Defense Ministry Official: Israel, Like Other Countries, Exports Arms Not Only to Democracies

Israel does not transfer arms to countries in which genocide is taking place, head of the defense export control agency says. 'We take human rights very seriously.'

Israeli guns at a security expo in India, 2014.
Mustafa Quraishi, Reuters

The Defense Ministry said Monday it has stepped up the fining of weapons exporters for suspected legal violations in recent years. Asked about the destinations of these exports, Dubi Lavi, head of ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency, said Israel exports arms not only to democracies, “just as other enlightened countries around the world do.”

According to the ministry’s figures, the agency imposed fines worth 2.8 million shekels ($717,000) on arms exporters in 2015, compared to some 2 million shekels in the preceding year. There was also a slight rise in the number of suspected violations of the law, with 176 cases registered in 2015 versus 166 in 2014. Confirmed violations jumped to 11 cases last year compared to four in 2014.

At the same time, some 9,000 requests were made last year to export arms, technology or instruction in defense matters – a 17 percent increase over the preceding year.

Lavi says the increases in fines are due to stricter enforcement, with closer monitoring of defense industries and more knowledgable customs officials. Yet the Defense Export Control Agency has only three law enforcement officials, up from two last year.

Israeli arms exports in 2013. Source: Defense Ministry.

The performance of these monitors and the encouragement given the arms industry to sell weapons and military technology around the world have been criticized by social activists and Knesset members. In several petitions filed with the courts in the last two years, attorney Eitay Mack has tried to expose the extent and workings of Israel’s arms export industry, which usually take place undercover. One of the main arguments made by critics is that Israel does not recoil from selling arms to countries that systematically abuse human rights, or ones that are plainly undemocratic.

Lavi, who oversees such exports, claims that Israel does not approve the transfer of arms to countries in which genocide is taking place.

“To the extent we know of this being the case, we block exports. During the approval process, done together with the Foreign Ministry, that is one of the central considerations we take into account,” Lavi told Haaretz. “Unequivocally, we don’t export to countries in which UN sanctions are in place due to genocide. In other places, when things develop and we identify deterioration in the internal situation, we stop the exports.”

He adds that exports are also blocked in cases in which the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry disagree. “I can testify that in certain African countries we changed our policy after identifying the beginning of human rights violations. We try to conduct ourselves based on the situation, examining it in each country. We take human rights issues very seriously,” said Lavi. He refused to specifically refer to countries which are known to have received Israeli weapons, such as civil war-torn South Sudan.

'Non-democracies include monarchies'

According to Defense Ministry figures there are currently 1,395 arms dealers registered in Israel. In total, over 198,000 permits have been given to companies and individual dealers. These permits applied to 130 countries around the world. The number of countries widely considered to be democracies is lower than that; to this Lavi said some monarchies, to which Israel exports arms, are among the non-democracies.

“There are some non-democratic countries to which we aprove exports, just as the rest of the world does. I don’t believe defense exports go only to democracies. Not from here and not from elsewhere, including enlightened countries,” he asserted.

The law governing the export of defense industry products requires companies and individuals wishing to export weapons or technology to obtain a permit from the Defense Ministry. They first need a marketing permit, which requires a description of the product and the countries wishing to purchase it. Only after obtaining this permit and the signing of a purchase agreement for the product can the exporter obtain an export permit, the last stage required before delivering the product to customers.

Last year it was discovered that one company violated the law after holding a hotel meeting with a representative of an African government, following a conference held in Israel. The company argued that this was a short meeting but the Defense Ministry claimed it violated the law, constituting marketing activity. However, no fine was imposed in that case. Another company was fined 800,000 shekels ($205,000) after it was discovered it was continuing to sell an Asian an item that the Defense Ministry permit had suspended for “political reasons.” The company argued it had contacted the clients to discuss “general terms of a deal,” not the product itself. The Defense Ministry deemed it marketing without the required permit and imposed the fine.

“We try to balance Israel’s need to maintain strong defense industries, in order to enable the Israel Defense Forces to develop systems and capabilities it needs with the need for doing this responsibly, while adhering to international commitments and maintaining our diplomatic and security interests. This is a challenging task, especially in light of the large volume of requests we get,” said Lavi.