From Lasers to Lavender: Will Israel’s Dual-Use Technology Lead To Dual-Use Societies?

From Lasers to Lavender: Will Israel’s Dual-Use Technology Lead To Dual-Use Societies?


From Lasers to Lavender: Will Israel’s Dual-Use Technology Lead To Dual-Use Societies?


Cover photo: On December 16, 2023, hundreds of people gather in central London to express solidarity with the people of Gaza; calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to Israel’s bombardments. © Maryam Ashrafi

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On December 16, 2023, hundreds of people gather in central London to express solidarity with the people of Gaza; calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to Israel’s bombardments. © Maryam Ashrafi

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In the universe of science fiction, the raygun became a cliché already in the 1940s. Laser weapons always played a big role in fictional wars, but unlike other items from sci-fi worlds, they never seemed a good candidate for use in real warfare. Despite the significant amount of research about laser weapons, compelling issues with power, cooling, and range have plagued any attempt to develop such systems for years. Over time, Directed Energy Systems—the official name of lasers—became more of a joke than a topic of serious discussion among the military circles. This was the case until a few years ago: around 2017 they started to appear in military drills of the US’ army, with the Navy and Air Force quickly following. Since 2020 the Pentagon has spent an average of $1 billion annually on research and development (R&D) for lasers. China is working on them too, and Russia claimed to use them against Ukrainian drones. Beside these giant countries, the so called superpowers, a small state is taking huge steps forward in making directed energy systems a phenomenon in the battlefield: Israel.

In 2022, following a series of successful live-fire tests, Rafael Advanced Defense System announced that Iron Beam, a Directed Energy Air Defense system against short-range rockets, artillery, mortar bombs, and drones, had a good chance of becoming fully operative in two or three years. Indeed, in January 2024, Rafael’s chairman, Yuval Steinitz, declared that “Magen Or” (Light Shield) was deployed for operational testing in the ongoing war against Gaza’s population. This means that it is not active yet but shows that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) wants it to be soon, and it wants the rest of the world to bear that in mind. Given what is at stake, it is not difficult to see their urgency: the introduction of Directed Energy Weapons would mean a change of landscape on the battlefields comparable to those brought by rifles, missiles, or tanks.

Any advancement on directed energy is remarkable in itself but Iron Beam’s fast development is the most notable given that Israel was a state with a fragile economy and a negligible tech industry until the mid-90s. In only a few years, Israel developed into a tech giant with a complex and sophisticated hi-tech sector which was responsible for “48.3% of all Israeli exports in 2022, totaling 71 billion dollars, more than doubling over the last decade and growing by 107%.” A significant part of those numbers are devoted to technologies that can be used both for civil or military application, the so called dual-use technologies. Satellites, nuclear technology, chemical and biological tools, night vision tech, thermal imaging and drones, are all examples of dual-use technologies. The Israeli hi-tech leap forward was broadly studied and analyzed, and the role of the military complex in it has often been widely credited. It is well known that billions of dollars in annual military aid from the United States has helped Israel build its military, and it is not a secret that northern American policies of almost unconditional support allowed the Zionist leadership to tip the scale in its favor in the past decades. However, there are two structural factors that demand attention and are worth even more than US’s money.

There is an ongoing attempt of genocide in Palestine, making the territories an ideal place for Israel to test its latest weapons, which it sells to armies across the world. Each time the war waged against Palestinians changes from low to high intensity, IDF begins a new round of testing of the latest available tools.

The first factor is the unparalleled cooperation between Israeli military industry, tech companies and universities. This triple alliance is foundational for the state of Israel. Although the alliance formed in Israel’s unique setting, the “Israel model” proved imitable, effective, and doable: military and tech are, after all, two of the few industries that seems to thrive off geopolitical instability. The best deals are exactly at the intersection of the two, both for private and public actors. Israel’s exponential economic growth has already inspired other states to follow its model. The country I am from, Italy, is a perfect example of it, as I will explain later. The other, and most urgent factor, is that there is an ongoing attempt of genocide in Palestine, making the territories an ideal place for Israel to test its latest weapons, which it sells to armies across the world. Each time the war waged against Palestinians changes from low to high intensity, IDF begins a new round of testing of the latest available tools.

