of a dual law enforcement system that discriminates against Palestinian citizens.
Meanwhile, Palestinians – like people of color within the United States – argue that their security needs are ignored. In the first eight months of this year, Israeli security forces and settlers killed 204 Palestinians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, including at least 77 non combatants, and wounded more than 21,000, mostly non combatants, according to the UN. Palestinian attackers killed seven Israelis during that time, including four non combatants, and injured 88, including 59 non combatants. The May 2018 attack by police on Palestinian human rights activist Jafar Farah and the January 2017 fatal shooting of Yaakob al-Kiyan in Um al-Khiran are examples of how dangerous it can be to be Palestinian in Israel.
It is no wonder that American police forces – accused of not doing enough to protect the lives of people of color and especially black men and boys – are questioning the wisdom of adopting Israeli practices that pit police officers belonging to the dominant group against communities from the oppressed minority. That’s not participation in a boycott but rather an attempt to avoid learning from a bad example.
Sari Bashi is a visiting Robina Foundation human rights fellow and visiting lecturer at Yale Law School.