For the past few years, a group of nine Israelis led by human rights lawyer Eitay Mack has sought to peel back the layer of secrecy shrouding Israel’s collusion with some of the worst genocide regimes in the world. They have done so by filing freedom of information requests with their country’s defence ministry, seeking documents concerning Israeli arms deals, consulting contracts, and training of the armed forces in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Serbia, South Sudan, and Rwanda during decades of ethnic conflict in those nations. They’ve sought to learn the extent of the trade, what weapons were supplied and to whom, how the weapons were used, and how long the trade continued.
In every instance, the ministry denied their request, and they were forced to appeal to the Supreme Court. In every appeal, the court has sided with the military and ruled that such information was legitimately sealed from public view in order to protect the security of the nation.
It’s difficult to understand how the knowledge that Israel armed Rwandan murderers in the 1990s would harm national security. Much more likely, this exposure would damage Israel’s reputation and give ammunition to critics who claim it is a rogue state intent on violating international law and norms of conduct.
Protecting the state
In Israel, a national security state in which individual rights and the public’s right to know are subordinated to the interests of the military-intelligence apparatus, these two factors are often conflated. It is much easier to justify secrecy using the concept of protecting the state and its citizens than it is to admit that secrecy is meant to protect the reputation of the very security apparatus charged with protecting them.
Israel has recently censored two major reports claiming that the country was secretly arming nations and groups engaged in genocide or mass violence. The first again concerned Eitay Mack, who had appealed to the Supreme Court to permit exposure of Israeli arms trade to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese forces. These forces exterminated the Tamil Tiger rebellion during a thirty-year civil war that ended in 2009, with the loss of forty thousand to seventy-five thousand civilians and combatants.
Here is Mack’s account of the major role Israeli weapons played in some of the worst massacres of that thirty-year civil war:
In Sri Lanka the State of Israel played a most pivotal role in war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out there: [it] supplied drones which directed planes and warships made in Israel, and these deliberately targeted and bombed civilians and . . . humanitarian sites, and determined the fate of the war at an extremely high human cost. Sri Lankan forces which carried out the crimes had received [Israel Defense Forces] IDF training (especially from the Israeli Air Force and Navy), as well as from the Israeli Police.
One of the famous cases in which Israeli Kfir planes were used took place on August 14, 2006. The Sri Lankan air force used Kfir planes to bomb an orphanage for girls, in which 400 girls . . . resided. Security forces claimed the girls were being trained to be LTTE [Tamil Tiger] combatants. Around 60 girls were killed on the spot, and tens of girls were injured. Earlier, in 1999, another Israeli war plane attacked a school, killing 21 children and teachers.
The Government of Sri Lanka and [its] senior officials . . . have repeatedly [revealed], in official as well as media interviews, during and after the war, details [of] Israeli security exports, their extent and their massive use in the effort to win the war. Repeated statements [acknowledging] watching Israeli drone footage ahead of every attack, have incriminated the Sri Lankan government and proven that civilians and civilian targets had been deliberately hit with full awareness of the government’s security forces.
District Court Judge Shaul Shohat ruled that documents held by the Israeli defence ministry could be protected from public view. But his argument revealed the inner workings of the security apparatus and how it works hand in glove with the judiciary and intelligence services. He revealed that he held a closed-door hearing with the state’s representatives, including attorneys, defence ministry officials, and even Israel’s national intelligence agency, the Mossad, from which Mack was excluded.
During this hearing, the state presented secret evidence to the judge meant to persuade him that revealing any of this information would irreparably harm the state. Shohat dutifully agreed with the defence and wrote in this passage of his ruling (one of the passages the defence ministry sought to suppress is in italics):
I . . . learned from a review of these documents that most of the[m] deal with the operational capabilities of the IDF and the security industries involved in various deals, and their ties with military industries in Sri Lanka. The documents contain the details of internal discussions among senior officials in the security establishment regarding the issue as well as discussions and agreements between senior officials in the security establishment and senior officials in the Sri Lankan government, specifically involving the formulation of security policies; working procedures and internal processes in the Ministry of Defense, mutual visits and data as to the deals that were signed and the extent of military exports, including the specification of various types of weapons, etc. It was also noted that there is a secrecy agreement with Sri Lanka, and that its violation by Israel would create a problematic precedent which would reflect on relations with other states, harm existent secret agreements and deter other states from forging new military ties [with Israel]. It was argued in this context that even if Sri Lanka has violated its obligation by the agreement and published specific, ad-hoc information, this does not detract from the State of Israel’s obligation under the agreement.
