There are many examples of Israel committing war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UN has said that the building of settlements in the territories contravenes international law and could amount to war crimes. A UN report on Israel’s most recent war against Gaza also said that it found evidence that the state had committed war crimes. Furthermore, its booming arms trade means that Israel is also complicit in war crimes, and even genocide, in many other countries.
Last week, a bill sponsored by the left-wing Meretz Party to make it harder for Israel to sell arms to human rights violators, was opposed by the foreign ministry, which claims that the current safeguards are sufficient. However, Israel’s long history of supplying arms to countries with questionable human rights records, suggests otherwise.
During the apartheid era in South Africa, for example, Israelis trained the elite military units of the then South African Defence Force, sold tanks and aviation technology to its army, and licensed the production of Galil rifles at a local factory. Israel profited handsomely from this arrangement, and the apartheid government in Pretoria managed to gain access to state-of-the-art weaponry at a time when the rest of the world was turning against it in a most effective — and eventually successful — boycott and sanctions movement. In 2010, secret documents were revealed showing that Israel had even offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime.
According to journalist Jeremy Bigwood, Israel has also supplied, trained and advised right-wing groups and regimes across Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.
Israel was, for example, the main arms supplier to the Guatemalan army during a time when it was embroiled in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in which at least 200,000 (mostly Native American Indians) were killed or “disappeared”. Israel also became the main supplier of weapons to the notorious Pinochet regime in Chile after the US administration suspended all military aid. It reportedly trained and prepared the Chilean secret service; Pinochet and his secret service were responsible for the kidnapping, murder and torture of tens of thousands of citizens.
In the Salvadoran conflict — a civil war between the right-wing landowning class supported by a particularly violent military pitted against left-wing popular organisations — Israel sold weapons and helped train ANSESAL, the secret police which later formed the framework of the infamous death squads that would kill tens of thousands of mostly civilian activists.
Perhaps the most shocking fact is Israel’s role in the supply of weapons to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Over a period of 100 days, an estimated 1 million Rwandans were killed in the genocide, which targeted members of the Tutsi ethnic group. Israel is alleged to have provided Hutu forces with 5.56-millimetre bullets as well as rifles and grenades captured during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Evidence of this has accumulated over the years, some of it gathered by Israelis who visited Rwanda during the genocide or shortly thereafter. Earlier this year, an Israeli court rejected a petition to get the state to release papers documenting Israeli arms exports to Rwanda during that dark period. Attorney Eitay Mack, who submitted the petition, ended his statement with a quote from an Israeli arms dealer. The man expressed pride in his actions after a tour of the valley of death because his arms helped the victims die quickly; a bullet to the head instead of being hacked to death by a machete. “I’m actually a doctor,” he said.
More recently, Israel’s arms industry focus has been on South Sudan. Since the country declared its independence in 2011, Israel has sent weapons and trained government forces. A UN report accused the military and its allies of carrying out “a campaign of violence”, reportedly killing civilians, looting and destroying villages and displacing over 100,000 people. It also accused the army of raping and then burning women and girls alive.
As a result of the reports coming from South Sudan, according to Al-Monitor, the US froze military aid to the country in April 2014; President Barack Obama signed an executive order imposing an arms embargo and freezing assets of those involved in the fighting and war crimes there. At the end of the year, the EU also decided to impose an arms embargo. Meanwhile, in June, an official delegation from South Sudan attended ISDEF, the Israeli arms fair, without any apparent hindrance.
The same month, Tamar Zandberg MK (Meretz) wrote to Israel’s Defence Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, asking that arms exports to the African country be stopped. Ya’alon’s ministry remained tight-lipped as to whether Israel was continuing to sell arms to the war-ravaged country.
Ambiguity surrounds much of Israel’s arms sales but this is not unusual for Tel Aviv, which also maintains a similar policy with regards to its nuclear weapons. It does not reveal the countries to which it exports arms, in an attempt to safeguard its strategic ties with those countries. We cannot help but wonder, though, if embarrassment plays a part, alongside a fear of what this means under international law and the potential for devastating legal action at the International Criminal Court should such questionable arms dealing continue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.