The video of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed African American, for nearly nine minutes as he slowly died, gasping for air, has struck a familiar chord with many Palestinians and anti-occupation activists.
Since his death in late May, footage of Floyd pleading: “I can’t breathe” and “they’re going to kill me,” has emerged alongside videos and stills of Israeli security forces taking similar positions over the necks of unarmed Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip.
The Israeli police force has tried to distance itself from any perceived similarities, issuing statements denouncing what happened and stating that its officers are not trained to use knee-to-neck techniques.
But photographs taken as recently as March have shown Israeli forces using the same restraint on unarmed protesters just yards from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The damning imagery has revived complaints against US programmes that send American police officers to train under Israeli law enforcement and military officials, as nationwide calls for defunding and abolishing American police departments have taken hold.
Since the early 90s, hundreds of law enforcement officers, including police officers and agents from the FBI, CIA, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have either been sent to Israel through police exchanges, or attended summits within the US that were sponsored by Israeli lobby organisations.
Police forces from Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington state and others have participated in the training, including one that took place in Minneapolis, the city where Floyd was killed.
Leading human rights groups have denounced the exchange programmes, warning that Israeli police standards and tactics only serve to exacerbate racial profiling and police brutality in the US.
“With a long record of human rights violations, Israeli security forces are an incredibly problematic training partner,” Patrick Wilcken, Amnesty International USA’s researcher for arms control, security and human rights told MEE.
Micky Rosenfeld, an Israeli police spokesperson, rejected criticisms of the training scheme, telling MEE that the police exchanges in Israel provide American forces with valuable information on how to “prevent and respond” to attacks.
“The learning and sharing has saved many lives both in Israel and overseas throughout the years,” Rosenfeld said.
“The organisations that are calling out, specifically in the US, against law enforcement learning and sharing are weakening the nation’s preparedness to respond to terror attacks, hate crimes and extremists who break the law.”
‘Policy or practice?’
Since Floyd’s death, second-degree murder charges have been levied against Derek Chauvin, the officer who had his knee to Floyd’s neck, while the other three are facing charges of aiding and abetting.
Rosenfeld called the incident “sad” and said that “there is no procedure that allows an officer of the Israel police department to carry out an arrest by placing a knee on the neck of a suspect”.
Still, before being fired and charged over the incident, all four officers had been employed by the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), which participated in a 2012 training conference in Minneapolis that was held by the FBI and Chicago’s Israeli consulate.
“Every year we are bringing top-notch professionals from the Israeli police to share some knowledge,” Deputy Consul Shahar Arieli said at the time, as quoted by Mint Press News.
MEE reached out to the MPD several times to inquire as to whether Chauvin was one of the 100 Minnesota police officers that participated in the training. The MPD did not respond to requests for comment, but before he was fired Chauvin was a training officer at the department, having worked there for the past 18 years.
MEE also reached out to the Israeli consulate in Chicago for comment, but failed to receive a response.
For his part, Rosenfeld said that no training exchange with Israel’s police forces would “involve such a measure” like the one Chauvin used against Floyd.
“It doesn’t exist in any [Israeli] police textbook,” he said.
But Fady Khoury, a Harvard Law School civil and political rights attorney with Adalah legal centre for minority rights in Israel, said textbooks and bylaws cannot negate the physical evidence of such tactics being used by Israeli officers on the ground.
“There is plenty of documentation out there of violent arrests that involve kneeling on detainees’ heads and necks,” Khoury said.
“We have seen this not only in the occupied territories when soldiers perform arrests, but inside Israel by police officers as well.”
Days after Floyd was killed, Mohammad al-Qadi, a Palestinian marathon runner from the occupied West Bank, posted several pictures depicting uniformed Israelis arresting Palestinians by using knee-to-throat techniques similar to the one that resulted in Floyd’s death.
Khoury also pointed out that it is difficult for the public to know what is and is not allowed in terms of Israeli police tactics due to a lack of transparency within the law enforcement system.
“Since most of the [Israeli] police bylaws related to these issues are confidential, it is hard to tell if this a matter of policy or practice.”
Like Rosenfeld, Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo on Wednesday said Chauvin’s use of force against Floyd was not part of any MPD training.
Since Floyd’s death, chokeholds and neck restraints have been explicitly banned by the MPD. At least 12 other states have followed suit, rolling out measures to ban chokeholds.
