Israeli Military Industries (IMI), the state-owned weapons designer and manufacturer, has been put up for privatisation. If there is one company that encapsulates Israel's hypocritical approach to the arms trade, crime and human rights, it is IMI; and if there is one weapon, it is IMI's "Uzi", the iconic sub-machine gun which for many decades was the company's darkest jewel. The Uzi factory is the latest component of IMI to hit the market, with investors already gobbling up other parts of the IMI estate greedily.
It is ironic that IMI was founded in circumstances very similar to those in which Hamas currently operates. In 1933, the Jewish paramilitary Haganah organisation opened a mortar factory hidden inside a leather tannery in Tel Aviv. The Haganah hoped that the smell of chemicals being used to process the leather would keep British Mandate troops and the Palestine Police Force away. Later factories were equally inventive; the paramilitary group's largest bullet factory was built underneath a kibbutz, which according to some accounts was built entirely for the purpose of concealing Jewish underground activity. These weapons were used by Haganah and its partners to attack British troops and police officers, and some attacks which targeted civilian administrators and facilities. Haganah also provided weapons to Irgun and the Stern Gang terrorists for the Deir Yassin and other massacres of Palestinian civilians.
This initial mortar workshop was situated almost directly on Tel Aviv beach, where Haganah, amongst other units within the Jewish Resistance Movement, was busy helping illegal Jewish immigrants enter British-run Palestine by sea. This was no straightforward task; the British had a naval blockade in place, much as the Israeli Navy now maintains one off the coast of Gaza, and early Jewish resistance groups spent a great deal of time working out ingenious ways to smuggle in people, supplies and weapons.
Making copies of Sten guns and inventing their own models, the operation was professional but limited by the British. Haganah leader Eliyahu Sacharov later converted the illegal weapons workshop into a full manufacturing plant, developing and testing hundreds of its early weapons, but not before he was thrown into prison by the British authorities for four years. Just as the military wing of Hamas will one day form the core of a Palestinian army, in 1948, the former militants of Haganah formed the backbone of the Israel Defence Forces.
IMI emerged from the concrete underbellies of the new Israel into above-board public sector life. Israeli fighters had used ingenious tactics to fight off an initial onslaught from Arab armies indignant at the new Jewish settlers, using a comically varied array of sub-standard weapons. It thus became clear that a first responsibility for the nascent Israeli state would be to get serious about arming its troops, rather than relying on ad hoc underground factories, copied weapons and an informal procurement process.
The Uzi was the first big success story of IMI, the result of a design competition won by a refugee from Nazi Germany, Uziel Gal. A capable engineer with an eye for ergonomic design, he realised that the fastest way for a soldier to re-load his weapon would be to have the magazine inside the grip.
From 1951, the weapon was tested by the IDF. It was adopted by the Special Forces before the regular army. The Dutch were the first foreign army to use Uzis, followed shortly thereafter by the newly-formed German defence forces; the US Secret Service began using them in the 1960s and 70s.
The Israeli government, which fully owns IMI, has also given the go-ahead over the years for arms exports to a wide range of human rights-abusing countries. These include pre-revolution Iran, Syria and Indonesia, as well as African states including Algeria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe. The regime in the then Rhodesia was also an early buyer; it was at the time a mono-racial democracy that excluded black Africans from the political process. The Uzi was manufactured in Rhodesia under licence, using parts imported from Israel. The Uzi sub-machine gun was for two decades by far the most ubiquitous weapon of its kind; some estimates put sales at over two million to conventional security forces around the world.
A notable and disconcerting side-effect of Israeli arms exports to unstable African states was that the Uzi became a weapon of choice for large-scale criminal activity in both Latin America and China, where it was bought on the black market. Though Hollywood has perhaps exaggerated the extent of the gun's use – particularly in recent years — many reports from the seventies suggest that cocaine-selling drug cartels used crates of Uzis as currency, alongside the Russian-made Kalashnikov AK47. This was compounded by the Uzi coming out of national service in Israel during the eighties, with many weapons eventually making their way onto the black market.
Support for Uzi sales to human rights-abusing countries is no exception in the sordid world of the Israeli arms trade. Customers for a wide array of Israeli-produced weapons have included Guatemala, El Salvador, South Sudan and Ethiopia during their respective civil wars. Israel was also exporting arms to South Africa during the Apartheid era. With good reason, Itai Mack, a lawyer with Rabbis for Human Rights, has noted that alongside China (though perhaps he should have included Russia, too), Israel is "the last one selling" to the regimes with the world's worst human rights records.
Iran makes for an interesting case study in this regard. Although Israel frequently criticises revolutionary Iran's human rights record, this is clearly only done because Iran is now openly hostile to Zionist politics and the Israeli state. From 1953-1979, when Iran was a client state of the Americans and British – and the second Middle Eastern state to recognise Israel — the Israeli government was happy to ignore the equally repugnant human rights abuses of the Shah and export Uzis, amongst other weapons, to shore up his autocratic regime.
For interested buyers, it will cost over a million and half dollars just to take a look at IMI's books. Though the Uzi is no longer the jewel it once was, the profits from its sales have been enormous, allowing IMI to invest in many more diverse projects. Like all arms companies, those books won't be covered in blood, but should be, perhaps more than most. Israel's record on sales of the Uzi shows that human rights are for Israelis, not for foreigners killed by Israeli weapons.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.