The Israeli Guns That Took Part in the Rwanda Genocide

A Tel Aviv court has rejected a petition to reveal documentation of arms exports to the Hutu government in the '90s.

A Rwandan survivor of the 1994 Genocide prays over the bones of genocide victims at a mass grave in Nyamata, Rwanda Tuesday, April 6, 2004.
AP

The Tel Aviv District Court is located on Chaim Weizmann Street, named after the Zionist leader who was eventually defeated by his partner and rival David Ben-Gurion. Weizmann’s moderation and caution were pushed aside by Ben-Gurion’s pragmatic activism.

In Room 1401 of that court late last month, a story was told about which other countries have said nothing, even though Israeli Jews have done the inconceivable. Judge Orna Levy heard the petition of Prof. Yair Auron et al submitted by attorney Eitay Mack. The goal was to get the state to release papers documenting Israeli arms exports to Rwanda during the genocide 20 years ago.

Mack and Auron told Levy over and over that the burden of history rested on her shoulders; they used expressions like “historic hearing” and “historic moment.” At times, Levy seemed a bit taken aback by the magnitude of the affair. The tiny courtroom and the number of people present — around 10 — created a wide gap between the scene and the subject matter.

Though Petition 3767-10-14 was submitted based on the Freedom of Information Law, the topic was a historical and moral drama of far greater scope than the public’s access to information. Responding to the petition for the state were six officials from the Defense Export Controls Agency’s inspection department, the Defense Ministry and the official tasked with implementing the Freedom of Information Law. They sat on two benches, three men and three women, silent and buttoned-up, alongside their lead attorney, Limor Ron.

The one who seemed the most senior, older than his colleagues, wore a serious expression and a pin in the shape of the state’s emblem, the seven-branched menorah. He and his colleagues didn’t say a word during the second part of the hearing, which was open to the public. Some of them occasionally took notes.

Besides two representatives of the petitioners and one reporter, the general public consisted of three students. One said he had come from an African studies department. This entourage received the dubious honor of gathering outside Room 1401; much to the petitioners' displeasure, and as is often the convention, the first half of the hearing took place in the presence of one side.

During that half, the respondents’ representatives were supposed to show the judge classified material proving that the publication of the papers could endanger the country’s security and/or its citizens. This reflects Statute 9A of the Freedom of Information Law. After the half hour with the judge behind closed doors, the room opened up to the petitioners. Besides a few technical remarks by attorney Ron, the state didn’t see fit to utter a word during the hearing.

Only 100 days

According to UN officials, 1 million men, women and children were massacred in Rwanda in the space of 100 days. At that pace, an average of tens of thousands of people were killed daily — faster than the annihilation of Hungary’s Jews during the final years of the Holocaust. It is apparently the fastest pace of genocide in human history.

The murderers were members of the Hutu tribe, the majority group in the small and impoverished Central African country of Rwanda. The victims were mostly members of the Tutsi tribe, the minority group. Researchers today believe that the genocide could have been prevented. There were early symptoms; then came reports of the atrocities. But the nations of the world did nothing. Several even furnished the murderers with arms and equipment.

The murderers in Rwanda did not use gas chambers or carpet bombing. They settled for machetes and light weapons. They obtained rifles and bullets, and sometimes grenades, from international arms dealers.

Israel was one source. It provided the Hutus with 5.56-millimeter bullets as well as rifles and grenades captured during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Evidence has accumulated over the years, some of it gathered by Israelis who visited Rwanda during the massacre or shortly afterward. The motive was pure greed, with a sprinkling of macabre justifications.

Attorney Mack ended his statement with a quote from an Israeli arms dealer who appeared in a report on the atrocities by Sara Leibowitz-Dar. The arms dealer 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 hacks by a machete. “I’m actually a doctor,” he said.

In recent years Mack, a young, bespectacled idealist who wears a kippa, has taken great pains to reveal the Israeli arms dealing. As he addressed the judge, wearing his long black court robe, he swayed. For a moment he looked like a cantor in a synagogue.

“There is no sense in continuing the concealment,” he said. “That will only strengthen the respondents’ feeling of immunity. We need to lay bare the dark chapters of Israel’s defense exports.”

When Mack concluded, Prof. Auron received permission to speak. He apologized for being emotional; sure enough,the stenographer had a hard time keeping up.

“I see this struggle as a kind of mission. We are members of the Jewish people. I have been dealing with the Holocaust and genocide from the day I could think on my own, for 35 years,” he began.

“I also say to the respondents present here: To send arms to a country where genocide is taking place is like sending arms to Nazi Germany during World War II. We provided arms to Serbia during the embargo, and we provided arms to the Rwandan government, which was committing murder.”

Judge Levy stopped Auron for a moment to correct the stenographer. (“Rwanda, not Uganda”). She interrupted him several more times to make sure the statements would be quoted precisely. “Million,” she said — slowly for the stenographer — as Auron repeated the number of victims. Another time, she corrected the stenographer on the spelling of the Hebrew term for genocide, retzah am.

The respondents stolidly listened to Auron’s descriptions. They represented bureaucratic officialdom, which by nature is required to help regimes carry out the morally inconceivable. Auron didn’t make things easy for them. “They are asking the judge to help them cover up the truth,” he said.

Rabin and Peres

After the hearing, I asked whether any of them would explain the state's position — they wouldn’t have to be quoted by name. After all, it was hard to imagine how revealing the information could harm national security besides the great shame — and of course the incrimination of those involved.

Starting in 1948, the year the State of Israel was established, the perpetration and abetting of genocide were defined in international law as crimes against humanity. As expected, no one answered me. But they were merely technocrats. They weren’t the real story.

In those days, Yitzhak Rabin was both prime minister and defense minister. Shimon Peres was foreign minister. They were deeply involved in the peacemaking efforts under the Oslo Accords. The petitioners say the arms could not have been sent from Ben-Gurion International Airport without their knowledge and approval.

Of course, such an assertion requires proof. But there is no argument about one thing: The Israeli government, in an act of historical irony that Auron made sure to mention in court, was the first country on earth to send a field hospital to Rwanda to treat the massacre’s victims.

At the end of his address, in a moment out of an American courtroom drama, Auron turned to the respondents and shouted: “What sort of security argument can there possibly be here? Is there no end to cynicism? We committed crimes — terrible crimes.”

Even before his outburst, attorney Ron, a young and confident representative of the state, spoke. She noted that “for the sake of proper order” the petitioners had based their position on “Statute 9B of the Freedom of Information Law, but we are at Statute 9A.”

When Auron concluded, Judge Levy said, quietly, “The ruling will be sent to the parties.” To an outside observer it seemed the respondents were a bit concerned. To attorney Mack, it seemed they had left quickly for a meeting on the next challenge they would face — a similar petition about Israel’s involvement in arms sales to Serbia during the massacre in Bosnia.

Levy issued her ruling that day. Basing her decision on the classified material that the respondents had shown her, she turned down the petition. Mack said the wording showed that Levy was actually passing the matter on to the Supreme Court. The parties will meet there when the appeal is submitted.

If the Supreme Court justices have the patience, they too will hear Auron’s explanation about how “selling Israeli arms to governments that committed genocide desecrates the memory of the Holocaust’s victims and the memory of the Holocaust itself. No one has the right to do such a thing — and that goes for us especially.” The state, for its part, will invoke Statute 9A.