‘Two already repressive forces’
Still, while human rights activists have long denounced US and Israeli police exchanges, those speaking to MEE were quick to point out that the United States has its own history of police brutality and systemic racism.
“It is important to understand that US police have harmed Black people long before Israel existed, and that Israel harms Palestinians without any special training from the US,” an activist whose work focuses on building Black-Palestinian solidarity told MEE.
Even so, these training exchanges with Israeli law enforcement “should be opposed”, she said, “because they help two already repressive forces learn how to enhance state violence against populations fighting racism and colonialism”.
Activists have spoken out against the training exercises since they gained popularity after the attacks on 9/11, with Israel marketing itself as a global leader in counterterrorism.
The exchanges with Israeli law enforcement and military have been paid for by public funds, as well as by an array of pro-Israel groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
JINSA alone has sent at least 200 American police officers to Israel for training in the wake of 9/11 and has hosted 10 conferences across the United States, with a combined attendance of over 10,500 law enforcement personnel.
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department (NYPD) even has its own branch in Israel, opened at the Sharon District Police Headquarters in 2012. In fact, the department’s controversial Muslim surveillance programme was modelled in part after Israel’s surveillance programme used on Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 also established a special office in Israel, which has institutionalised the relationship between Israeli and American law enforcement.
“I think we can learn a lot from other countries, particularly Israel, which unfortunately has a long history of preparing for and responding to terrorist attacks,” Senator Susan Collins said about the special office during a congressional hearing at the time.
But campaigns looking to abolish police exchanges have highlighted that Israel has long been criticised by human rights groups across the world for its “extrajudicial killings” and “disproportionate use of force” against Palestinians.
Even the US Department of State has in the past cited Israeli police for carrying out “arbitrary or unlawful killings”.
Khoury, who mainly represents protesters who have encountered police brutality, said it is uncommon for an Israeli officer or soldier “to be held accountable for the use of excessive force against Palestinian civilians”.
“In fact, it is more accurate to say that it is rare for an investigation to be opened,” he said.
“This is true in the context of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and even more so when it comes to Palestinians living in the occupied territories, where excessive force is much more commonly used by both the police and the military.”
Israeli forces killed hundreds of protesters in Gaza between 2018 and 2019 during the Great March of Return demonstrations, while thousands more suffered devastating gunshot wounds. Only one soldier – who shot and killed a plainly unarmed 14-year-old – was convicted of a crime. He was sentenced to one month in jail.
The day the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, Israeli forces killed 50 Palestinians protesting along the Gaza border fence and injured at least 2,400 others. No charges were levied as a result of the crackdown.
In addition to the thousands of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the field, since 1967 some 222 Palestinian have been killed while already in Israeli custody.
Campaigning against Israeli training
Because of Israel’s notoriety for its excessive use of force tactics, many human rights groups have launched campaigns trying to end the US-Israeli police training programmes.
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a grassroots anti-occupation group, has helped create several localised coalition campaigns working to stop the militarisation of US police forces, which especially focus on ending law enforcement exchanges with Israel.
After years of lobbying by one of those JVP coalitions, in April 2018, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted unanimously to bar its police department from taking part in “military-style training” programmes abroad, becoming the first American city to bar police training in Israel.
That same year, another coalition of social justice groups backed by JVP succeeded in getting California’s Alameda County Board of Supervisors to end its Urban Shield programme, which sponsored exchanges with Israel and other countries.
According to the programme’s website, it was the world’s largest militarised SWAT training and weapons expo.
It had been funded in part by a $5.5m grant from DHS.
Nearly $75,000 was spent from the Urban Shield trust fund in 2010 on travel to Israel. Travellers included at least three top officials from the Alameda County Sheriff’s office.
Police departments in Vermont and Massachusetts also withdrew from a trip to Israel organised through the ADL in 2018, following pressure from one of the JVP coalition groups.
“For the first time in 20 years, the all-expenses-paid trips to Israel where American law enforcement are trained by the Israeli military and police have run into a snag,” JVP said in a statement at the time.
‘Deepening relationships and loyalty’
The coalition group in Washington, Occupation Free DC, has also been working to end the DC Police Department’s partnership with Israel, as well as the force’s militarisation.
Scott Brown, an organiser with the group, said the training that takes place with Israel is as much about ideology as they are about tactics and equipment.
“The US and Israel are huge political and military allies, so they have a stake in deepening relationships and loyalty between them,” Brown said.
