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The Alarming History Behind Israeli Arms Sales to Myanmar

Marc Daalder
September 28, 2017

By Marc Daalder

MOST OF THE WORLD has looked on in horror as Myanmar intensifies its campaign of murder, torture, and ethnic cleansing against its ethnic Muslim minority, the Rohingya. While the European Union continues to enforce an arms embargo against the country and the U.S. is likely considering reimplementing such sanctions that were lifted in 2016, only one Western country continues to brazenly arm the Burmese military: Israel.

The Israeli High Court ruled yesterday on a case brought against the government by human rights activists – however, the justices issued a gag order along with the ruling, so the media cannot report what the court decided. Israel doesn’t comment on whether or not it sells arms to Myanmar, but the commander of the country’s military visited the Jewish State in 2016 and later boasted about arms deals on his personal Facebook page.

Although the situation is complex, it is undeniable that Myanmar is engaging in grievous abuses of human rights. The United Nations, rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and a vast host of sovereign nations have all declared that Myanmar is committing ethnic cleansing. A Washington Post report noted that Myanmar’s government openly states that at least 176 Rohingya villages have been emptied by the violence.

In the context of all of this, Israel continues to sell arms to Myanmar’s government. This act, despite its brashness, should not surprise us. Indeed, Israel has a long history of selling to corrupt and abusive regimes when the West refuses to.

Israeli arms sales to South Africa, Zaire, Iran and more

THROUGHOUT THE 1960s AND 70s, as South Africa’s apartheid rule was coming under increasing international condemnation, Israel continued to send military advisors, tanks, and aviation equipment to the pariah state. This culminated in a decade-long deal in which South Africa provided Israel with yellowcake uranium in exchange for Israeli ballistic missile technology – all against the wishes of the United States.

As early as 1980, less than a year after the Iranian Revolution, Israel resumed clandestine military cooperation with the new pariah state as Iran and Iraq went to war initially against American interests, Israel armed and supplied Iranian military forces. Later on, the US would enlist Israel in secret deals with the Islamic Republic.

Israel had a long history of arming the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire – what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars worth of small arms. The relationship between the two countries was severed after the 1973 Yom Kippur war but was renewed a decade later, in what was then called “Israel’s Return to Africa.” Israel would go on to train and arm the Presidential Guard of authoritarian president of Cameroon Paul Biya, as well as abusive forces in several other African nations like Equatorial Guinea and Togo.

Israel also armed dictatorships in Latin America, at times in accordance with American interests and on other occasions opposed to these interests. In the 1970’s, Israel sold boatloads of small arms to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whose father was a financial support of the pre-state Haganah. In the run-up to Somoza’s fall in 1979, the Carter administration demanded that Israel cease sales to the dictatorship, which was killing as many as 500 people a day, but Israel refused. Israel was involved with right-wing rebellions and death squads in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as well.

The end of the Cold War didn’t lead to the end of Israel’s controversial arms sales, however. Israeli weapons were used during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. More recently, as of 2015 Israel continued to sell weapons to South Sudan despite the advent of ethnic violence there.

How can Israel continue to sell arms to these countries, in defiance of international custom?

ISRAEL'S ARMS TRADE expands beyond just authoritarian countries – it supplies arms to many of the world’s most powerful nations. Israel is the second largest arms supplier to China and India for example. And it can market its weapons as “battle-tested” after using them in wars in Gaza or Lebanon. Human rights attorney Itay Mack – who filed the case against the government for its sales to Myanmar – told Haaretz in 2015 that arms sales leapt after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

“That’s what they tell people at the international fairs. I heard it with my own ears: ‘It’s Cast Lead battle-proven,’ ‘It’s Defensive Shield battle-proven.’ The leap in sales after Cast Lead was also due to the cynicism of the international community, which first condemned the operation and then came here to learn how Israel conducted it. [Maj. Gen. (res.)] Yoav Galant, who was then the head of Southern Command [and now Minister of Construction] made an amazing remark in this connection: ‘They came to see how we turn blood into money.’”

It’s far easier for the international community to condemn human rights abuses and look the other way when Israeli arms are fueling them when the alternative threatens their military support. So don’t be surprised when the same happens with Myanmar and the Rohingya. Although the Israeli arms sales have been reported in Haaretz, The Forward, The Independent and elsewhere, it's unlikely these events will challenge ongoing military support for Israel.

Marc Daalder is a student at Amherst and a journalist who has written on Jewish issues for the Jewish Daily Forward, New Voices magazine, and In These Times, among others.