Israel masked its arms deals to repressive regimes for decades. Here’s how

For most of its existence, the state has continued selling weapons and other military wares to rogue governments, even after claiming to have stopped.

People examine arms at ISDEF 2022, Tel Aviv, March 21, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People examine arms at ISDEF 2022, Tel Aviv, March 21, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In late May, Haaretz reported that the Israeli Defense Ministry refused to authorize QuaDream, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, to enter into a deal with Morocco, leading to the closure of the company. The paper also reported that the sale of the notorious Pegasus spyware, created by the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO, to Morocco was similarly aborted. Israel seems to have narrowed the list of countries — mostly Western democracies — to which it is willing to openly export its spy technology, a list from which Morocco is now officially excluded.

This apparent change in the Defense Ministry’s policy was likely brought about by the work of the Pegasus Project, a massive investigation conducted by Amnesty International and a journalist-led non-profit project, Forbidden Stories, along with other journalists and human rights organizations. The project has revealed a long list of human rights activists, journalists, and politicians across the world who have been targeted or served as potential attack targets by NSO’s Pegasus software, including Spain’s prime minister and defense minister, as well as the cellphone of French President Emmanuel Macron. The revelation led the U.S. to sanction NSO, sending Israel’s Defense Ministry scrambling to repair its relationship with its American counterpart. 

Though the Defense Ministry is usually reticent to share information on its arms deals with other governments, the media reporting on the deals with Morocco was relatively clear and confident. It seems that the ministry needed these news reports after its previous attempt at PR spin bordered on the absurd, with the Defense Ministry’s announcement that it would require the regimes who purchase spy systems to sign a statement pledging they would only use the spyware to fight terrorism and serious crime. Even if they agreed to do so, however, in many non-democratic countries, opposition to the government and even journalism can be criminalized as such.

Morocco’s poor human rights record suggests that it would likely have used Israeli technology to further repress its people. Human rights defenders can, therefore, justifiably celebrate the cancellation of these deals.

A woman standing with her phone next to the NSO Group company logo, outside the NSO Group offices in Sapir, southern Israel, April 2, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
A woman standing with her phone next to the NSO Group company logo, outside the NSO Group offices in Sapir, southern Israel, April 2, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

But the history of Israel’s relationships with repressive regimes suggests that Moroccan activists should worry about whether these deals really were canceled, and even if they were, that other weapons and surveillance systems sales from Israel to Morocco are likely to take place regardless. Given so much of the information on these deals remains confidential, we won’t be certain of their nature until — or even if — the files in the Israel State Archives are opened to the public. Until then, however, we already have access to unsealed files in the state archives from 1948 to the 1990s that show Israeli government officials and military industry leaders repeatedly giving false reports on the nature of their international dealings. In spite of statements they made to the public and the media indicating otherwise, telegrams in the state archives show that military export transactions frequently did not actually stop in response to public or political pressure — they simply continued in different and more sophisticated ways.

An arms deal by any other name

One method Israeli governments used in the past was to appease international pressure by publishing a statement about the cessation of arms deals. In practice, however, officials simply avoided signing new contracts, while continuing to execute existing ones. For example, according to a telegram dated April 9, 1982, sent by the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem to the Israeli ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dov Shmorek, Israel decided to placate the United Kingdom by announcing it would halt military exports to the military junta in Argentina during the Falklands War. But in reality, as the telegram shows, the supply of weapons to Argentina continued in accordance with existing contracts “at a normal pace.”

Another example is the case of South Africa. Yossi Beilin and Alon Liel, two prominent Israeli diplomats, claimed for years that one of their greatest joint achievements was halting Israeli military exports to the apartheid regime. In the late 1980s, the U.S. was working to ensure worldwide adherence to its sanctions, and Israel felt compelled to play its part. Yet telegrams in the Foreign Ministry files at the state archives, opened to the public a couple of years ago, revealed that Beilin and Liel knew at the time that Israel’s claims of ceasing to export arms to South Africa were untrue. 