Protesters gather outside of the Google office in New York City to support Google employees' demand for the company to drop the Project Nimbus contract with Israel.
On April 16, 2024, protesters led by Notechforapartheid and Jewishvoiceforpeace gather outside of the Google office in New York City to support Google employees’ sit-ins in offices across the US, demanding that the company drop a $1.2 billion contract called Project Nimbus, which provides cloud computing and AI services to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. © Gaia Squarci


When I say that the alliance between military and scientific research, both academic and industrial, is a foundational pillar of the Israeli state, this should be understood literally, since it dates back to the first Israeli government in 1948. Actually, the idea to invest in highly educated human capital to “overcome” the lack of people and resources needed for successful colonization predates the state of Israel itself: the Technion was established in 1912, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925, and Weizmann Institute of Science (previously called Ziv Institute) in 1934. Science Corps were part of the IDF since its establishment in 1948 by David Ben-Gurion. It later became a unit within the Ministry of Defense, which was foundational for the country’s domestic industry. A few years after, during the 50s, the Academic Reserve (Atuda in Hebrew) was founded: there was an urgent need to train combat medical doctors since it was already clear that war would be an ongoing reality of the country. Given its success, the program was soon expanded to include any kind of doctors, not just medical but also engineers, software programmers, scientists from various fields. Also law, social science, Middle Eastern studies and political science personnel were included, although with lower participation rates.

“Since we do not exceed them in quantity, we have to suppress them in quality,” said Ben-Gurion to the IDF in 1981.

In a country with compulsory conscription, where every citizen is also a soldier, it is evident that relations between civil society and the military are closer than in places where military service is reserved for volunteers. The Zionist leadership has always wanted to ensure this exchange, the Academic Reserve being only one way amongst many others: funding for academic research laboratories, research institutes or jointly managed single projects, leadership figures moving from the military to the civilian sector and vice versa.

Fast forwarding throughout the years, the Academic Reserve grows along with the relevance of the technology sector in Israel. Scenarios change through the decades, shaping different phases, but the effort Israel puts into being a global leader in the high-tech sector remains the same. Traditional military organizations were the main actor for technological innovation, creating tools that often found applications in civilian industries. That is how the story went for many innovations such as the internet or GPS.

Right after the turn of the millenia, the situation changes. After the attacks of Al-Qaida on New York and Washington during 9/11, the US government started the “war on terror”. This led to a huge global growth in the homeland security sector, meaning billions of dollars for new missiles, drones and surveillance equipment—all products Israel had already invested a lot in by then. In the following years, Israel’s “defense” sector skyrocketed, its ability to profit from the occupation improved, and the war against terrorists that Israel claimed to be fighting all along had spread globally. Terrorism was suddenly everywhere, and every state had to defend itself against it. Who decides whom the terrorists are and why, case by case, did not matter as much as being ready against their attacks.

The Al-Qaeda attacks in the US strengthened Israel’s position on a global scale and, more importantly, put its military landscape in the spotlight. Israel captured the attention and interest of global leaders and army chiefs as its expertise in homeland security was praised all over the world. Israeli equipment, both ideological and material, became the best answer to acute security questions.

The Islamophobic and anti-Arab rhetoric, the narrative of surgical attacks, intelligent bombs, and preventive interventions, and even the description of civilian casualties as “collateral damage” later became hegemonic around the world largely due to George W. Bush. Yet it must be noted, that these concepts were borrowed from an Israeli propaganda playbook assembled during the war with Lebanon.1

Antony Loewenstein The Palestine Laboratory book cover.

