Israel's Explanation for Arming Myanmar During Ethnic Cleansing Campaign: 'Both Sides Committing War Crimes'

Israel’s deputy consul general in New York voices statement amid concerns that sales aiding genocide against Rohingya

A Myanmar police officer stands watch as journalists arrive in Shwe Zar village in the suburb of Maungdaw town, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's top security adviser sought to counter the storm of criticism the government is facing from around the world over alleged army abuses against ethnic minority Rohingya, asserting that security forces were acting with restraint in pursuing "terrorists." (AP Photo)
A Myanmar police officer stands watch as journalists arrive in Shwe Zar village in the suburb of Maungdaw town, northern Rakhine state of Myanmar, on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Myanmar leader Aung San /AP

"The two sides in the conflict are conducting war crimes" in Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, an Israeli diplomat told six American rabbis who voiced concern about reports of Israeli arms sales to the Southeast Asain country. 

The rabbis were worried that Israeli businesses could be contributing to what the UN has termed ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s Muslim minority, but Amir Sagie, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, told the rabbis that to the best of Israel's knowledge, the current crisis began after the Muslims attacked the Myanmar army.

Sagie charged that the current situation "started after Muslims attacked government positions in Myanmar" and that both sides in the conflict are "conducting war crimes."

His position is considered consistent with that of the Foreign Ministry regarding reports in the media regarding Israel's ties with Myanmar.

>> 'These weapons are killing our people’: Rohingya activist urges Israel to halt arms sales to Myanmar ■ Israel sold advanced weapons to Myanmar during anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing campaign <<

Sagie stated, "we deny totally any kind of relations or any connection to Israel with this tragedy. There is no direct or indirect connection with what is going on with the Rohingya people."

He added that Israel "applies a policy of non-intervention in Myanmar's domestic issues."

Mohammed Taher, 50, a Rohingya refugee holds his son Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot on his chest before crossing the border from Myanmar in August, as they sit outside a medical centre after seeing a doctor, at Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox?s Bazar, Bangladesh November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Sagie refused to give details about Israel’s arms trade with Myanmar, saying Israel "does not discuss publicly with our friends or our foes Israel's military or defense relationships." But he stressed that all weapons exports are "done with due diligence," and exports take "into consideration human rights violations, including existing sanctions from the UN or international organizations."

He also noted that the High Court of Justice had rejected a petition against the arms deals, but that verdict remains classified.

The meeting took place after T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights organized a petition to Israel over the arms deal two weeks ago. “China, Russia and India continue to be the primary enablers of the Burmese military,” the petition said, referring to Myanmar by its former name of Burma. But as American citizens and as Jews, we refuse to accept any involvement by the U.S. or Israel in training or arming a military that is carrying out a brutal ethnic cleansing against a minority population. "

The rabbis at the meeting, who represent several different Jewish movements, were T’ruah Executive Director Jill Jacobs, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Amichai Lau-Lavie, David Ingber, Felicia Sol and Steve Gutow. They said it was clear Sagie had come to the meeting prepared, with his remarks written out in advance.

Sagie suggested that the false connections made between the Burmese and Israeli governments are "blood libel." Israel, he added, is routinely accused of every evil under the sun, so now it’s being accused in the Rohingyas’ slaughter as well. "You do not see us saying we're supportive of the regime's actions against the Rohingya - it's the opposite," he said.

The rabbis said afterward that they requested the meeting out of love for Israel, and that their concern crosses political lines. No further meetings have been scheduled.

The Foreign Ministry has responded that it vigorously protested the way matters were presented. The ministry said in a statement: “Israel is not involved in the tragedy in the Rakhine region of Myanmar. The oversight policy of Israel’s security exports is examined frequently in keeping with various considerations, among them the human rights situation in the destination country, as well as the policy of the U.N. Security Council and other international entities.”

Israeli weapons are being sold to Myanmar despite the restrictions on weapons sales to that country. Only last month Israel refused to announce that it would stop selling weapons to Myanmar despite the UN declaration about ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya minority is now considered the most persecuted people in the world.

Israel and Myanmar in recent years have signed a memorandum of understanding clarifying the bilateral cooperation and transfer of relevant information and intelligence. According to official reports in Myanmar, the agreement includes military training and improving security cooperation between the two countries, including the sale of two Israeli Super Dvora III boats.

The total value of the arms deal, according to sources in the Israeli weapons industry, is estimated at tens of millions of dollars. An officer involved in the matter told Haaretz that the Myanmar naval commander visited Israel in the past year, “was impressed and wanted to learn.” It was the second visit to Israel by the naval commander in the past five years.

“Welcome to the Myanmar Navy,” said the caption on the Myanmar Navy’s Facebook page, in honor of the arrival of an Israeli patrol boat to Myanmar’s shore. “The Super-Dvora MK III is moving forward at 45 knots on Myanmar waters,” the post continued. The post is from April, only half a year ago, when the Myanmar (Burmese) army was already being accused of war crimes.