Another series of telegrams reveals the almost satirical nature of Israel’s effort to disguise its arms deals. Beilin and Liel repeatedly tried and failed to physically remove a delegation of Israeli arms companies from the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. The delegation’s refusal to leave the embassy conflicted with the government’s desire to appear in compliance with the U.S.-led sanctions. In a telegram the ambassador in Pretoria, David Ariel, sent to Beilin in January 1987, he wrote: “In my opinion, the physical separation between the delegation, with its various branches, and the embassy is important for camouflage purposes (to the extent that its activities can be camouflaged). The embassy must appear to be an embassy and not an export-import company.”

Yossi Beilin attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yossi Beilin attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 9, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A similar situation is occurring today with the Israeli company Cellebrite, which sells equipment for hacking cell phones. Legal proceedings and critical media coverage pressured the company to repeatedly claim that in the last three years it has stopped providing services in Russia, Burma, China and Venezuela. But, in practice, the security authorities there stated that they continue to use the company’s equipment.


Another method Israel used was to send weapons through intermediaries on their way to the product’s final destination. On July 23, 1970, the United Nations passed Resolution 282, recommending that all countries impose an arms embargo on South Africa. On Nov. 4, 1977, it passed Resolution 418, making the embargo binding. These resolutions conflicted with the interests of Israel’s arms industry. According to a telegram dated Jan. 29, 1979, Deputy Attorney General Judith Karp gave a “kosher seal” to the sale of weapons to the apartheid regime through intermediaries, in order to circumvent the embargo. Karp explained that selling through intermediaries followed a precedent, and that doing so is no worse than selling under the cover of private companies.

The practice continues to this day. On Jan. 14, 2016, Haaretz reported that Israeli weapons were transferred to South Sudan, but when the civil war broke out in December 2013, only protective vests were sold. The article relied on anonymous “senior officials in Jerusalem,” who spoke with Haaretz just before the publication of a damning UN report on the matter. 

That report revealed some details that the “senior officials” omitted: the civil war began with a massacre carried out using weapons shipped from Israel, which were transferred just before the war began. The weapons were delivered to members of a militia that trained on the president’s private property and used them to massacre a rival ethnic group. Moreover, contrary to what the “senior officials” said, even after the war broke out, in 2014, Israel sold the South Sudanese government a surveillance system, which was used to monitor civilians who were later kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, and murdered. Another large shipment of Israeli-made rifles was delivered to the South Sudanese government via Uganda.

South Sudanese Soldiers. (Steve Evans/CC BY-SA 2.0)
South Sudanese Soldiers. (Steve Evans/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Using third party intermediaries seems to be especially helpful in selling spyware. Gone are the days when it was necessary to physically install a listening system in the telephone box of a particular apartment. There is no need to physically transfer Pegasus to the territory of Morocco. Any country — such as the United Arab Emirates, for example — that has warm relations with both Israel and Morocco and shares a common enemy with them can serve as the conduit. In addition, the Israeli Defense Export Control Law, 5766-2007, does not apply to the State of Israel itself, only to private companies. As such, the state and its security services can market and sell surveillance services directly, or sponsor the sale of private companies’ surveillance systems, without requiring a license, and then the Defense Ministry can claim to the media that it has restricted the list of countries for which companies can get exports or marketing licenses. 

Customers from Colombia to Liberia

Even if Israel did stop selling spyware, a whole host of other equipment could be sold and used to suppress, monitor, and strengthen security forces across the world. In other words, even if the sale of Pegasus or QuaDream’s system to Morocco is blocked, many other weapons in Israel’s arsenal could achieve a similar effect. 

Starting in 2014, for example, Israel sold surveillance and attack drones, missile systems, and Tavor rifles (to be used by police) to Morocco. In September 2022, Arab news outlets reported that Morocco had purchased about 150 surveillance drones from Israel. The sale of surveillance drones is no less serious than the sale of a spyware system used against mobile phones. Drones can monitor the movement of opposition activists, inhibit protest activity (by identifying movement or the beginning of a gathering), and even direct forces on the ground to stop or kill someone.

During the civil war in Sri Lanka, particularly between the years 2008–9, Israeli-made surveillance drones were used to direct bombings by fighter planes, artillery and battle boats — also manufactured by Israel — killing numerous civilians.

