Israel would be embarrassed if it were known it’s selling arms to these countries

Ayelett Shani, writing in Haaretz on August 7th 2015, interviews Itay Mack, a Jerusalem-based human rights lawyer and activist, who seeks greater transparency and public oversight of Israel’s military exports.

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Israel is known to be a powerhouse in military exports, but what does “military exports” actually mean? 
It’s a very broad term, encompassing arms and security equipment, as well as know-how, such as that involving combat doctrines or the training of militias and regular forces.


As I understand it, we’re among the top 10 in the world in this regard.


All countries engage in military exports. The problem is that Israel is involved in places that the United States and Europe decided to avoid exporting weapons to. We know Israel is selling arms to Azerbaijan, South Sudan and Rwanda. Israel is training units guarding presidential regimes in African states. According to reports, this is happening in Cameroon, Togo and Equatorial Guinea – nondemocratic states, some of them dictatorships, that kill, plunder and oppress their citizens.


What is clear is that military exports are perhaps identified with Israel, but it’s not just government companies that are involved.


There are a few huge government corporations that are active in this field, such as Rafael [Advanced Defense Systems]. The others are completely private companies, created to make money. There are more than 1,000 firms and more than 300 individuals licensed to deal with sales. All the companies are under the umbrella of the Defense Ministry, which must authorize their activity.


How did Israel become a major arms exporter?


Israel was on the verge of annihilation in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. There was a huge foreign currency crisis and a crisis in arms and ammunition. The government decided to kill two birds with one stone and began developing the military industries, both to ensure that we would have our own means of production and not be dependent on others, and also to sell abroad. Israel was able to exploit its relative advantage: experience in managing an occupied population and coping with guerrilla organizations. On that “ticket” – know-how and means for suppressing a population – Israel entered South America and afterward Central America. The generals in Guatemala grasped that their confrontation with the [local] Indian population is very similar to the situation in Israel.


In the overall ranking of military exports, we are in sixth or seventh place, but in proportion to our size we are actually first, right?


Correct, and in terms of our involvement in human rights violations and aid in war crimes, the amounts are not relevant – in Africa, for example, even a few rifles can cause tremendous damage. In the Central African Republic, a civil war marked by horrific crimes erupted because a group of rebels obtained machine guns, mounted them on jeeps and attacked the capital.


Since 2008, Israeli military exports have soared, from $3 billion to somewhere between $7 billion and $8 billion.


Yes, that’s the average since Operation Cast Lead, in Gaza.


Israel, then, can sell battle-proven weapons.


Yes. There are some who maintain that Israel carries out certain operations in order to test weapons. That’s my opinion, too, though there is no proof for it. If I’m asked how I have the gall to think that Israel is conducting weapons tests in the territories, I reply that the allegation is not that Israel initiates wars to test weapons, but that the industries ‘hitch a ride’ on them and profit – it’s the arms exporters who market the weapons as battle-proven. That’s what they tell people at the international fairs. I heard it with my own ears: “It’s Cast Lead battle-proven,” “It’s Defensive Shield battle-proven.”


How did you become interested in this subject?


By chance. A few years ago, while trekking in South America, I met a girl from Ireland who was wearing [Israeli-made] Source sandals. She told me she was planning to hike in the jungles of Colombia, where Israelis train the security forces, and she bought the sandals so they would think she was Israeli and not shoot her by mistake. I started to ask myself whether I was safe there as an Israeli, and if I were not an Israeli, would I be under threat? And without Source sandals, would I be shot?


Good questions.


Ultimately, we are on the wrong side of history in most places. And the memory persists. It persists in Latin America. That’s why I decided to open an office and deal with it, because no one else wants to and there’s no funding for it. I understood that when Israel secures a dictator, the public that’s oppressed by the dictator identifies Israel as having chosen a side. Israel chose a side for us all, without asking us.


What do you say to people who allege that you’re unpatriotic, that you are endangering the country’s security?


Israel’s citizens are important to me, and I think I am acting in their interest, whereas the Defense Ministry is not and prefers its cronies. We need transparency and public oversight, because for decades all the mechanisms that were supposed to act as checks simply did not work. We see this in military exports that violate UN Security Council embargoes.


Surely no country conducts its military exports in full transparency.


Military exports are not completely open in any country, but there is a far higher level of transparency in both the U.S. and Europe. When arms were sold to Pakistan during the Bangladesh genocide, Congress established investigative committees. It’s understood in the West that this subject cannot be left exclusively to security personnel, because their considerations are inadequate. The public has moral considerations as well.


The transparency you’re after could entangle Israel diplomatically.


Obviously, not everything can be revealed, but the sweeping refusal to provide any information is also wrong. What does it look like when the Defense Ministry tries to protect its people and whitewash Israel’s involvement in places where war crimes are being perpetrated, and the courts abet this? There is proof that Israel sold arms during the genocide in Rwanda. The Defense Ministry never denied it. It’s absurd that Israel, which was established in the wake of the Holocaust in Europe, is hiding documents relating to genocide.


What would you like to see happen?


I want legislation to be enacted that restricts military exports to countries where there are serious human rights violations, torture, rape for religious, political or ethnic motives, executions without trial and so on. Something like American law that imposes clear limitations on military exports to all kinds of elements in Africa; already today the dramatic change it caused is visible.


It’s all very depressing, isn’t it?


Why depressing? I am optimistic. I think that what went on until now will not be able to continue, because things cannot be silenced. There will be no choice, because the testimonies are accumulating, and more and more people are joining the struggle. That’s the direction, and I am constantly telling the Defense Ministry that in my discussions with them: Remember that there is no statute of limitations on war crimes and on crimes against humanity. If it doesn’t happen now or in a couple of years, it will happen in another 30 years. We will not give up.


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