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Myanmar violence highlights dubious Israel arms sales

Israeli human rights campaigners step up fight against weapons sales to Myanmar

Myanmar violence highlights dubious Israel arms sales

By Kaamil Ahmed


Israel's alleged role in supplying weapons and training in conflict zones has been criticized by rights campaigners for years. But recent violence in Myanmar has revealed details that have brought the issue further into the public eye. 

Israel's High Court this week heard arguments from rights advocates calling for an end to weapons sales in conflict zones. The final verdict, however, was placed under a gag order even though evidence used in the case came from an unusual source: public Facebook posts by a Myanmar general and certain Israeli companies. 

Eitay Mack, the lawyer fighting the case, told Anadolu Agency that information gleaned from Facebook had been key to their efforts to prevent more weapons from being sold to Myanmar, which has been accused by the UN of pursuing “ethnic cleansing” policies that have recently forced over 500,000 people from the country’s mostly-Muslim Rohingya minority into Bangladesh, Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesman for the UN's refugee agency said Thursday. 

The petition, he said, was based on Facebook posts by Myanmar army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing that showed him visiting Israeli military bases and signing agreements in addition to visits by officials from Israeli firms.

“We know many places in the world where there’s Israeli arms and training, but we don’t know the details. Both Israel and the country importing the arms and training hides it,” said Mack.

“What’s different is the head of the army exposed a little [on Facebook] and also the company,” he added.

Mack said one of the deals Hlaing had revealed was the purchase of Dvora attack boats, which, he said, had also been used in alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan military at the end of the decades-long civil war with separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.

He said there were also posts showing Myanmar troops training with the Israeli corner-shot rifle -- which allows soldiers to shoot around corners -- and a visit by Brigadier-General Mishel Ben Baruch, who heads the Israeli Defense Ministry's arms-export division and who Mack described as “a very secretive guy”.

“It's not a private company that is selling on their own mind [i.e., on its own initiative]; it's the policy of the State of Israel. All Israeli companies need to get a license [to sell] from the Ministry of Defense,” he said. 

There is also an ongoing case related to arms sales to South Sudan and Israel has been accused in the past of selling weapons to other countries with poor human rights records.

According to Mack, Israel -- legally -- only has to comply with UN Security Council embargoes, which are rarely agreed to because of the veto right.

In Myanmar's case, the veto right is used by China and is the reason why -- while the EU and U.S. do not sell arms to Myanmar according to their own policy -- Israel can continue to do so. 

Although the case being presented by Mack is being heard in an open court and is using publicly available information, the Israeli state -- which had argued the sales were a diplomatic affair that the court should not intervene in -- requested that the case be placed under a gag order.

The court refused the gag order request but nevertheless stopped reporting on the verdict.

Earlier this month, the Israeli Foreign Ministry was compelled to issue a statement dismissing rumors that it was linked to the violence in Myanmar's Rakhine State. The weapons sales have nevertheless been criticized by large segments of the Israeli public.

“Before Israel can condemn the actions of the government in Burma, it must first stop supporting its military with weapons sales and training,” a group of 55 Rabbis and Jewish leaders said in a letter to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

They went on to urge the Israeli government to “immediately forbid weapons exports to Burma and to create legislation which will ensure that we will no longer sell weapons to countries engaged in gross human rights violations”.

Israel's annual weapons sales rose to a whopping $6.5 billion last year, according to figures released in March, with almost half of these going to countries in Asia, especially India. 

In a Wednesday editorial, left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz argued that Israel needed to be more transparent about its dealings, accusing it of lying about selling weapons -- despite arms embargoes -- in Argentina and Bosnia.

“Not only the High Court justices, but members of the Knesset [Israel’s parliament] and the government from the right, the center and the left should come together to put an immediate stop to this disgrace, in which the State of Israel is arming groups that are committing crimes against humanity,” the newspaper opined.

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