Israeli professor Neve Gordon, as quoted by Antony Loewenstein in his brilliant book The Palestine Laboratory (2023), argued that the “Israeli experience in fighting terror is attractive not only because Israel manage to kill ‘terrorists’ (the militaristic worldview), but also because killing terrorists is not necessarily adverse to neoliberal economic objectives, and actually advances them.” Undeniably the profits from waging a continuous war brought Israel to live an “economic miracle” as the cover of the New York Times best-seller Start-Up Nation: the Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle says. The book, written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, shows how society’s militarization and technologization went in parallel and how one pulled up the other in a “virtuous circle” for Israeli economy and society. The message is quite clear: “military tech is the best investment you can make, look at us, business is booming.”

Bridging the gaps

The gigantic amount of global capital put in the security of the early 2000s resulted in its spilling “out of its old nation-state containers to become a feature of everyday life, at work, at home, at play, on the move.”2 In the past century, it was mainly military organizations that led research and development, creating new technologies that often found applications in civilian industries. Nowadays, startups are at the forefront of technological breakthroughs most of the time, and things go the other way: innovations conceived for civilian applications are monitored and acquired by armies to find out how they can be used for military innovation. Hence, the biggest market today is in dual-use technology, the kind of technology that can serve different applications, with combat and surveillance always included among them.

To keep up with the startup world, the Israeli Ministry of Defense launched “Innofense” in 2019. It is an innovation hub meant to strengthen the relationship between Israel’s civilian and military markets by enabling the ministry and the IDF to adapt civilian technologies for “security needs.” The Israeli company SOSA HLS, one of the operating partners for Innofense, wrote in a blog post: “We are committed to bridging the gap between defense and civilian technologies to address the unique needs of HLS & defense organizations.”3 The gap they talk about is the one between military and civil technology: what cannot be used for war, should be “bridged” to military use. The ever-deepening militarization of society through its technologization is the recipe Israel proposes for the future of the world.

In 2023, The Hatch, a HLS-sponsored twin project of Innofense opened in Singapore. But, unlike miracles, economic growth always has a cost, the lives of the Palestinian people in this case. I have already mentioned how the IDF gets the chance to try its prototype against people in Palestine, allowing Israel to trade their weapons as “battle proven.” Such a label significantly increases profits since what is combat tested is preferable to equipment that were just experimented on in labs or military drills.

This mechanism was already exposed in the 2013 documentary “The Lab” by Yotam Feldman and was investigated on the news, in reports, and in books—one of the latest being The Palestine Laboratory. This hideous reality can be seen through what generals and entrepreneurs say openly: “This [after 7th October] is the finest hour of the defense industries” said Michal Mor, CEO of Smart Shooter, inventor of SMASH, a smart fire control system, during an interview.

In an article addressing how Israel could profit from the Ukraine-Russia war, Douglas Bloomfield a former chief lobbyist for the powerful pro-Israel US lobby group AIPAC, wrote: “War may be hell but clearly it is good for business.” The Israel Country Commercial Guide, a report from US International Trade Administration, fully confirms that: “Israeli defense exports hit a new record in 2022, totaling $12.546 billion, showing a 11% increase since 2021 ($11.3 billion), Israel’s defense exports have reached a new peak for the second consecutive time, a remarkable 65% increase within five years.” Because of the war on Gaza, and the unseen amount of death and destruction it is producing, forecasters are expecting even higher sales for 2024. In the horrible past six months, Israel obviously continued to put forward its formula for testing new msilitary technologies in Gaza.

As was mentioned earlier, the operational tests for the Iron Beam, would take what is already considered the world’s most advanced air defense system to a level of power hitherto unimaginable. Yet the latest piece of news is about the application of AI, with the targeting system Lavender. The software was developed by the IDF elite intelligence division, Unit 8200, which could be compared to the US National Security Agency when considering its relationship with the government, or, according to The Start-Up Nation authors, to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although recently the head of this unit exposed his identity online by mistake, six agents from this unit spoke to journalist and filmmaker Yuval Abrahams who published his article in the magazine +972: “Formally, the Lavender system is designed to mark all suspected operatives in the military wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), including low-ranking ones, as potential bombing targets.”

