Israel's censored arms deals

Why has Israel sold weapons to rogue regimes like Myanmar, and why is the public not informed?

Demonstrators attend a protest against what they say are killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar, in Kolkata, India, October 24, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS/RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI)
Demonstrators attend a protest against what they say are killings of Rohingya people in Myanmar, in Kolkata, India, October 24, 2017.
Israel prides itself as being a free, democratic society, part of the Western world. Well, not exactly – at least when it comes to three significant areas.
One, towering above all, is the occupation of the West Bank under the iron fist of the Israeli military and depriving its Palestinian residents of basic civil and democratic rights. Second is the sheer existence of military censorship, forcing the local and foreign media based in the country to adhere to its capricious decisions regarding military, intelligence and security matters.
The third area in which the lack of transparency is evident and the government has tried to quash information is military-security exports. Here, too, the censor is omnipresent and suppresses any information that can potentially embarrass the government and security establishment for its weapon sales to dictators, rogue regimes, violators of human rights and other dubious governments.
Myanmar is a case in point. In September, a group of Israeli human rights activists petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop weapon sales to that country military’s junta, which, essentially, is still in power despite elections last year.
According to human rights groups and UN reports, the Myanmar army is involved in systemic ethnical cleansing and war crimes against the Rohingya (a Muslim minority). It has been reported that almost half a million people escaped to neighboring Bangladesh after thousands were killed and raped, and villages were set on fire.
For years, Israel sold weapons to Myanmar, including listening equipment, communications gear and patrol boats. Also, TAR Ideal Concepts, an Israeli company, trained Myanmar Special Forces. Asked for its response, the company did not answer.
Successive Israeli governments were ashamed of these deals but encouraged arms dealers and state-owned industries to continue making them. At the same time, they used the military censor to suppress the information.
So how do we know about all these deals? Because the Myanmar junta proudly boasted about them on its official websites and posted photos of its chiefs visiting Israel. These included meetings in September 2015 between Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, which acts independently of the civilian government, along with other senior officers of the military junta, and President Reuven Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and the heads of Israel’s security services, as well as senior officials in its arms industry. Hlaing even wrote on his Facebook page that he and his colleagues had visited Israel Aerospace Industries near Tel Aviv and other defense firms.
Recently, I learned that Commtact Ltd., an Israeli manufacturer of communication gear for drones, has sold equipment installed on Chinese-made drones operated by the Myanmar army via Elul (an Israeli arms broker). Commtact is a subsidiary of the Israeli drone manufacturer Aeronautics Defense Systems. The Israeli government has been particularly sensitive about this deal not because it opposes sales to Myanmar, but because it feared the link to Chinese drones would anger the US.
Beginning in the late 1970s, long before the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and China, Israeli defense contractors secretly equipped China’s army, with government approval. In the last decade, however, Israel stopped military sales to China under pressure from consecutive US administrations.
Elul did not return calls for comment, but a spokesman for Commtact and Aeronautics confirmed that the company had sold equipment to Myanmar “according to Defense Ministry regulations and with approval.” He added, however, that the Defense Ministry had recently changed its policy and suspended all licenses to all Israeli companies, including Commtact, which permit dealings with Myanmar.
It's worth noting that the ministry did not issue any statement in this regard and hoped to keep the move under wraps. The ministry refused to elaborate, saying only, “We don’t comment on export issues.” The secrecy is aimed at not angering Myanmar, with the hope that sooner or later the ban will be lifted and business resumed.
It can only be assumed that the suspension of Israeli sales is temporary, resulting from public pressure at home, especially by civil rights groups. Some of them, in September, appealed to the Supreme Court to order the Defense Ministry to stop its sales to Myanmar and thus follow US and EU policies that have imposed an arms embargo on the Southeast Asian country. The state opposed this move and the court rejected the appeal. All of the deliberations were held behind closed doors, indicating that, in Israel, it’s not only the censor but also the courts that are closing ranks with the security establishment when it comes to arms sales.
