How I snuck into an Israeli weapons expo

June 8, 2015

Sarah Levy spent a day at a convention center in Tel Aviv, listening to a stream of sales pitches about the latest and most innovative ways to kill, maim and repress.

IT WAS the perfect juxtaposition. Leaving Bethlehem through Checkpoint 300 in the morning and arriving two hours and four buses later at the ISDEF 2015 weapons expo in Tel Aviv.

At the West Bank checkpoint, I had to wait for nearly an hour, jammed into a mosh pit of more than 80 people, mostly Palestinian men, waiting for Israeli soldiers in cubicles behind tinted glass to decide to unlock the revolving metal door for a few seconds, so that maybe 10 people could rotate their way into the metal detector room. Then the soldiers would lock the gate again, forcing us all to wait, helplessly, needlessly, in nothing more than a theater of power and powerlessness. Again, again, ad nauseam.

Hours later, I'm walking into the Israel Trade Fairs and Convention Center from the back, having missed the main entrance. Without a badge, though dressed in my one fancy shirt in the hopes of fitting in as much as possible, I waltz through the cafeteria and down curtained halls, even into the expo itself, without being stopped or questioned by a soul.

A massive "skunk truck" on display at the expo
A massive "skunk truck" on display at the expo (Sarah Levy)

I call Tal, whom I'd emailed the night before after finding an address on the event website and asking if I could attend the expo as a member of the press. She answers, and we meet, and she tells me that Johanna, a beautiful young French-Israeli woman who looks much more natural in her formal attire than I do, will be my personal guide through the expo.

According to The Intercept's Alex Kane:

The fair is put on with the active help and cooperation of the Israeli government, and the ISDEF expo board of advisers is composed of elite former Israeli military officers. The U.S. Department of Commerce is the only foreign governmental body to co-sponsor the event...The country's weapons industry brought in about $5.6 billion last year, making Israel the eighth largest weapons exporter globally, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Before we can enter, I need to get a badge. Johanna looks at the long line of "Visitors" waiting to get their nametags and says, "It'll be quicker over here." We walk over to the deserted "VIP" table. The woman at the desk asks for my business card, and I fumble, muttering that I must have left it in my other bag. "No worries!" says Johanna to me, confidently. "It's completely fine."

I give the desk woman my passport and tell her I'm with Red Wedge magazine, from the U.S. "I just got in last night," I tell Johanna, without thinking, when she asks if I came straight from the airport. The woman at the desk prints out my badge, sticks a little "VIP" sticker on it, hands it to me, and we're good to go.

Johanna had been scheduled to accompany the French weapons delegates through the expo, "but they didn't show up for some reason." It turns out that a few days earlier, both France and the UK had announced they were boycotting the expo, but nobody had bothered to communicate this to Johanna.

So she was there and jobless, and then for some reason given to the VIP Sarah Levy, representing Red Wedge, an "arts and design magazine."

THE FIRST company we talk to is the Israeli ACS-Advanced Combat Solutions, LTD. Johanna introduces me at first, doing most of the talking. The man shows us their product--gun cages--and explains how they work. I'm nervous, but Johanna is into it. At the end, I ask if he thinks there is a benefit to being an Israeli company. "I mean, there's the name," he says. "Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad. But our weapons are combat-tested." I wish I was recording, thank him, and we move on to the next booth.

A couple stations in, I'm confidently speaking for myself. "Shalom! I'm Sarah, and I'm with an arts and design magazine from the U.S.," I tell each new vendor, propped at their individual booth. "We're interested in the latest in military design. The 'art' of weapons. The latest in defense technology through an 'arts' lens...Whatchu got?"

Somehow this works.

Based in Orange County, California, Surefire makes watches, flashlights and magazines--the ones that, unlike Red Wedge, hold bullets. "Most magazines only fire 20 to 30 rounds," the man boasts. "Ours holds 60. Usually in a shootout, the winner is determined in the first 10 to 15 seconds. With our magazine, while your opponent has to reload, you can keep shooting."

"Huh," Johanna and I say.

The man proceeds to show us some self-defense flashlights that he says make more sense for women to carry than pepper spray. "With pepper spray, you have to worry about which way the wind is blowing," he says. The idea with the flashlight is that it's so bright that you can blind your attacker for at least 10 seconds, giving you time to get away.

Johanna and I agree that the flashlight is actually kinda cool.

