The story behind Israel’s shady military exports

Why doesn’t the Foreign Ministry care whether Israeli weapons end up in the hands of serial human rights violators such as South Sudan?

South Sudanese Soldiers. Israel has been arming the government of South Sudan, which has been committing human rights violations since civil war erupted in the country. (Steve Evans/CC BY-SA 2.0)
South Sudanese Soldiers. Israel has been arming the government of South Sudan, which has been committing human rights violations since civil war erupted in the country. (Steve Evans/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Israel’s greatest champions pride themselves on supporting a flourishing country based on start-up ingenuity that respects democracy and human rights. But do those who call Israel the “start-up nation” and the “only democracy in the Middle East” know just how embroiled the Jewish state is in selling arms to serial human rights violators?

Israel’s shadowy relationship with tyrannical regimes the world over reared its head Sunday morning when the Foreign Ministry announced its objection to a new amendment to a law that would restrict sales of Israeli arms to countries involved in human rights violations.

The Law For Oversight of Defense Exports, passed in 2007, forces the Defense Ministry to consult with the Foreign Ministry prior to selling arms to a foreign country. According to the amendment — sponsored by Meretz’s Zehava Galon and Tamar Zandberg — the Foreign Ministry would have near-total veto power over weapons sales — with only the security cabinet maintaining the sole authority to override the ministry’s objection.

According to the ministry’s legal opinion, the monitoring of human rights violations by foreign security forces is “important and deserves continual attention by the Foreign Ministry and all the bodies participating in the oversight,” but it is not important enough to set in law.

So why the opposition from the Foreign Ministry? The goal of the original law was to allow the ministry to act as a check on arms dealers who likely prefer to turn a blind eye to the implications of the very deals they strike. At a time when Israel’s name isn’t exactly synonymous with the great defenders of human rights, one would expect its government to do the bear minimum — even if for the sake of outside appearance — to make a painstaking effort and ensure that Israeli weapons do not end up in the wrong hands.

It’s not only Israel’s current standing in the world that should affect such a decision — the state has and continues to supply weapons to some of the worst human rights violators imaginable. In a recent interview with Haaretz’s Ayelett Shani, Chilean-born Lily Traubman described her efforts to demand the disclosure of Israel’s security and foreign relations with the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet, responsible for the kidnapping, murder and tortured of tens of thousands of citizens — including that of her father.

All the weapons of the Chilean police and army were Israeli. In Chile I went around with a photograph of my brother in uniform. At checkpoints and in searches I would take out the picture and tell them that this was my brother, who was an officer in the IDF – even though he was a regular soldier – and that did the trick. The Chilean army greatly admired the Israeli army. When Pinochet wanted to visit Israel, he threatened that if he were not received here he would cancel a large arms deal. No dictator in the world, however bad he may be, can exist without international support. The dictatorship in Chile lasted as long as it did because there were countries that supported it, and Israel was one of them.

…It’s clear that there is documentation of arms sales, and also obviously of the training provided to Chilean intelligence. There is information about the fate of the missing Jews in Chile. Maybe there is even information about my father. The people who tortured him, who killed him – who are they? Maybe they were here, in Israel? Maybe they received training from the Shin Bet [security service] here? When the documents are uncovered, we will be able to understand how the infrastructure of the dictatorship worked and how deeply involved Israel was.

Israel also sold weapons to the government of South Africa during apartheid; it sold arms to El Salvador during the civil war, where systemic and widespread human rights violations by the Salvadoran military were commonplace; and there is evidence that it sold weapons to the Hutu government as it was carrying out genocide against the Tutsi population of Rwanda (A Tel Aviv court rejected a petition to reveal documentation of arms exports to the Hutus).

Nyamata Memorial Site, Nyamata, Rwanda. (photo: I, Inisheer)
Nyamata Memorial Site, Nyamata, Rwanda. (photo: I, Inisheer)

Most recently, however, the spotlight has been on South Sudan, where Israel has continuously sent weapons and trained government forces since the country declared its independence in 2011. Itay Mack, an attorney and expert on the Israeli arms industry, appealed to the Defense Ministry to stop military exports to the country. His appeal was rejected.

In fact, in 2014 alone, Israeli arms companies registered a 40 percent increase in exports to African countries alone, raising further concerns that weapons may end up in the hands of either repressive governments or militants. The Israeli government does not publish details of all its weapons deals.

In a recent interview with Haaretz, Mack described how Israel is now filling in the gap that the United States and Europe left behind:

We know Israel is selling arms to Azerbaijan, South Sudan and Rwanda. Israel is training units guarding presidential regimes in African states. According to reports, this is happening in Cameroon, Togo and Equatorial Guinea – nondemocratic states, some of them dictatorships, that kill, plunder and oppress their citizens.

Israel’s competitive advantage in the arms trade is that it can sell combat-tested weapons, and military know-how, due to the fact that it has been holding a civilian population under military rule for almost 50 years. Or as Mack puts it: “The generals in Guatemala grasped that their confrontation with the [local] Indian population is very similar to the situation in Israel.”

Will that demand continue to outweigh the world’s growing impatience with the source of Israel’s expertise, the occupation, which Israel assures us is a temporary state of affairs? What will happen to Israel if its defense exports market is limited to rogue, dictatorial regimes?

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