Yet another way Israel could help the Moroccan security forces intensify their repression and surveillance capabilities is by deploying Mossad officers to assist and train their Moroccan counterparts in investigative methods and “anti-terror” techniques. Though less technologically advanced, such a move leaves fewer traces than the usage of arms or spyware. 

Indeed, this training is one of Israel’s most popular products on the world market, with customers from Colombia to Liberia. In October 1965, the Israeli Mossad assisted in the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, a revolutionary political leader fighting for social justice and democracy in Morocco. In March 2015 the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman revealed that the Mossad helped lure Ben Barka into a trap and provided Moroccan agents with five foreign passports that helped them kidnap and disappear him in Paris.

In March 2015, Bergman conducted an interview with the former head of the Mossad, Meir Amit, in which Amit admitted that the Moroccan intelligence services had asked the Mossad for help in kidnapping and killing Ben Barka. “The request to help them get rid of the object sounded natural to them,” he said. “We have to remember that their value system is completely different from ours. We were faced with a dilemma: help and get involved — or refuse and risk [harming diplomatic ties between the two countries].”

Rafi Eitan at a press conference in Jerusalem, 2006. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)
Rafi Eitan at a press conference in Jerusalem, 2006. (Orel Cohen/Flash90)

In an interview with the Israeli investigative TV show “Uvda” in May 2019, Rafi Eitan, a former Mossad employee stationed in Paris at the time of the Ben Barka affair, proudly admitted that he advised Moroccan agents on how to melt the body in order to make it disappear. He explained at the time: “I’m not a bleeding heart, my job is to take care of the relationship with Morocco. That’s my job, not to save Ben Barka. I didn’t care about that at all. It didn’t interest me.” (Eitan was also advising Colombia in the 1980s about counter-terrorism.)

Tit-for-tat agreements

What Eitan and Amit said is indeed the bottom line that has been true since the establishment of the State of Israel. As long as this does not change, its military export policy will not change either, even if its Defense and Foreign Ministries will have to “sweat” more to continue “business as usual” while trying to obscure their work and lessen the PR damage. Military exports are intended to land political achievements for Israel, such as votes in the UN and other international forums, the renewal or creation of diplomatic relations, or moving an embassy to Jerusalem.

Issues of human rights and international law seem to be of little interest to the decision makers in Israel. Israel rarely criticized even the most abysmal human rights violations in other countries, claiming that doing so interferes in what are purely “internal affairs.” The unspoken expectation is that other foreign leaders will then abstain from criticizing Israel’s own human rights violations, particularly those against Palestinians. This implicit tit-for-tat agreement is one reason why so many countries — Morocco included — are so interested in purchasing weapons from Israel.

At a cabinet meeting held on Aug. 22, 1965, the minutes of which are now open to the public in the state archives, the Israeli government decided to approve the sale of 300 Uzi submachine guns to the military dictatorship in Bolivia, despite the reservations of some ministers. After Levy Eshkol, who was both prime minister and defense minister, presented the deal, Minister of Culture and Education Zalman Aran said: “As far as I know the affairs, the sale of arms to the Bolivian government is a weapon against the masses of the people in Bolivia. I would not want it to be our Uzi.”

Foreign Minister Golda Meir replied: “There is almost no country in South America … that does not face the possibility of a rebellion or an uprising or a revolution taking place in it, that they will not shoot each other. This means that we have to decide whether the entire South American continent is out of bounds … because it is possible that they will use them — then it would be impossible to sell at all. I would be happy if we only sold oranges, but the fact is that weapons are also sold.”

Stopping the sale of Pegasus and blocking the sale of QuaDream’s system to Morocco through the regular channels should be reported on, even welcomed. But history shows that what seems to be a success in preventing weapons sales to repressive regimes almost always comes with major caveats and workarounds. If the past is any indication, even if Haaretz’s report is true, Morocco is likely to acquire some amount of Israeli weaponry, surveillance systems and training; it’s merely a question of what exactly will get sold, and how. To use the words of former Foreign Minister Meir, it is unlikely that Morocco joined the Abraham Accords just to purchase oranges from Israel.

A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew on The Seventh Eye. Read it here.