From the Strip to the Border
In the weeks since Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip began, following the October 7 Hamas attacks, Republican presidential hopefuls have tripped over themselves to promise voters that, if elected, they will ensure not a single Palestinian refugee is resettled in the United States. “Not all of them are Hamas,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis conceded during an appearance at an Iowa sports bar, “but they are all anti-Semitic.” Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley agreed that Palestinians aren’t welcome here while reiterating her objection to Syrian refugees for good measure. “They want to blow up our country,” said Donald Trump, who promised to not only reinstate his travel ban from Muslim-majority countries but also extend it : “We aren’t bringing in anyone from Gaza, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, or Libya, or anyone else that threatens our security.” In the meantime, two Republican members of Congress—Andy Ogles of Tennessee and Tom Tiffany of Wisconsin—have introduced the GAZA Act, which stands for Guaranteeing Aggressors Zero Admission. It would prohibit the Biden administration from issuing visas to people with Palestinian Authority passports.
Fans of the forty-fifth president may believe that Hamas is already here. “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our TOTALLY OPEN SOUTHERN BORDER, at Record Numbers,” Trump posted on Truth Social on October 9. “Are they planning an attack within our Country?” Republican presidential long shot Vivek Ramaswamy asked how Hamas could have broached the “security that Israel has on its own borders,” before coming to a similar conclusion: “If it can happen over there, it can certainly happen over here in this country.” Federal agencies are already on the lookout for militants who, after bulldozing the “smart fence” that seals off Gaza from Israel, may set their sights on the United States. An internal intelligence notice distributed to Customs and Border Protection agents in San Diego claimed that Hamas and its sympathizers “may potentially be encountered at the southwest border.”
These warnings are not just unfounded and hyperbolic. They belie the dream at the heart of the Palestinian struggle: to remain in their homes, to reclaim their land. The more than two million residents of Gaza, who have been subjected to ceaseless carnage over the past month, do not want to be displaced once more; the freedom of movement they desire does not involve fleeing but rather tearing down the walls that keep them trapped in an open-air prison. But even those who might want to leave largely cannot. Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, as well as those living in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, were intentionally omitted from the 1951 Refugee Convention. Ratified just three years after the Nakba, the convention delineated the criteria for refugees that is still used to this day and established the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which the United States relies on to identify people for potential resettlement. As a result, fewer than six hundred Palestinian refugees have resettled in the United States over the last decade.
But such facts do not matter when it comes to the specter of militant Islam, which has haunted the U.S.-Mexico border since the beginning of the so-called war on terror. When Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of September 11, the formerly unrelated national priorities of immigration enforcement and counterterrorism were merged, a conflation with lasting consequences. The fact that the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States on tourist or business visas did not hinder the militarization of the border under the aegis of counterterrorism. In fact, the 2005 REAL ID Act, which created federal standards for state-issued driver’s licenses, also included provisions allowing DHS to waive environmental laws to build a wall through the borderlands.
Hysterical fearmongering about Muslim extremists infiltrating the United States via the southern border has allowed DHS to expand its mandate in the two decades since its creation, transforming Customs and Border Protection into the largest federal law enforcement agency. In this time, members of Congress have baselessly claimed that Border Patrol agents found “Muslim prayer rugs and notebooks written in both Arabic and Spanish” and “copies of the Quran” at the border, implying that religious paraphernalia alone was somehow dangerous. During Obama’s presidency, conservatives claimed ISIS militants could cross the border at any moment and accused prospective Syrian refugees of having ties to terrorist organizations.
Every year, Congress allocates billions to CBP and its sub-agency, Border Patrol, which now surveils virtually the entire borderlands and everyone in them. No country has benefited more from the arming of the U.S.-Mexico border than Israel, whose many defense contractors have sold their technology to a nation equally committed to spying on and removing an unwanted population. As journalist Antony Loewenstein argues in his book The Palestine Laboratory, the vast infrastructure needed to maintain Israel’s occupation of Palestine has given Israel’s defense contractors an edge in the international market. “Israel has developed a world-class weapons industry with equipment conveniently tested on occupied Palestinians, then marketed as ‘battle-tested,’” he writes. “Palestine is Israel’s workshop, where an occupied nation on its doorstep provides millions of subjugated people as a laboratory for the most precise and successful methods of domination.”