Military exports are somewhat of a sacred cow in Israel. These are in the Israeli DNA, and the public generally supports the government’s policy and prefers not to hear about it, even if it stands in sharp contrast to universal morality, human rights and ethics. Israeli arms exports to more than 100 countries on five continents totaled $6 billion in 2016. This represents only 6-7 percent of total Israeli exports of goods and services, but the contribution of security contractors is not limited to exports. They are the primary suppliers of weapons to the IDF and employ some 100,000 workers, making them a significant factor in allowing Israel’s economy to prosper.
The customers can be divided into three groups. The first and biggest are countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations. Theoretically, there is no reason to hide the information about these deals. But even here there are exceptions. Singapore, for example, is an important market for Israeli arms, from boats to tanks, drones, radar and intelligence equipment.
Over the years, thousands of former IDF officers and Mossad officials have worked in Singapore as advisers and consultants for high salaries. In some cases, Singapore has invested in innovative military research and development of products in return for production licenses. For more than five decades, Israeli censors suppressed all information about this, which originated in Israel and prevented local media from reporting about the deals with Singapore, unless they had already been published abroad.
Even now, after Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, visited Israel a few months ago and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reciprocated, the censor still exercises its authority to suppress stories about arms deals.
The second group consists of countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations but which are ruled by dictators or are involved in civil wars or engage in human rights abuses, such as Myanmar or, in the past, countries in South and Central America. Here, too, the censor has stepped in to prevent publication of defense deals as is the case with Azerbaijan, which, because of its border with Iran, is considered strategically important.
The taboo on this topic was broken in February when Azeri President Ilham Aliyev publicly acknowledged that his country had clinched deals with Israel valued at $5b. over the last two decades. In so doing, Aliyev surprised Netanyahu, who was visiting Azerbaijan at the time. Alongside the US, India and the EU, the Caucasian nation is one of the biggest markets for Israeli military toys.
No wonder then that even when Israeli companies act in blatant violation of Defense Ministry instructions, legal authorities – the police, Justice Ministry and Defense Ministry – are reluctant to investigate. In August, I reported in the Hebrew daily Maariv that Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems used live ammunition when it demonstrated to the Azeris the Orbiter ‒ one of its “suicidal” attack drones. The demonstration was performed on an Armenian army position in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Two Armenian soldiers were lightly wounded, and the Armenian government lodged a protest with the Foreign Ministry.
Defense Ministry regulations forbid Israeli companies from involvement in the wars of other nations. At first, the Defense Ministry ignored the report because it was afraid of angering one of its best customers. But, eventually, under pressure from Knesset members, it had no choice but to suspend Aeronautics’s license to supply that particular drone to Azerbaijan.
The third category of countries benefiting from advanced Israeli weapons and technologies ‒ “battle proven” after being used by the IDF ‒ are those that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. These are mainly Arab and Muslim nations. Here, the deals are aimed not only at financial rewards, but also to gain a foothold in the Arab world and to receive payment with intelligence information or other favors.
In the 1980s, Israel sold US-made Skyhawk jets, which had been put out of service by the Israel Air Force, to Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world. The sale was approved by the US. In return, Indonesia gave Israel favors, including allowing Israeli experts to learn about sophisticated Soviet-made weapons being used by its Arab enemies.
In the past decade, Israeli weapons and technologies have been used to help Jordan (Israeli helicopters and drones on loan) and Egypt (intelligence information and Israeli drones occasionally attacking ISIS positions in Sinai). Because Jordan and Egypt have diplomatic relations with Israel, on the surface, reports about the special security-military ties shouldn't be a problem. But, once again, the censor allows information only if foreign news media already have reported it.
Another important market for Israeli military technologies is the United Arab Emirates, led by Abu Dhabi. For several years, the censor used its iron fist to prevent any reports in the Israeli media. This attitude proved to be absurd because the main broker in the “secret” deals with Abu Dhabi – an Israeli arms dealer named Mati Kochavi – revealed them in a public seminar in Singapore out of sheer self-importance.
The English writer, Samuel Johnson, wrote that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” It can be said that Israel’s Defense Ministry is quick to use “security reasons” as a pretext to justify every evil possible that is carried out by unscrupulous arms dealers, corrupt defense contractors and ruthless dictators.
I hoped to conclude this column with a ray of optimism that past conduct would somehow change. But, after many years of covering this field, I remain a pessimist and fear we will see more of the same. Rather than being a light unto the nations, Israel has become a weapons supplier to dubious regimes.