It’s not uncommon for residents of America’s most heavily policed neighborhoods to describe their local cops as “an occupying force.” Judging by where many U.S. police forces get their training, the description seems apt.
Thousands of American law enforcement officers frequently travel for training to one of the few countries where policing and militarism are even more deeply intertwined than they are here: Israel.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Israel seized on its decades-long experience as an occupying force to brand itself as a world leader in counterterrorism. U.S. law enforcement agencies took the Jewish state up on its expertise by participating in exchange programs sponsored by an array of pro-Israel groups, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and the Anti-Defamation League. Over the past decade and a half, scores of top federal, state, and local police officers from dozens of departments from across the U.S. have gone to Israel to learn about its terrorism-focused policing.
Yet Israel’s policing prowess is marred by its primary purpose: occupation. Israel has carried out a half-century of military rule in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza, an occupation rife with abuses. The country’s police and security forces also regularly violate the rights of Palestinians and immigrants inside of Israel’s 1967 borders.
“A lot of the policing that folks are observing and being talked to about in these trips is policing that happens in a nondemocratic context,” said Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and author of a forthcoming book on global policing. “It involves either military policing, border control policing, or policing of folks in the occupied territories who aren’t full legal subjects in the Israeli legal system.”
While attention on the militarization of American police forces has intensified in recent years, spurring some reforms that the Trump administration has already undone, U.S.-Israel police exchange programs have carried on without much public scrutiny.
This week, a delegation of top American law enforcement officers is in Israel for the ADL’s National Counter-Terrorism Seminar, which includes training on topics, such as “leadership in a time of terror” and “balancing the fight against crime and terrorism,” according to literature by the group advertising the trip. More than 200 law enforcement executives from over 100 departments in the U.S. and abroad, immigration enforcement agencies, and even campus police have participated in the ADL program since it launched in 2004.
Among this year’s participants in the seminar is D.C. Metropolitan Police Commander Morgan Kane, whose attendance at the training earned the department a public rebuke from D.C. Councilmember David Grosso. “I am concerned that we are not doing enough to prevent the militarization of law enforcement in the District of Columbia,” he wrote in a letter to Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham. “Learning from military advisors is not what local law enforcement needs.”
“It just occurs to me that it isn’t a good idea, whether in Israel or another place, to go and train with a military or national police — in essence, learning from people who are better at the violent approach to conflict resolution,” Grosso told The Intercept. “That’s not appropriate for what we’re trying to do here in D.C.”
“We already have the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service, we have so many national police here, heavily armed,” he added. “We don’t need more of that, we need more of a community-based approach.”
A spokesperson for the D.C. police told The Intercept in an email statement that the department is participating in the training “to learn best strategies in combatting terrorism.”
“Expanding our knowledge on counterterrorism and gaining valuable experience for the next generation of MPD leadership is critical to the safety and well-being of the residents and visitors of D.C.,” the spokesperson wrote. “This opportunity will not allow us to deviate from our commitment to providing fair, unbiased, and constitutional policing.”
In addition to meeting with their Israeli counterparts, American police on the delegations also visit representatives of the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as border security and intelligence services — essentially taking lessons from agencies that enforce military rule rather than civil law.
“It fits in with this ideology of police as warriors,” said Vitale.
“The focus of this training is on riot suppression, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism — all of which are essentially irrelevant or should be irrelevant to the vast majority of police departments,” he added. “They shouldn’t be suppressing protest, they shouldn’t be engaging in counterinsurgency, and almost none of them face any real threat from terrorism.”
The trainings in Israel also fit within a broader militarization of U.S. law enforcement that is well underway back home. Last month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order rescinding limitations imposed by former President Barack Obama on a military program, known as 1033, that allowed police departments to make discounted purchases of excess military equipment, like armored vehicles and grenade launchers.
Obama ordered the restrictions in 2015 after public outrage at the deployment of some of that equipment during protests against police abuse in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere. Announcing the new measures in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the country, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called that equipment “lifesaving,” dismissing criticisms of police militarization as “superficial concerns.”