The sources told Yuval Abraham that in the first week of war, Lavender clocked 37,000 Palestinians as suspected militants for possible air strikes at any moment or place, including their homes. The IDF gave a green light for using the AI software kill list, “with no requirement to thoroughly check why the machine made those choices or to examine the raw intelligence data on which they were based. One source stated that human personnel often served only as a ‘rubber stamp’ for the machine’s decisions, adding that, normally, they would personally devote only about ‘20 seconds’ to each target before authorizing a bombing — just to make sure the Lavender-marked target is male.”

Another software, disturbingly named “Where’s Daddy?” was in charge of tracking the targeted individuals and carrying out bombings. This happened mostly at night in their homes, a way easier shot than the ones during combat or in any military situation. The leak seems confirmed by the unprecedented amount of destruction unleashed on Gaza and the death of more than 33.000 people. Israel will likely soon find buyers for both Lavender and Where’s Daddy?, most probably they will be used somewhere else in the world, and not necessarily only in war scenarios.

The “efficiency” of the software is not based on information gathered on the battlefield, most of the data is actually not war related at all: they come from everyday life interaction, such as Whatsapp groups, social media connections, and phone call logs. The mechanism of Lavender, as noted by Yuval Abraham, seems exactly the same as the one described in the book The Human-Machine Team (pdf) by an anonymous “Brigadier General Y.S.”. He was recently identified as the commander of unit 8200, the same man that outed his identity through Gmail. In a paragraphs titled “Model” he addresses how “the Facebook model shows how a machine can take the data and learn about potential friends. A target machine needs to build a model to create new targets and figure out whether or not they are manned.” He then continues explaining which particular features could be included in this model, similar to Facebook but for generating targets. “For example, people who are with a Hezbollah member in a WhatsApp group, people who get new cell phones every few months, those who change their addresses frequently, etc.”

What does it mean to be in a WhatsApp group with a member of Hezbollah (or Hamas)? It is unlikely that any of these organizations coordinate military actions via Whatsapp, but at the same time I believe many of the members can be in various group chats with strangers. Neighborhood chats, information broadcasts, parental Whatsapp groups even are some examples that me and almost every human being with a phone use. Facing these questions, the role of companies like Meta or any big tech companies should be investigated properly. Did they provide any of the information used by Lavender or Where’s Daddy? Exactly like phones there are many items of daily use that are not just at use in war, drones are a perfect example: they are used on every frontline of the world, but they are also deployed for filming, for agriculture, architecture, or recognition purposes. For example, Frontex—the European agency for “border management”—uses Israeli drones to patrol the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in the death of thousands of people.

Dual-use societies

There are “direct” ways in which Israel legitimizes its colonial regime, such as bankrolling global wars and militarization of societies with its flourishing weapon and surveillance market. But I believe other means should not be underestimated, because there are plenty of less violent and much subtler ways in which the Israeli societal model can be implemented. Academic collaboration, cultural exchange, economic agreements; none of these require a domestic conflict. World Universities spar in a very different scenario than the one super-fast changing market of startups, but they still need to be competitive, which means investing a lot in dual-use technologies. The problem of dual-use is an old one: it has arisen at least since the early 1900s with the relationship between the advance of discoveries in chemistry and the application of those discoveries to the production of weapons during the First World War.

Of course the dual-use issue cannot be definitively solved, since it is often more about the methodology of the research rather than its purpose: when a bio-scientist studying human DNA finds out a new way to intervene, that newly discovered method could be both used to find a new cure for a disease, but also to create super soldiers—the same path, different directions. Surely, the chance to take the wrong direction should not stop anyone from walking. Academic ethical committees can monitor the fairness of the process used by their employee, the bio-scientist, but that is it, what happens next, it is in other’s hands—armed ones usually—in the end it does not matter how well the committee did their job. While it is true that the use of any discovery cannot be predicted in advance, this argument seems more used by academic institutions to sidestep the various political, ethical and social issues that collaborations with the war industry pose.

