A thorough report by Amnesty International is harshly critical of Israel’s policies on arms exports. According to the report written in Hebrew by the organization’s Israeli branch, Israeli companies continue to export weapons to countries that systematically violate human rights. Israeli-made weapons are also found in the hands of armies and organizations committing war crimes. The report points to eight such countries that have received arms from Israel in recent years.
Often these weapons reach their destination after a series of transactions, thereby skirting international monitoring and the rules of Israel itself. Amnesty calls on the government, the Knesset and the Defense Ministry to more tightly monitor arms exports and enforce transparency guidelines adopted by other Western countries that engage in large-scale weapons exports.
In the report, Amnesty notes that the supervision of the arms trade is “a global, not a local issue. The desire and need for better monitoring of global arms sales derives from tragic historical events such as genocide, bloody civil wars and the violent repression of citizens by their governments …. There is a new realization that selling arms to governments and armies that employ violence only fuels violent conflicts and leads to their escalation. Hence, international agreements have been reached with the aim of preventing leaks of military equipment to dictatorial or repressive regimes.”
The 2014 Arms Trade Treaty established standards for trade in conventional weapons. Israel signed the treaty but the cabinet never ratified it. According to Amnesty, Israel has never acted in the spirit of this treaty, neither by legislation nor its policies.
“There are functioning models of correct and moral-based monitoring of weapons exports, including the management of public and transparent reporting mechanisms that do not endanger a state’s security or foreign relations,” Amnesty says. “Such models were established by large arms exporters such as members of the European Union and the United States. There is no justification for the fact that Israel continues to belong to a dishonorable club of exporters such as China and Russia.”
In 2007, the Knesset passed a law regulating the monitoring of weapons exports. The law authorizes the Defense Ministry to oversee such exports, manage their registration and decide on the granting of export licenses. The law defines defense-related exports very broadly, including equipment for information-gathering, and forbids trade in such items without a license.
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The law does not include a clause limiting exports when there is a high probability that these items will be used in violation of international or humanitarian laws. But the law does prohibit “commerce with foreign agencies that are not in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit or limit a transfer of such weapons or missiles to such recipients.”
According to Amnesty, “the absence of monitoring and transparency have for decades let Israel supply equipment and defense-related knowledge to questionable states and dictatorial or unstable regimes that have been shunned by the international community.”
The report quotes a 2007 article by Brig. Gen. (res.) Uzi Eilam. “A thick layer of fog has always shrouded the export of military equipment. Destinations considered pariah states by the international community, such as Chile in the days of Pinochet or South Africa during the apartheid years, were on Israel’s list of trade partners,” Eilam wrote.
“The shroud of secrecy helped avoid pressure by the international community, but also prevented any transparency regarding decisions to sell arms to problematic countries, leaving the judgment and decision in the hands of a small number of people, mainly in the defense establishment.”
The report presents concrete evidence on Israel’s exports over the last two decades, with arms going to eight countries accused by international institutions of serious human rights violations: South Sudan, Myanmar, the Philippines, Cameroon, Azerbaijan, Sri Lanka, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates. In some of these cases, Israel denied that it exported arms to these countries at specifically mentioned times. In other case it refused to give details.
In its report, Amnesty relies on the research of other human rights groups, on documentation published in the media in those eight countries, and on information gathered by attorney Eitay Mack, who in recent years has battled to expose Israel’s arms deals with shady regimes. Amnesty cross-checks descriptions of exported weapons with human rights violations and war crimes by those countries. In its report, Amnesty says that some of these countries were under sanctions and a weapons-sales embargo, but Israel continued selling them arms.
According to the organization, “the law on monitoring in its current format is insufficient and has not managed to halt the export of weapons to Sri Lanka, which massacred many of its own citizens; to South Sudan, where the regime and army committed ethnic cleansing and aggravated crimes against humanity such as the mass rape of hundreds of women, men and girls; to Myanmar, where the army committed genocide and the chief of staff, who carried out the arms deal with Israel, is accused of these massacres and other crimes against humanity; and to the Philippines, where the regime and police executed 15,000 civilians without any charges or trials.”
Amnesty says that this part of the report “is not based on any report by the Defense Ministry relating to military equipment exports, for the simple reason that the ministry refuses to release any information. The total lack of transparency by Israel regarding weapons exports prevents any public discussion of the topic and limits any research or public action intended to improve oversight.”
One example is the presence of Israeli-made Galil Ace rifles in the South Sudanese army. “With no documentation of sales, one cannot know when they were sold, by which company, how many, and so on,” the report says.
“All we can say with certainty is that the South Sudanese army currently has Israeli Galil rifles, at a time when there is an international arms embargo on South Sudan, imposed by the UN Security Council, due to ethnic cleansing, as well as crimes against humanity, using rape as a method of war, and due to war crimes the army is perpetrating against the country’s citizens.”
According to Amnesty, the defense export control agency at the Defense Ministry approved the licenses awarded Israeli companies for selling weapons to these countries, even though it knew about the bad human rights situation there. It did this despite the risk that Israeli exports would be used to violate human rights and despite the embargo on arms sales imposed on some of these countries by the United States and the European Union, as well as other sanctions that were imposed by these countries or the United Nations.
