This is not the first time Israel’s arms exports have been a source of controversy within the country. At stake is the sale of arms to authoritarian leaders who then use these weapons to suppress their populations. On Jan. 25, Knesset member Ofer Cassif of the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash Party called on Defense Minister Benny Gantz to halt the sale of Israeli arms to a private militia, the Special Forces Command (SFC), associated with Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni. He did this as a lead-up to a district court hearing in mid-February to stop the export of arms to Uganda. In his letter, Cassif wrote that “war crimes and severe and methodical violations of human rights intended to allow Museveni to cling to the reins of power have been characteristic of Uganda for the past few years.
The SFC was founded in 2011 as Museveni’s extrajudicial private security detail, drawing its commanders from his own ethnic group. Before the recent election in that country this past January, Museveni declared ominously, “There is nobody who is above us in knowing how to handle guns.” The police went on to use extreme violence in quelling opposition demonstrations. To date, the international community knows of dozens of casualties, hundreds more injured and thousands of arrests. It is a reasonable assumption that the SFC, armed with Israeli Galil Ace, Tavor and Uzi rifles, could serve as a major tool in suppressing popular protests resulting from a questionable election.
The Defense Ministry has since asked the court to reject the SFC case since it involves security and foreign affairs. It further asked that if this request is denied, the hearing be held behind closed doors.
A report issued by an expert committee of the United Nations Security Council focused on the involvement of Israeli arms manufacturers in the fighting in South Sudan. It determined that in 2014, Uganda transferred Israeli guns that it obtained in a 2007 arms deal to the South Sudan government. The committee also stated its belief that the guns were part of a larger stockpile of weapons that was relayed to South Sudan via Uganda.
In 2013, VICE magazine reported that Israel provides Uganda with military support and training, arms and drones in exchange for its agreement to accept asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan once they are deported from Israel. In 2017, the press was allowed to reveal that Uganda is the third country to accept African asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel. Reports in the foreign press claim that the agreement with Uganda included various arms deals, but Israel refused to release the details.
In October 2020, the Knesset rejected a preliminary reading of proposed legislation from the left that would have limited the export of arms to nations involved in severe human rights violations. The vote was preceded by a statement signed by 38 rabbis in support of the initiative. They wrote, “Jewish law forbids the sale of arms to non-Jews, who are suspected of misusing the weapons and causing harm to many, and any such sale requires an in-depth and thorough investigation to ensure that it conforms with Jewish law.”
Rabbi Avidan Freedman, who initiated the letter, is chairman of YANSHUF, a coalition of organizations committed to transparency and the supervision of arms exports. He told Al-Monitor, “Before the election, [Defense Minister] Benny Gantz promised on numerous occasions that he would introduce measures to stop the sale of arms to murderous regimes. The time has come to test this. We expect him to do the right thing morally, from a Jewish perspective, and to prove that he is actually capable of taking bold steps.”
Michael Biton, minister in the Ministry of Defense, told the Knesset that Defense Minister Gantz recently convened a meeting of all parties involved and they agreed on procedures to confirm that such arms deals conform to ethical and legal standards. He noted that the Foreign Ministry is also involved in these discussions.
Based on data from the Ministry of Defense’s Division for the Oversight of Security Exports, Israel’s arms exports in 2018 amounted to $7.5 billion, showing a drop from 2017, a record year, in which these exports were valued at $9.2 billion. Exports consist mainly of missile and missile defense systems, drones, electronic warfare and radar systems, as well as the emerging technologies involved in cyber warfare and tracking systems. The main recipients of these exports are in Asia and the Pacific, which account for 46% of all military exports. While India is a major importer, so are other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan and others. The report does not offer a further breakdown by country, but it can be assumed that exports to the Gulf States also account for a large share, given the security alliance between Israel and these countries, which has grown more robust over the last few years in response to the Iranian threat.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Uzi Eilam of the Institute for National Security Studies is a former head of the Center for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, a position that includes responsibility for granting permits for military exports. He notes that after years of abstruse policy, Israel’s failed attempt to sell the Falcon spy plane to China (the sale was thwarted by the Americans in 2000) caused Washington to pressure Israel to take more active measures to prevent sales harmful to the two countries’ common security interests. When this became law in 2007, Eilam initiated the creation of the Division for the Oversight of Security Exports, which authorizes all defense exports.
Eilam discussed the economic aspects of arms deals: “It is in Israel’s vital interests to maintain its military and arms industries and to ensure their survival. Israel cannot rely solely on imported arms. Over the course of our history, even our closest allies restricted the sale of arms to us on more than one occasion. The problem is that Israel alone is too small a market for these industries. If they are to survive, they must sell their arms to other countries as well.” According to current estimates, 20% of sales by military industries are to the IDF and other Israeli security services, while 80% of sales are to nations and organizations overseas.
There are always ethical considerations, he concedes, and these pose difficult dilemmas, especially given the complexity of the current situation. While Israel’s military industries are stable and the country’s economic and security standing is much improved, it is still a small country that must rely, for the most part, on itself. Ethical considerations are given some consideration in debates over the sale of weapons and technologies, he explains, but geopolitical factors are much more decisive, while the sale of Israeli arms to (alleged) minor dictatorships are significantly smaller than similar sales made by most Western nations.