During a ride on a small bus in the Cambodian countryside, a Vietnamese tour guide asked where I was from. When I answered Israel, he smiled and said that Israel is a strong country, and that the country’s relationship with Vietnam was growing. It turned out that this “relationship” he was referring had to do with police and military training.
Traveling around the world, I am used to people describing their experiences with other Israelis, reacting to our politics and the occupation, or making remarks about the “holy land.” That’s why the tour guide’s reaction was so intriguing: how is it that Israeli security training is the first thing that comes to the mind of someone who not only lives on the other side of the world, but has no relation to the military establishment?
Over the past decade, Israel’s ever-growing arms industry has increasingly shifted its focus from the west, with Europe and the Americas as its main clients, to the east, with India now being the largest importer of Israeli arms in the world. The International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Israeli Ministry of Defense (SIBAT) published a new plan last week to expand its global exports. Along increasing outreach and sales by small military companies, SIBAT will be focusing on six countries — the U.S., Finland, India, and three unnamed countries in Asia — as targets for weapons exports.
Traditionally, Israel’s arms exports have enjoyed advantageous positions in the global market due to three factors. First and foremost, Israeli weapons and tactics are viewed as “battle proven” products – that is, they are constantly tested on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Second, they lack human rights conditions or restrictions on the selling of arms – as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte put it after instructing his military to buy arms from Israel only, “if we buy [from the US and other countries] there are limitations.”
Third, the exports rely on a very close relationship between the Israeli political system, the military establishment, and the military industrial complex. As SIBAT’s Director Yair Kulas made clear to the Israeli business paper Globes, “We have learned that there are countries with whom, if the Ministry of Defense does not take an active role, there will be no deals with Israeli companies. We are aiming at these countries, among others. When we aren’t there, deals are channeled to U.S. or French companies.”
These three factors make Asia very appealing to Israeli arms exporters as they search for new markets to sell weapons intended for large-scale “crowd control” and “urban warfare,” with little to no regard for human rights. These are the same countries that are likely buying arms from Israel in order to form a strategic, international, right-wing alliance. So, the question to ask is: who are SIBAT’s three unnamed Asian buyers?
From surveillance to war crimes
India is already named by SIBAT as one of Israel’s strategic priorities. Since his election in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has a strong personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has overseen seen a peak in India’s arms imports and particularly from Israel. In 2017, the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was awarded contracts in India totaling almost $2 billion, making it the single largest deal ever signed by the Israeli arms industry. The relationship is further strengthened by the manufacturing of Israeli arms in India, and with India allegedly using Israeli spyware to conduct surveillance on its own citizens. That leaves several options for the three “unnamed” countries.
Israel’s political and economic ties to the Philippines have also been growing, with a highly-publicized visit by Duterte to Israel in September 2018. From 2014 to 2018, Israel was the fourth largest exporter of arms to the Philippines, with $52 million worth of weapons sales over those five years. These figures have rapidly increased: in 2019 alone, Israel will sell at least $174 million in arms to the Philippines, including mortar carriers and drones, thus making Israel the largest arms exporter to the country. Interestingly, Israel initially published a $153 million drone deal as a sale to the Philippines, but changed the recipient a few days later to a “Southeast Asian country.” Other deals signed this year with unnamed “Southeast Asian” and “Asian Pacific” countries have been worth over $200 million.
Thailand has lately re-emerged as a substantial client of the Israeli arms industry. According to the UN Registry of Conventional Arms, from 2017 to 2018, Israeli sales to the country doubled from $9 million to $18 million. However, the actual unreported deals signed between the countries were much higher. In 2018, Israel sold four Hermes 450 drones for $28 million to Thailand, making it the second country in Asia (after Singapore) to acquire the drones. Another sale was completed in 2019, suggesting that other unreported transactions may have also taken place.
Singapore’s relationship with the Israeli military dates back to 1965, when six Israeli officers were sent to help establish the Singapore Army, including by conducting its first officers’ course and consulting on its military structure. Since then, Israel and Singapore have signed dozens of deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In the past five years, the two countries have only reported $61 million worth of arms sales between them, although the figure is likely much higher. Just this year, the Singapore military accidentally made public (and quickly removed) an image of its Israeli-made Heron 1 drones, as well as Hermes 450 and Spider drones.
Myanmar’s relationship with the Israeli military is much smaller in scale, but still significant. A UN report from August 2019 accused 15 companies from seven countries, including Israel, of selling military hardware since 2016 to a division of Myanmar’s military known as the Tatmadaw Special Operations Task Force, during its brutal campaign against the Rohingya minority which drove out more than 700,000 Rohingya and into neighboring Bangladesh. The military has been widely accused of committing crimes against humanity in the country’s Northern Rakhine State.
In September 2015, during a visit by Myanmar Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Israel announced it would be selling the country Super Dvora III patrol boats; according to reports by the Myanmar navy, the ships were delivered in April 2017. In October 2016, an Israeli military and police equipment and training company, known as TAR Ideal Concepts, posted photographs on its website of its personnel training the Tatmadaw Special Operations Taskforce. Widespread criticism of Israeli arms sales to Myanmar could mean that the arms exports will stop – but the fact that Israel knowingly sold weapons to the regime in the first place says a great deal about its lack of human rights considerations.
Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan should also be considered the possible “unnamed” countries in Asia. Kazakhstan’s ties to Israel are new and likely to grow following a recent agreement to not only buy Israeli drones, but to begin manufacturing them in Kazakhstan. This reflects a general shift in Israeli arms sales strategy, whereby manufacturing is increasingly moving overseas as part of Israel’s efforts to secure long-term military cooperation with various countries.
With Azerbaijan, Israel has been the country’s second largest arms exporter (after Russia) over the past five years with sales of $789 million. These weapons – which ignore the E.U. arms embargo on the country since 1991, and the U.S.’s de facto policy not to sell arms to it – are used both in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and for domestic repression within the country itself. In 2016, Netanyahu visited Azerbaijan and announced that the military deals between the two countries had reached $5 billion; these included drones that were used to bomb Armenia.
In 2014, Israel’s then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited Azerbaijan following the war on Gaza, which “showcased” Israel’s lethal military technology against Palestinians. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said after the visit: “We have beaten the Armenians in politics, we have beaten them in economics, and now we will beat them in the battlefield, destroy their villages and cities and get back our land. We have the most advanced weapons in the world.” Many of those weapons are Israeli.
With the Israeli arms industry operating under a near-total absence of transparency, we may never know exactly which countries Israel plans on targeting for future sales. What we do know for certain, though, is that Israel’s arms sales are rapidly expanding in the east; that those arms sales completely ignore all human rights concerns; and that the people of Myanmar, Kashmir, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pattani, Palestine, and many others will be the ones paying the price.