The police exchanges with U.S. officers are premised on Israel’s experiences with terrorism and its security forces’ handling of continued risks. But Israel’s record in carrying out its counterterror policies is checked with allegations of grave abuses. Founded amid a campaign of ethnic cleansing in 1948, Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza in 1967’s Six-Day War and has since maintained its occupation — including by building civilian Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, itself a violation of international law. Now, the same security forces accused of mistreating citizens and stateless Palestinian subjugates are training American cops.
Last year, the ADL’s training included meetings with officials from Israel’s internal security service, known as Shin Bet. The security agency was allegedly behind the surveillance, as well as the torture and targeted assassinations, of Palestinians in both Israel and the occupied territories.
The U.S. law enforcement officials on tour with the ADL also met with Israeli police special patrol units known as “Yasam” — paramilitary riot police whose excessive force and abuse of Palestinians is well-documented — and traveled to checkpoints, prisons, and Hebron. In Hebron, a city in the West Bank, some 200,000 Palestinians are barred from entering the old city center, where fewer than 1,000 Jewish settlers are protected by the same number of Israeli soldiers.
The ADL, a group with a nominal mission to oppose bigotry that has instead expended much of its energies on advocating for Israel, failed to devote much attention to Palestinian law enforcement. In 2016, the group’s itinerary included a single meeting with a Palestinian police officer — from the Bethlehem Tourist Police.
A spokesperson for the ADL said in a statement to The Intercept that critics’ suggestions that its programs contribute to police brutality and racism is “false and defamatory.”
“On the contrary, ADL’s law enforcement missions have a goal of doing exactly the opposite, by strengthening law enforcement’s connection to the communities they serve,” the spokesperson said.
In the past, the group condemned those drawing parallels between police abuse in the U.S. and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “There is a long history of using legitimate American social justice issues to undermine the Jewish state,” a top official from the group wrote in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests. There is “no rational connection between the challenge of racism in America and the situation facing the Palestinians,” the ADL official added.
Yet the criticism persists. The group Jewish Voice for Peace recently launched a campaign to bring greater public scrutiny to U.S.-Israel police exchange programs.
“These programs transform Israel’s 70 years of dispossession and 50 years of occupation into a marketing brochure for ‘successful’ policing.”
“These programs transform Israel’s 70 years of dispossession and 50 years of occupation into a marketing brochure for ‘successful’ policing,” Stefanie Fox, JVP’s deputy director, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “Under the banner of ‘counterterrorism’ training, high-ranking police and immigration officials visit checkpoints, prisons, settlements, police stations, and other key sites that are central to Israel’s policies of occupation and apartheid.”
Law enforcement exchanges are marketed as an opportunity for American police to learn about counterterrorism from the field’s self-appointed leader, but, for Israel’s advocates, they are also seen as a way to sell a particular audience on pro-Israel ideology.
“[They] come back and they are Zionists,” then-ADL regional director David Friedman said of the delegation’s impact in 2015. “They understand Israel and its security needs in ways a lot of audiences don’t.”
That may just be the intended outcome.
“They are trying to get the U.S. to see the world as divided into these camps of good and evil, and they want to tighten the U.S. commitment to Israel on the basis of it being on the front lines fighting terror,” said Vitale, referring to the groups behind the trips. “The whole project is a political project, which uses the police to answer a particular analysis of international affairs.”
To date, Israel has already been an inspiration to some controversial police initiatives, like the infamous NYPD Muslim surveillance program, which was modeled in part on the surveillance of Palestinians in the West Bank. Thomas Galati, the chief of the NYPD Intelligence Division at the time, had participated in one of the ADL trainings in Israel.
Israeli police and security forces may also be learning a thing or two from their American counterparts. In 2016, for instance, Israel passed a “stop and frisk law” modeled after its American equivalent, allowing police to “search anyone, regardless of behavior, in a location that is thought to be a target for hostile destructive actions.”
Palestinian residents of Jerusalem said the legislation is applied with “blatant racism.”
“We see Israeli police taking on U.S. stop-and-frisk policies, further adding to the state violence already facing Palestinians,” Fox said. “This deadly exchange goes both ways and encourages worst practices, such as racial profiling, mass surveillance, police brutality, and suppression of political dissent that already exist in both countries.”