North Africa, West Asia

The double standards of American sanctions

How the US punishes Chinese companies for Uighur oppression, but turns a blind eye on Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

Ramy Abdu
12 December 2019
Election banners of Netanyahu and Trump with the slogan "Netanyahu is of another league"
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Picture by Nir Alon/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The United States has traditionally positioned itself as the role model for and champion of human rights around the world, speaking out for dissidents and minorities in Syria, China, Russia and Iran. Indeed, the American government has frequently employed restrictions or outright bans on the sale of arms and other equipment used as instruments of subjugation.

A recent example is the U.S. decision to sanction Chinese firms that produce and sell surveillance technology used to help Chinese officials screenand detain Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority. In August of this year, the U.S. banned federal entities from purchasing and installing video surveillance equipment produced by Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera Communications. The prohibition was included in the government’s 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Less than two months later, Hikvision and Dahua were placed on the government’s “Entity List,” a blacklist that prohibits U.S.-based companies from exporting their products to the listed businesses.

The Chinese treatment of the Uighurs deserves international condemnation with “teeth.” However, were the U.S. government’s motives really altruistic? It’s also a fact that the Donald Trump administration is locked in a bitter trade war with China, and many of the business interests that have his ear believe security systems in the United States are too reliant on Chinese surveillance products. (That over-reliance is also making it difficult to enforce the ban. A practice called “whitelabelling,” in which technology is repackaged and sold under another brand name by another company, is a common practice.)

But perhaps the best evidence that U.S. foreign policy is not guided by concern for human rights is its highly inconsistent and frequently contradictory track record elsewhere around the world. Consider, for one, the lack of action when it comes to technology companies that produce munitions and surveillance equipment used by the Israeli government to repress, abuse and even kill Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Palestinians in these occupied territories live in an oppressive limbo. They are allowed no nation, no citizenship and no ultimate power over their own lives. Israeli forces regularly confiscate private land; imprison individuals (including children) without due process and physically abuse them under incarceration; demolish family homes; bulldoze orchards and crops; place entire towns under curfew; destroy shops and businesses; and shoot, maim, and kill civilians.

Enabling this matrix of control is a plethora of technologies, including phone and internet monitoring and interception, CCTV and biometric data collection, which have enabled Israel to surveil the Palestinian population on a massive, intrusive scale.

Despite this persecution, which is at least as visible and long-running as the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs, Israel continues to be the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $142.3 billion, with almost all of it in the form of military assistance—including support of surveillance activities.

At the same time, American companies are allowed to actively profit from Israeli oppression. The latest such example occurred just last month, with media reporting that computer software giant Microsoft had invested in a startup that uses facial recognition to surveil Palestinians throughout the West Bank, despite the company’s public pledge to prevent use of the technology to curtail democratic freedoms.

The startup, called AnyVision, is headquartered in Israel and has close ties to Israel’s military and intelligence services. On its board of directors is former head of Mossad Tamir Pardo, and Amir Kain, director of the Defense Ministry’s security department from 2007 to 2015, is its president.The company sells an “advanced tactical surveillance” software system ironically called “Better Tomorrow,” which is reportedly at the heart of a secret Israeli military surveillance project deployed throughout the West Bank. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that cameras “deep inside the West Bank try to spot and monitor potential Palestinian assailants.”

The U.S. company Cisco Systems also has established hubs in the occupied Palestinian territories that augments Israel’s visual-surveillance apparatus in Jerusalem. It has won an Israeli Ministry of Defense tender to provide servers and IT support to the national military.

As Ariel Handel and Hilla Dayan write in “Surveillance and Society,” “Israel can be…seen as a laboratory for population management and surveillance, which may be helpful for understanding the authoritarian turn in the Global West and beyond.” Moreover, the authors point out that the Israeli state is increasingly using these technologies on people within its own borders: “Any disruption to [its] doctrinal flow that implies, in however minor way, that the project [of occupation] is not accepted by practically everyone, is…met with intimidation, harassment and legal persecution,” they write.

What therefore begins with oppression of the “other” often spreads to a greater pool of people, even those belonging to an oppressor’s in-group. What is happening in China is happening to Palestinians and even their Israeli sympathizers, as well as to other groups and individuals the world round. We should all be concerned, even if we are not the ones being targeted—because if there is no one to challenge these oppressive practices, they will only increase. Abuses of ordinary citizens should be called out and boycotted wherever they are exposed—in Israel, China, and beyond.

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