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Shin Bet launches crackdown on Israel arms industry over sales to China

Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles are deployed at blockaded Gaza Strip border ahead of demonstrations of Palestinians for the 43rd anniversary of Palestinian Land Day, in Sderot, Israel on 29 March 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh - Anadolu Agency]
Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles are deployed at blockaded Gaza Strip border ahead of demonstrations of Palestinians for the 43rd anniversary of Palestinian Land Day, in Sderot, Israel on 29 March 2019. [Faiz Abu Rmeleh - Anadolu Agency]

Israeli intelligence is reported to have arrested at least 20 Israeli arms dealers last month in a covert crackdown on the private industry, allegedly in efforts to rein in the sale of arms to China so as not to risk Israel's relations with the United States.

Israeli media outlets reported on 11 February that the country's security service Shin Bet announced it had broken-up a ring of arms smugglers who secretly sold attack drones to China. Many of the 20 individuals mentioned in the reports are said to have previously served in positions in the Israeli military where they handled arms developments and sensitive intelligence.

Some of the others allegedly worked for Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the country's major aviation manufacturer, and other related Israeli companies where missiles are manufactured.

Those reports, which represent one of the most recent scandals in the largely private Israeli arms industry, are reportedly under a military censorship that forbids them from revealing further information on the case. Outlets, therefore, have referred to the location of the arms sales as an "Asian country" instead of acknowledging the country to be China.

The fact that China was the destination country was revealed by the writer Richard Silverstein, who runs his Seattle-based blog called Tikun Olam which exposes Israeli security issues, and who credited the information to a security source.

READ: Why did the United States add Israel to CENTCOM?

Silverstone told the London-based media outlet Middle East Eye that this is not the Israeli arms industry's first controversial dealing with China, but one of many which apparently compromises its relationship with Washington. "There have been numerous similar problematic sales to China in the past, many of which have angered the US. Israel plays a dangerous game of both cultivating trade with China while trying to maintain the close relationship with the US," he said.

The weapons in question that were sold to China are the so-called "suicide drones", which are hybrids between a drone and a missile and which are able to hover for hours before being directed towards a target to explode. Although they are known to be expensive and inaccurate, it is predicted that states such as China want them due to the fact that they could be used instead of sending soldiers to conduct suicide missions or bombings.

An example of the use of those suicide drones was during the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh last year, when the Azerbaijani military utilised them against Armenian forces after purchasing the drones in 2019.

Although such deals take place frequently, this sale came at a precarious time "just as the US changes administrations, welcoming a president who is far more reluctant to look the other way regarding Israel stepping over the line than his predecessor."

The root of the scandal comes primarily from the fact that Tel Aviv does not regulate much of its arms industry and allows defence companies to operate on a private sector basis, without oversight or accountability.

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