“So when you’re sending police departments there, that’s what you’re doing, you’re deepening relationships in a way that builds up really strong support for Israel and its actions.”
David Friedman, who was an ADL regional director, echoed that sentiment when talking about the so-called benefits of an ADL-funded trip of American law enforcement executives to Israel in 2015.
“[They] come back and they are Zionists,” Friedman said. “They understand Israel and its security needs in ways a lot of audiences don’t.”
That year’s ADL trip included executives from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US Marshals Service, the US Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and officers from the police departments of Chicago, Las Vegas, Austin, Seattle, Oakland and Miami-Dade.
In DC, Police Chief Peter Newsham and at least two other local commanders have taken part in the training exchanges, and organisers at Occupation Free DC suspect others from the department have gone as well.
“We don’t know because of lack of transparency around these things whether another trip is being planned for the near future, but we definitely know that high profile officers have gone in the past,” Brown said.
In 2017, DC councilman David Grosso sent a letter to Chief Newsham, denouncing a trip planned for the department.
“While I strongly believe in cross-cultural exchanges and the importance of training for our law enforcement officers, learning from military advisors is not what local law enforcement needs,” Grosso wrote in his letter. “Indeed numerous watchdog organisations, Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have documented human rights violations by Israeli police and security forces.
“I am concerned that we are not doing enough to prevent the militarisation of law enforcement in the District of Columbia,” he continued.
Allegations that American police training in Israel encourages police militarisation is among the many criticisms regularly levied against these exchange programmes.
The Pentagon has given American police departments more than $7.2bn worth of surplus military equipment over the past couple of decades, which amounts to about two years worth of the annual US foreign military aid Israel recieves.
Meanwhile, Israeli police and military forces can be hard to tell apart in terms of weaponry and tactics, and its training of US police officers is also often directed by military officials.
Protests and Israeli ‘riot control’
Arguments against militarisation have heightened amid the massive ongoing nationwide protests that were sparked in the wake of Floyd’s death, with activists pointing to the many similarities in crowd control methods being used by American police forces during government crackdowns across the country.
US authorities – police and national guard – have tear-gassed peaceful gatherings, shot at protesters with rubber bullets (causing several people to lose an eye), mass arrested protesters, detained lawmakers, implemented curfews, and indiscriminately targeted journalists, all of which are tactics commonly used by Israel against Palestinians.
Despite the US and Israel’s copious use of tear gas and pepper spray against protesters, both are considered chemical agents and are banned under international law for use in warfare.
Included in that ban is Israel’s newest crowd control creation, “skunk water”, which Israel first deployed against Palestinian protesters in 2008.
Sprayed via water cannons at protesters, the stench of the foul-smelling liquid stays for days on any surface that it touches, such as asphalt, buildings, clothes and even skin.
“The physical side effects of the skunk [water] may include nausea, skin rash, and vomiting,” the ACLU said in a 2016 report.
Israel’s so-called counterterrorism training sessions have included seminars on the benefits of the noxious-smelling water.
“The problem with this method is that it is indiscriminate, as it targets groups of protestors without distinction. In many cases, homes, individuals and businesses were harmed by its use despite not having taken any part in the protests in which it was used,” Khoury told MEE.
While it has reportedly not yet been used by law enforcement in the US, the St. Louis Police Department began stockpiling skunk water after massive popular protests broke out in Ferguson in 2014 following a fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. The police department of Bossier City, Louisiana, has also purchased skunk water, according to records obtained by Defense One.
Private American security companies have also started advertising its potential use for “border crossings, correctional facilities, demonstrations and sit-ins”.
Amid reports of police brutality during crackdowns on the recent nationwide protests in the US, Anthony Lorenzo Green, an advisory neighbourhood commissioner of DC’s 7th Ward, pointed the finger squarely at Israel’s training of American police.
Green shared a video posted by an activist who linked the crowd control methods DC police were using to those used by Israeli forces when he had been in the occupied West Bank last year.
Amnesty USA’s Wilcken said under the current circumstances, it is unsurprising that those shocked by the police’s use of force are drawing such comparisons.
“Peaceful protesters across the United States find themselves under attack by police forces,” Wilcken said.
“Harsh and violent tactics employed against demonstrators bring to mind security forces from other parts of the world that have employed similar and even harsher methods,” he continued. “Israel is one such country.”