As thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee their country, Israel is facing accusations that it is selling millions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry to Myanmar. It wouldn’t be the first time Israel sold weapons to a less-than-virtuous regime.
Reports surfaced that Israel sold Super-Dvora MK III patrol boats while the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya continued, as the international community condemned the Burmese army’s campaign in Rakhine State, which some have called a genocide.
In late September, after an appeal by the Defense Ministry, the High Court of Justice issued a gag order on a decision it handed down regarding a petition to halt Israeli arms sales to Myanmar.
But according to Itay Mack, a Jerusalem- based human-rights lawyer and activist who fights for greater transparency on Israel’s military exports, “Historically, whenever there was a US embargo [on a certain country], Israel filled the gap.”
“Israel has always been one of the main weapons suppliers to many regimes around the world, including to countries in Africa and Latin America,” he told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
Israel sold weapons to South Africa during apartheid; it signed a deal with El Salvador during the civil war in the 1970s to upgrade its air force; it sold arms to the Hutu government during the genocide of the Tutsis in the 1990s. Foreign reports have found that Israeli arms manufacturers have supplied weapons to militias in South Sudan, where a civil war has been raging since shortly after the country declared independence and has left more than 300,000 people dead.
Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program, told the Post it was “surprising” to see Israel signing multi-million-dollar deals with these countries because the markets in the European Union, North America and India are more important financially for Israel.
“There is no economic necessity, no need to sustain the arms industry by exporting to Myanmar and South Sudan,” Wezeman said, adding that, nonetheless, “It is handy to have strategic partners like South Sudan if you do air strikes in the area.”
According to Mack, Israel’s role in providing weapons to these countries was for strategic political, rather than financial, reasons. He added that Israel has done the same in Myanmar, Azerbaijan and other smaller countries such as Togo, Burundi, and Lesotho.
“Israel is selling them weapons in exchange for votes in the United Nations,” Mack said.
While Israel has a gag order against details on its arms deals with Myanmar, the Burmese government proudly publicized a memorandum of understanding signed with the Jewish state in 2015, according to Mack.
A Facebook post on a Burmese news channel quoted Deputy Minister for Defense Commodore Aung Thaw as saying the MoU covers military training, the development of defense and security policies, legal matters in the defense sector, information sharing, humanitarian and relief operations, military education in economics, science and technology and military medical science.
In addition to the MoU, Aung Thaw said the two countries would promote defense and security cooperation, information sharing and the acquisition of technologies.
According to Wezeman, there were even rumors that Israel supplied different guidance systems for the Myanmar Air Force some 15 years ago.
“Israel is really good at upgrading and improving systems,” he told the Post, adding that there have also been unconfirmed rumors that Israel and Morocco were in talks around the year 2000 to upgrade the aircraft of the Moroccan Air Force.
“The Israeli arms industry works a lot behind the scenes and it’s where Israel has built up its military technological expertise,” Wezeman said.
He added that while the latest deals with Myanmar included equipment which is clearly visible, “one of the problems with Israeli arms exports is that they are usually small and not visible, such as eavesdropping and surveillance-gathering equipment.”
Mack, who has petitioned the courts several times, also noted Israel’s secret deals to provide arms to the Philippines, the Balkans, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
“Israel has a very tough time in Latin America. But in 2015, Jerusalem signed an MoU with Honduras, a deal bigger than the one signed with Myanmar,” he said. Similar to the MoU signed with Myanmar, it was kept secret by Israel, but the Honduran government publicized it during parliamentary session and said that Israel would refurbish the fighter planes of the Honduran Air Force.
“Israel in the past had relationship with military juntas in Latin America.
And now Israel has a relationship with one of the last military regimes, in Honduras, which is very corrupt and carries out extrajudicial killings,” Mack said.
While Myanmar may currently be in the spotlight due to the ongoing violence there, according to Wezeman, Israel continues to sell arms to a variety of problematic regimes that are rife with corruption and allegations of human-rights abuses, including once again Rwanda, Angola and Nigeria.
“There are places that Israel has military interests. And then there are others where Israel has political interests, and others still like Myanmar, where the state has a psychological need,” Mack said.
“No one wants to be isolated. So if Israel can find a country which is ready to stick with them in the long term, Israel will go far to keep that relationship, even if that means themselves becoming isolated and ostracized. It’s a PR catastrophe, but Israel is sticking with Myanmar, sending a message to their clients that they will stick with them.”