When the Polytechnic of Turin (PoliTo) began its collaboration with the Haifa’s Technion in 2013, it did not do so on war research projects; the partnership, still ongoing, is mostly about medical engineering applied to treatment and diagnosis, but also the management of health care facilities. There is no war involved in the memorandum of understanding signed by the two universities. PoliTo is not producing weapons with Technion, that is true, but people hired in the projects they share are working daily in a team with someone who does.

The D9 remote-controlled bulldozer, widely deployed in the destruction of Palestinian homes, is an invention of Technion, as well as the electronic detection devices used for the Wall in the West Bank, and of course many different models of drones came out of their labs. They had, and have several partnerships with both Rafael and Elbit, which is the other titan of Israeli weapons companies. After all, we learned from the story of the Academic Reserve that the relationship between the army and universities was planned to be very tight from the beginning. After knowing just a little more about Technion, the idea that PoliTo partnering up with this institution is not contributing to the global war machine, becomes less certain. The same applies to collaboration with Leonardo SpA and its many branches.

Vigil by Southampton Friends of Palestine outside Leonardo's factory in Southampton, UK, on March 20, 2024.
Vigil by Southampton Friends of Palestine outside Leonardo’s factory in Southampton, UK, on March 20, 2024. © Alice Louisa

Leonardo is the biggest European weapons company, a giant multinational whose profits come mostly from arms trading. Even the Pope, head of the Catholic church, an institution that sponsored many wars in history, rejected a donation of 1.5 million euros to the Bambin Gesù hospital in Rome because it came from Leonardo. The company management responded that “in all the current theaters of war, starting with Ukraine and the Middle East, there is no offensive system in our production”—in other words, their weapons are not offensive, but defensive—but the money was not accepted.

Despite what Leonardo says, the IDF posted a strike from an Israeli navy “Sa’ar 7” class corvette on October 14, 2023 on their Youtube channel. Warships are shown off the coast of Gaza in the clip, firing and striking at northern urban areas of the Strip. The shelling on areas inhabited by civilians is carried out with the 76mm Oto Melara gun. It is a multi-feeding super-rapid naval gun built at the Leonardo plant in La Spezia, Italy. Oto Melara guns are used by more than 50 navies in the world.

Aerospace is a big part of the company, which makes war helicopters as well as doing research for both NASA and the European Space Agency. The latter are exactly the kind of research they work on with Politecnico. The smokiness of the dual-use argument works both for many products that Leonardo sells but also for the company itself: it’s not just war, there are spaceships too! It does not matter if the projects with Technion or Leonardo are not about developing weapons, the collaboration cleans the image of Leonardo, which can advertise itself as something more nuanced than a weapon factory.

After a while the line between an army company and any other civilian institution gets more and more blurred; so much so that it is pointless to even draw a line anymore: we are one big happy dual-use society. Fortunately, a lot of people, especially the young, are not buying it. Alongside the historical boycott campaign from the BDS movement, many groups started to advocate against collaboration with Israeli universities since October 7. The communities I have talked to are heterogenous, students from different faculties, professors and researchers, administration staff; all worried about being lurked into the military agenda, whether they like it, and know it, or not. Their worries are concrete and should be shared by all of us. If the Israeli system reproduces itself in the world, everyone loses. In the first place those peoples who are exposed to the inhuman savagery that Palestinians know so well, but also the others who would survive, numbed, complicit, or hopelessly useless in the face of massacres of this magnitude.


  1. Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation, Chapter 9 “Surgical Precision,” Oxford University Press, 2006. ↩︎
  2. David Lyon, ed., Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Digital Discrimination, p. 11, Routledge, 2003. ↩︎
  3. An article “SOSA HLS 2023: Powering Security Through Innovation” at SOSA corporate blog, January 2024. ↩︎

Maria Edgarda Marcucci

Maria Edgarda Marcucci is an Italian author and writer. Her works focus on global conflict and social justice.

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