Israeli journalist John Brown published a report in Haaretz on Shohat’s ruling. Shortly thereafter, he discovered that the defense ministry division responsible for protecting military secrets, MALMAB, had asked the judge to censor a portion of his ruling, which Brown had included in his article. The ministry’s main concern was preventing the revelation of the fact that representatives of the Mossad had urged the judge to restrict media publication about Israeli arms sales to Sri Lanka. MALMAB also sought to suppress media reporting about the secret nature of the weapons dealing. Both parties had agreed to maintain secrecy about them (even though Sri Lankan officials had since revealed them publicly).
Brown appealed via Facebook for others to protect and preserve the article in the event it was censored. It seems that even censors in a national security state face obstacles, as the article remains available, uncensored, on the Haaretz website.
Another reason why the Israeli censor may be extremely sensitive to revealing such information is that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced pre-trial proceedings investigating Israel’s conduct during the 2014 Gaza invasion, Operation Protective Edge. During the month-long conflict, 2,300 Palestinians were killed, two-thirds of whom have been declared civilians by independent Palestinian human right groups and the United Nations.
The ICC announced the pre-trial phase amid this year’s Great March of Return, during which Israel has murdered nearly two hundred Gazans protesting Israel’s siege of the enclave. Israeli officials are aware that the publication of any evidence that it has been an accessory to genocide in other conflicts could bolster a case to be made before the international court.
Returning to Sri Lanka, it’s no wonder, given the close relations between Israel’s military and Sri Lanka’s, that the army chief of staff responsible for the genocide, after the conclusion of his Sri Lankan military service, was appointed the nation’s ambassador to Israel.
The world’s seventh-largest arms exporter
Sri Lanka is only one of Israel’s many weapons buyers. The country is one of the largest arms exporters in the world.
It is the seventh-largest exporter of weapons systems worldwide, while its GDP, $350 billion, ranks only thirty-second in the world. This means that the nation’s arms industry is not just one of the export engines of the economy, but it plays a far more prominent role than in other major arms-exporting nations, which have much larger economies than Israel’s.
The armaments industry is powered by ongoing conflicts between Israel and its frontline neighbours. They develop, test, and deploy some of the world’s most advanced weapons systems, which maximize the death and suffering of its enemies. Then it turns around and exports not just the weapons systems, but the suffering they cause.
In effect, just as Israel destabilizes the Middle East with invasions, assassinations, air assaults, and repeated military operations outside its own borders, it offers its clients the capability to inflict maximum damage on their own rivals and enemies. This makes Israel a major force for destabilization among the nations of the world.
Half of Israel’s overall weapons sales are to India. It is the largest supplier of weapons to India as well.
To understand how Israel functions as one of the world’s principal weapons dealers, it’s worth examining some of its other major clients.
When Duterte came shopping for Israeli guns
Last summer, the Philippines’ president and accused war criminal, Rodrigo Duterte, completed a highly successful visit to Israel, during which he signed contracts to purchase some of Israel’s most advanced weapons. Duterte stands accused of the murder of tens of thousands of Filipinos targeted in so-called drug busts.
Among the Israeli shrines, the Philippine leader visited was Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust. Duterte has, in the past, likened himself to Hitler and expressed admiration for the Nazi leader. Duterte sees himself as eradicating the plague of drugs in his country, presumably, as Hitler eradicated the “plague” of Jews.
There appears to be no dictator too brutal, no thug too murderous to be considered treif as far as the Israeli arms industry is concerned.
