Hadas Weisberg, a 21-year-old student at the Migdal Oz Seminary, challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week on Israel’s arms export policy during his visit to the Gush Etzion women’s seminary, asking whether the country should tighten its controls on sales to states with poor human rights records.
In a prelude to her question, the Jerusalem native said Israel had been founded on “the principle of justice in the spirit of the visions of the prophets of Israel.” She then asked if Netanyahu would support a law that would increase export controls on Israeli weapons to countries that violate those principles.
Weisberg was referring to the sale to Myanmar – which has been accused of ethnic cleansing against its Rohingya minority – of Israeli-made patrol boats with weapons systems and advanced rifles, and the export of assault rifles to South Sudan, which is in the midst of a brutal civil war.
Netanyahu responded that some of Weisberg’s assertions were “incorrect” and, while not addressing the issue of arms sales, said Israel lives in a world where it needs to maintain good relations with powerful nations.
"There are several countries, including global powers, with which we have an interest in maintaining contacts, some of which are not exactly democracies like Luxembourg,” said the prime minister, in footage obtained from the Plus61J Facebook page.
“I also maintain personal relations with a not inconsiderable number of Arab leaders. I can’t tell you that all these countries are wonderful democracies. But I can tell you that we have a massive interest in maintaining and nurturing these relations, because they and us are threatened by the most dangerous, most dictatorial and most cruel country, which executes thousands of its citizens every year and threatens to destroy us.”
Netanyahu did not say whether he would back a law to increase controls on arms sales, as was introduced to the Knesset during the last session but was not advanced.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post
, Weisberg said she had “a great deal of appreciation for the prime minister” and his devotion to public service, but argued that Israel needs to take into account human rights issues in its arms-exports policies.
“A verse in the Torah says ‘The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground,’” quoted Weisberg from the biblical account in Genesis 4:10 of the slaying of Abel by his brother, Cain.
“The people in these countries [where war crimes and genocide takes place] have no voice, and no prime minister is looking out for them. We need to think of them, too. We can prevent much suffering in these countries and we need to take these people into consideration. Our rifles are being used against them,” she said.
Weisberg conceded the need of Israel to preserve relations with powerful countries, but said it should still be possible to limit arms sales to small countries with horrific human rights records.
“I have often thought about how I would have felt if I would have lived during the Holocaust, and I think the hardest thing would be the feeling of abandonment, that no one cares about us, and it is very hard for me to hear that we are abandoning people.”
In 2017, the Myanmar military made public their purchase of three Super Dvora Mk III patrol boats, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries, reportedly with weapons systems installed.
According to human rights groups, ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar’s northern region began in late 2016, and more than 900,000 Rohingya have fled the country due to a campaign of arson, rape, massacres and other atrocities carried out by Myanmar security forces.
In August 2016, the Israeli global defense contracting company TAR Ideal Concept Ltd. published pictures on their website of Myanmar forces training with Israeli-manufactured Corner Shot rifles, seemingly with Israeli trainers.
The document it published was titled “Israeli Corner Shot now in service in Myanmar’s Special Operations Task Force.”
ACE Galil assault rifles manufactured by Israel Military Industries have also been sold to South Sudan, where atrocities have been carried out since that country’s civil war began in 2013, although the rifles were likely sold before the violence broke out.
Rabbi Avidan Freedman, an educator and activist in the National-Religious community, described Netanyahu’s response as “between evasive and outright deceitful,” pointing out that Weisberg asked about weapons sales, not diplomatic relations.
Freedman said Israel had been issuing export licenses for weapons to Myanmar until August 2017, while reports of severe human rights abuses and genocide were made by the US Holocaust Museum in 2015, and the UN reported on mass killings of Rohingya in 2016.