In response to letters written to the export control agency, its head, Rachel Chen, said: “We can’t divulge whether we’re exporting to one of these countries, but we carefully examine the state of human rights in each country before approving export licenses for selling them weapons.” According to Amnesty, this claim is false, as shown by the example of the eight countries mentioned in the report.
Amnesty recommends steps for improving the monitoring of defense exports. It says Israel lags American legislation by 20 years, and European legislation by 10 years. “The lack of transparency has further negative implications, such as hiding information from the public,” Amnesty says.
“The concept by which the Defense Ministry operates is that it is not in the public interest to know which countries buy weapons here, how much and under what conditions. This is an erroneous conception that stems from the wish to conceal, using the well-worn cloak of ‘issues of state security and foreign relations’ as an excuse,” it adds.
“The veil of secrecy makes it hard to obtain data. In our humble opinion, the information we have gathered and presented in this report is the tip of the iceberg. Most of the evidence is based on official reports issued by the recipient states, such as the Facebook page of the chief of staff in Myanmar, or the site of the Philippine government’s spokesman.”
The authors say attempts to maintain secrecy in an era of social media and global media coverage are absurd and doomed to fail.
“Let the reasonable reader ask himself if the powers that sell weapons are concerned about harm to state security resulting from making the information accessible, or whether this is just an excuse, with the veil of secrecy protecting the interests of certain agencies in Israel.”
Amnesty says Israel ranks eighth among the exporters of heavy weapons around the world. Between 2014 and 2018, Israel’s defense exports comprised 3.1 percent of global sales. Compared with the previous four years, this was a 60 percent increase. The three largest customers of heavy weapons sold by Israel are India, Azerbaijan and Vietnam.
But the report says defense industries are not the largest or most lucrative contributors to Israeli exports. According to the Defense Ministry, defense exports comprise 10 percent of Israel’s industrial exports. “Defense-related companies in Israel export to 130 countries around the world,” the report says. “Of these, only a minority are countries designated by the UN and the international community as violators of human rights.”
These are mostly poor countries and the scope of defense exports to them is small compared to the rest of Israel’s exports. According to Amnesty, banning exports to the eight countries would not sting Israel’s defense contractors or their profits, and would certainly not have a public impact. “There is no justification – economic, diplomatic, security-related or strategic – to export weapons to these countries,” the report says.
Amnesty believes that “the situation is correctable. Israel’s government and the Defense Ministry must increase their monitoring and transparency, similar to what the vast majority of large weapons exporters around the world do except for Russia and China.”
According to Amnesty, this should be done by amending the law regulating these exports, adding two main clauses. The first would prohibit the awarding of licenses to export to a country with a risk of serious human rights violations, based on international humanitarian law.
The second would set up a committee to examine the human rights situation in any target state. The committee would include people from outside the defense establishment and the Foreign Ministry such as academics and human rights activists, as is customary in other countries.
“Monitoring must not only be done, it must be seen, and the Israeli public has every right to know what is done in its name and with its resources, which belong to everyone,” the report says.
A policy of obscurity
A senior defense official who read the Amnesty report told Haaretz that many of its claims have been discussed in recent years in petitions to the High Court of Justice. The justices have heard petitions relating to South Sudan, Cameroon and Mexico. However, in all cases, the court accepted the state’s position that deliberations would be held with only one side present – the state, and that its rulings would remain classified.
Monitoring of exports has substantially increased since the law was passed, the official said. The authority endowed to the Defense Ministry by this law, including imposing economic sanctions, prohibition of exports and taking legal action against companies, are more far-reaching than in other countries.
“The process of obtaining an export license in Israel is lengthy, difficult and imposes onerous regulations on exporters," he added. "When there is evidence of human rights violations in a country buying arms from Israel, we treat this with utmost seriousness in our considerations. The fact is that enlightened states respect the laws we have and are interested in the ways we conduct our monitoring.”
He admitted that Israel does adopt a policy of obscurity with regard to its arms deals. “We don’t share information on whether or to which country we’ve sold arms," he said. "We’ve provided all the information to the High Court. The plaintiffs do receive fixed laconic responses, but there are diplomatic and security-related circumstances that justify this."
"Other countries can be more transparent but we’re in a different place," he argued. "We don’t dismiss out of hand discussion of these issues. The questions are legitimate but the decisions and polices are made after all the relevant considerations are taken into account.”
The intense pace of events in recent months – rounds of violence along the Gaza border, Israel's election, renewed tension between the U.S. and Iran – have left little time to deal with other issues that make the headlines less frequently.
Israel is currently in the throes of an unprecedented constitutional and political crisis, the outcome of which will seriously impact its standing as a law-abiding state. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in his plan to halt all legal proceedings against him, legislating an immunity law and restricting the jurisdiction of the High Court, all other issues would pale in comparison.
There is some logic to the claim that Israel cannot be holier than thou when it comes to arms sales in the global market, and yet, the Amnesty report depicts a horrific image, backed by reliable data, but also makes suggestions for improvement that seem reasonable.
Numerous reports over the last year show that the problem is not restricted to the sale of light weapons, but might be exacerbated by the spread of cyberwarfare tools developed by Israel and what dark regimes can do with these. Even if it happens through a twisted chain of sub-contractors, the state can't play innocent. Therefore, it's worthwhile listening to Amnesty's criticism and suggestions for improvement.