IT HELPS to have Johanna. Two young women--fresh air in a sea of middle-aged white men giddy on their guns sales--asking for a rundown of weapons accessories. (The best kind of accessories!) Magazines, headsets, earplugs, flashlights, flashlight watches, drones. And where I might have exuded the slightest air of in-authenticity, Johanna made up for it with her love for Israel.

"I like how I feel safe here," she tells the stern-looking bald man from OTTO based in Carpentersville, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. "I know that the government and the army are watching out for me."

Johanna's interjection is a welcome distraction from the awkwardness a minute earlier, when I asked if the men had a new favorite gadget. "Well, yeah!" said the Stern Man's super-friendly colleague, reaching for a device that looked like a skinny pager attached by a long cord to an iridescent set of ear buds. "It should probably be off the record, though."

"That's fine!!" I say. "Please go on!" "No--it has to be off the record," Stern Man says, glaring at me. I try to make small talk to cover over the budding tension between the two. They look at each other, a brief interchange I can't decipher. Super-Friendly Man is still holding the device in his hands.

"No, put it away," says Stern Man. Super-Friendly Man looks a little ashamed. "Yeah, you're probably right..."

To me: "Let's just say that some of our clients need to be extremely covert," says Stern Man.

This is when Johanna saves the moment, like a bus arriving in the nick of time during a torrential shower. "What do you think of Israel?" she asks them. As the Stern Man smiles on, happy to have a beautiful young woman talking to him, Johanna explains that she moved to Israel three years ago from France.

"It's not safe there, especially for Jews," she says. "I mean, they just let anyone in, even the Syrians. I tell you, France deserves whatever happens there."

"I don't think it's just France," Stern Man says, comfortingly.

"What do you both think of Israel?" Johanna asks. "Do you feel safe?"

"Definitely!" both men exclaim. They add that they love it here, even though they've only been in the country for about 48 hours, most of which has been spent inside the convention center.

Johanna is satisfied. "People say they don't want to come here because it's not safe, but I tell you it's the safest place in the world--much safer than France," she says.

We say goodbye, and Stern Man tells Johanna he likes her handshake.

WE WALK down the aisle and past the "VIP lounge" where expo attendees are lounging on cushy white sofas--across from AK-47s and IDF medic displays of fake severed legs--enjoying free booze and cookies.

After sitting through presentations about the latest in robotic warfare, thermo-vision technology, and "rooster" drones--complete with drone demos--I make my way to the live demo of "urban warfare." This consists of three soldiers making their way through sand scattered on the convention floor and then bursting into a mock Palestinian house, while a man in a suit and tie narrates their escapades.

Now they're making their way through the neighborhood...wearing gear from Regatta, Surefire, and TL5...They bust into the home! One is shooting out the window--with his Accelerator M16 from IMI Defense and weapons accessories from CAA--while his partner keeps an eye on the door, using his night-vision system from Ogara and laser from Steiner-Optik...Man down! It looks like he's been shot! Badly! In the leg!...Now they're carrying him away in a stretcher made by ACS.

As the crowd clears, one of the convention center's janitors, an elderly man dressed in a rumpled button-up shirt, quietly sweeps sand scattered during the demonstration back toward the display.

At the end of the day, I sit down amidst a table and a few chairs in an empty display where I've found an outlet to charge my phone. On one side of me is an array of pistols, and behind me is a wall with posters of every kind of bullet you can imagine. On the other side of me is a hulking 12-foot-high "skunk truck," hyped as "the latest in crowd dispersal!"

Palestinians call these massive vehicles "skunk trucks" because they have a water cannon mounted on them, which soldiers use to fire a putrid liquid so powerful that it makes it difficult to breathe and sticks to anything it touches, including human skin, for several days. Soldiers have even doused homes and schools with this nasty stuff.

As my phone recharges, and I'm trying to compose an email, two men walk up to me. "Want to do some work, sweetie?" I'm slightly confused and assume they are trying to put away the chairs I'm sitting on.

I ask what they need help with, scrambling to gather my things, assuming I need to move.

They pause, look around and say, "You're not with [whatever company makes the bullets]?"

I shake my head, and they walk away without apologizing. I think to myself that if I had a penis, they surely would have started with, "Excuse me, do you work here?" rather than "Toots, want to stop being lazy and pay attention to me?"

But this is the ISDEF weapons expo.

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