Duterte praised Israel’s ask-no-questions approach to weapons sales. Unlike even the US, Israel placed no restrictions on their use. It asked no questions and expected no answers from any of its clients.
Arming Serbian and Rwandan war criminals
In 2016, Brown also revealed that Israel supplied military training and weapons to the Serbian war criminal Radko Mladic, who commanded Serbian forces that massacred thousands of Bosnian civilians at Srebrenica.
Yet another Israeli court refused to release documentary evidence that Israel armed the Rwandan militias, which ultimately murdered eight hundred thousand Tutsis during the 1994 genocide. Again, a court determined that Israel’s facilitation of genocide was news the world should not hear because it would hurt the country’s reputation.
It certainly would. Israel, which touts itself as the protector of world Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has been a willing participant in some of the worst instances of genocide since the Holocaust. But Israel’s judiciary, at the urging of its military-intelligence apparatus, deems this information damaging to the nation.
Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims, aided by Israeli naval warships
Last year, during the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, the same group of activists led by attorney Eitay Mack brought to the public’s attention Israeli arms sales to the Myanmar military junta. The court refused to intervene to stop the trade and even refused to permit its ruling to be made public.
Luckily, at a public protest, one of the speakers revealed the result of the ruling. I published a video of his speech and the court’s ruling, believing that such opacity was completely unwarranted. As late as last month, a judge ruled that the charade of silence should continue.
As the world shrinks in disgust from former Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Israel embraces her generals, who have wiped out entire villages in Rakhine State, expelling five hundred thousand refugees to Bangladesh. Mack’s work on this case led to the Israeli military and its arms dealer partners suspending such sales. But if past behaviour is any guide, as soon as the furore dies down, the commerce will resume.
Israel fuels genocide in Sudan
In 2017, Mack and a group of Israeli activists petitioned the Supreme Court to end Israeli weapons sales on the grounds that they constituted a war crime. In this case, Israeli-made Galil ACE rifles were used by the South Sudanese government to attack members of a rival tribe in a massacre that commenced the civil war. It also supplied eavesdropping equipment permitting the South Sudanese to monitor the communications of their enemies.
The court later ruled that the arms sales were legal.
Acknowledging, then censoring
The second major story that broke last month is the censoring of a Jerusalem Post article that confirmed to Israelis for the first time that the IDF has supplied weapons and ammunition to the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. I’ve reported before that the Israeli military has physically coordinated with these Islamist rebels, providing intelligence gathering and communications gear. It also built a camp just inside the Israeli occupation zone in the Golan that housed the families of Syrian militant fighters. The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy have also published exposés of this arms trade.
Until now, Israel only touted its humanitarian and medical aid to Syrian rebels, pretending that this somehow served as Israel’s contribution to ameliorating the suffering of Syrians during the civil war. Otherwise, Israel has falsely claimed it is either neutral in the Syrian conflict or restrained in its involvement. It is neither. But that hasn’t stopped credulous journalists from parroting the Israeli line.
Israel has flown hundreds of air sorties attacking Syrian air bases and targeting Hezbollah and Iranian weapons convoys. Further, it has assassinated leading Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah military commanders inside Syria.
It’s hard to know why an IDF officer offered this information to a Jerusalem Post reporter, then the army censor countermanded him, declared the story treif, and censored it. It appears the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.
Israel has made these alliances with Syrian Islamists as its prime minister has toured the world boasting that his country is the last bulwark against Islamist terrorism; that the West should thank Israel for warning of such terror attacks on European soil; and that ISIS and al-Qaeda seek first to destroy Israel and then follow up by invading the West.
It doesn’t seem to bother him at all to make common cause with the self-same al-Qaeda when his country’s interests are aligned with Israel’s. Few world leaders or journalists have noted the ultimate cynicism of this Israeli gambit. In the brave new world of IHRA-era Great Britain, such news might be greeted with charges of antisemitism.
Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam, where he covers the Israeli national security state. He has contributed to the essay collections, A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity and Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood.