Last December, Israel signed a normalization agreement with Morocco as part of a U.S. initiative. Many Israelis think that relations between Israel and Morocco are new, aside perhaps from some ancestry-tracing trips by Israeli families to Rabat and Casablanca.
But in fact, Israel and Morocco have had close economic, diplomatic and military ties for many years. In the 1970s, Israel shipped tanks to Morocco, and from 2000 until 2020, a number of secret and not-so-secret visits were made by officials from both countries (such as the visit by then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Morocco in 2003). In March of 2019, it was even reported that Netanyahu planned to visit Morocco, but that did not materialize.
Israel’s military exports have also remained mostly secret until now. According to foreign reports, military ties between Israel and Morocco primarily involve intelligence cooperation and trade in arms. According to a British report, Israel sold Morocco military systems, military communications systems and control systems (such as radar systems for fighter jets) via a third party.
In 2013, the Moroccan air force purchased three Heron drones manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries at a cost of $50 million. The drones, delivered to Morocco in January via France, have been obtained for use in Western Sahara – an area rich in natural resources and oil, classified by many institutions and organizations as occupied territory that was illegally annexed by Morocco.
Three hundred and fifty thousand people live in Western Sahara, most of them indigenous to the area. Human rights organizations have been reporting for years about serious human rights violations by Morocco in Western Sahara, including the oppression and killing of local inhabitants. Back in 1975, Israel provided military aid to Morocco against “rebels from the Sahara,” so these new drones are part of a long history.
Israel also has controversial involvement in Morocco in the field of digital surveillance. Last year, Amnesty International reported that in 2017, Morocco began using espionage software made by the Israeli company NSO Group to track and collect information on journalists and human rights activists. One of these was Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, on whom the authorities spied for an entire year after hacking his cell phone with NSO technology. Radi, a journalist critical of the Moroccan government, had previously exposed human rights violations and instances of corruption and was in the authorities’ sights for some time. In March of last year, he was arrested and incarcerated for four months following a social media post critical of the government.
Israeli drones that have previously flown over and bombarded Gaza will soon be used in Western Sahara against people who oppose the regime that occupied and annexed the territory in which they live. Meanwhile, anyone who dares to criticize the government’s policy and actions in Morocco is under surveillance, with the help of Israeli technology – technology that various reports say is now in use in many countries and implicated in numerous human rights violations.
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Israel has long been involved in arms trading with Morocco. So why was the normalization accord signed in 2020? The answer does not have to do with relations between Israel and Morocco, but with former President Donald Trump’s announcement in tandem with the normalization accord – recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over oil- and resource-rich Western Sahara. Essentially, the accord normalizes Morocco’s relations with Israel and thus the Israeli occupation, and in return, the U.S. normalizes the Moroccan occupation. And, meanwhile, arms traders continue to profit from every direction.
In the past few decades, Israel has reportedly sold weaponry and security equipment to 130 different countries. A 2019 report by the Swedish SIPRI research institute ranked Israel as the world’s eighth-largest weapons exporter. And yet, when one tries to find information about this, it is nearly impossible to find a complete list of all these countries. Israel hardly publishes any official information about its military and security exports, and there are good reasons for this. Among its clients are some of the world’s worst dictatorships and human rights violators.
In early February, the international organization American Friends Service Committee launched the Database of Israeli Military and Security Export to bring this information to the public. It not only collects information on military and security deals, but also on political, economic and military relations between different countries and Israel, as well as the human rights situation in those countries and on the use of Israeli weaponry in human rights violations.
Of course, Israel is not solely responsible for Morocco’s harming of civilians and defenders of human rights, nor is it the sole collaborator in these crimes – but as Israelis, we should know what is being done in our name. It’s important that we know, in order to criticize Israel’s unsupervised arms trade, export of controversial cyber systems and technologies, and diplomatic and economic relations with countries that systematically violate human rights.
This is the first in a series of articles on Israel’s military and security exports. Each article will focus on one country with which Israel has military and/or security ties and to which it exports weapons.
Jonathan Hempel is a researcher in an international human rights organization, focusing on Israeli military and security export.