In 2006, DHS announced it awarded a contract to Boeing for the construction of a “virtual fence” along the border. The Secure Border Initiative Network, called SBInet for short, would be made up of a series of towers and underground sensors that agents could monitor from a command center, allowing them to surveil broader swaths of the border from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. Kollsman, an American subsidiary of the Israeli defense firm Elbit Systems, was among the subcontractors Boeing hired to build SBInet. But five years and a billion dollars later, DHS canceled the project. SBInet had failed to “meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border security technology solution,” said then-DHS secretary Janet Napolitano. “One of the lessons of SBInet was you’re better off going small than big, and you’re better off going off-the-shelf than innovative,” a border security expert told Popular Mechanics in 2016. To find off-the-shelf surveillance technology, DHS looked again to Israel.
Elbit was given another chance. In 2014, CBP gave the company a $145 million contract to develop a network of “integrated fixed towers” in southern Arizona. In a testimony given before a House Homeland Security subcommittee, the assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Technology and Acquisition said the technology had been used in Israel, on terrain similar to the Sonoran desert, and “what we saw in the demos was very impressive.”
Unlike SBInet towers, the tools currently used to monitor the border actually work. When CBP offered me a glimpse into their surveillance infrastructure in 2021, I watched agents use Predator drones, mobile surveillance trucks, game cameras, and motion sensors to track migrants. But even with these tools, Border Patrol is unable to apprehend every single person who tries to cross the border without authorization. Nor has the technology been able to deter people from making the journey to the United States in the first place. These tools have, however, funneled migrants into more remote areas of the borderlands, oftentimes at the cost of their lives, as study after study has shown. Despite this deadly record of failure, presidential administration after presidential administration continues to expand CBP’s infrastructure, and Democrats in particular have pointed to a “smart wall” as a more humane alternative to Trump’s steel-and/or-concrete structure. As of November 14, there are at least 390 surveillance towers in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Much like providing unconditional military aid to Israel, support for a virtual wall of drones, sensors, and towers is bipartisan.
Crucially, the relationship between Israel and the U.S.-Mexico border goes beyond the provision of technology. Working in concert with the United States, both the Israeli government and Israel-based defense contractors have also been involved in arming and funding the regimes whose repressive policies have led to mass migration from Latin America and beyond. After Congress blocked arms sales to Chile, the Pinochet regime got around the embargo by buying weapons from Israel. “The only type of regime that Israel would not aid would be one that is anti-American,” the former head of the Knesset’s foreign relations committee said in 1985. Tadiran Israel Electronics Industries, which was bought by Elbit in 2008, sold a computer listening center to the Guatemalan government in the 1970s so powerful it could “detect changes in the use of power or water in private homes and therefore note anti-government activity if a printing press was in use,” Antony Lowenstein writes. The Israel Defense Forces helped train Guatemalan military officers who tortured and killed tens of thousands of indigenous Mayans as part of a decades-long counterinsurgency campaign during Guatemala’s civil war. Israel armed both the Duvalier family, who ruled over Haiti from 1957 to 1986, and the Somozas, who governed Nicaragua from 1936 until 1979. After the Sandinistas toppled the Somoza regime, Israel provided AK-47s—some of which it had confiscated from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon after the 1982 invasion—to the Contras. And Yair Klein, a former IDF lieutenant colonel, used his military acumen to found a mercenary company that later trained and armed death squads in Colombia and Sierra Leone.
For decades, the people who have fled these atrocities and hoped to find refuge in the United States have been met with an increasingly militarized border, a hostile immigration court system, and politicians who deride them as “economic migrants” rather than asylum seekers. And now, the Biden administration has turned asylum seekers into collateral in its quest to secure more funding for Israel’s war on Gaza. Biden’s initial $105 billion funding request for Israel and Ukraine also included $13.6 billion for “border security”—far more than what was earmarked for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians trapped under constant bombardment. Earlier this month, Politico reported that the Biden administration was even considering adding a provision that would make asylum law more restrictive in order to sweeten the aid deal for Republicans. It’s a technical change, altering the credible fear standard migrants must meet in order to apply for asylum, but it could affect hundreds of thousands of people. Much like the network of drones and sensors that tracks migrants in the desert, this seemingly small shift is designed to hide the cruelty it enables.
Most Palestinians are already unable to seek refuge in the United States. If this deal comes to pass, vulnerable people around the world will be in a similar position, all in the name of arming a country which has for decades aided in their repression.