Israeli arms deals reveal defeat of moral judgment

Tel Aviv’s continued military relationships with Africa’s most notorious regimes must come under scrunity, writes Joseph Dana

As a self-described Jewish and democratic state, resolving the tension between Israel’s democracy and its ethnocracy will not be enough to fix the refugee issue alone. Amir Cohen / Reuters
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When people think of Israel’s foreign policy, small African countries don’t normally come to mind. But for the first decade of Israel’s existence, its diplomats invested a great deal of time on the continent. After Israel’s founding in 1948, there was a battle inside the foreign policy establishment about geopolitical alliances. The battle continues today.

David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister and elder statesman, argued that his tiny country required the backing of a global superpower such as the United States or the Soviet Union to guarantee its security. Younger politicians led by Shimon Peres advocated a far different course, saying that Israel’s precarious position in the Middle East demanded a network of alliances with smaller countries in Europe and farther afield. It was in Africa that Mr Peres’s perspective turned into reality. He set about building new partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa with several newly independent countries.

“Africa was a major focus of Israeli foreign policy in the 1950s,” former Israeli ambassador to South Africa Dr Alon Liel told me several years ago. “Israel wanted to be a light upon the nations of Africa.” The extent to which this became true can be clearly seen today.

Countries such as Senegal, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea were rich in natural resources and had seats in the United Nations that could be used as a counterweight to Arab influence. Thinking of the strategy in another way, Israel sought to create alliances with countries that surrounded the Arab counties in the Middle East. Iran and Turkey backed Tel Aviv, along with many countries in central and west Africa.

In exchange for favourable trade deals and UN votes, Israel sold agricultural and irrigation technology along with arms and military training to these nascent states in Africa. In the early 1960s, however, these alliances began to sour. Ben Gurion’s attempts to secure the United States as a long-term partner began to pay dividends and Tel Aviv established a lasting and unspoken alliance with the apartheid government of South Africa.

By the 1970s, many of Israel’s diplomatic missions in Africa were effectively closed down because the majority of African countries boycotted Tel Aviv’s partnership with Pretoria. The foundation, however, was set for decades of arms deals and covert support of some of the worst regimes in Africa. Israel’s involvement in the Rwandan genocide is now under examination but there are many dark episodes that have yet to be discussed.

In April this year, a Tel Aviv court rejected a petition from an Israeli lawyer to release documentation of arms exports to the Hutu government in Rwanda in the 1990s.

Over 100 days in 1994, members of the Hutu majority acting with the Rwandan government killed hundreds of thousands of the Tutsi minority. The killing was carried out with machetes and light weapons. Israeli-made 5.56mm bullets, grenades and rifles were involved, according to human rights groups and Israeli arms dealers.

In 2014, lawyer Eitay Mack filed a freedom of information request with the Israeli defence ministry for details of exports to Rwanda. The request eventually found its way to the Israeli high court, which has just rejected the petition citing risks to national security and Tel Aviv’s foreign relations.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, the motive of Israeli arms dealers in Rwanda was "pure greed" and some arms dealers have even argued that supplying light weapons to Hutu murderers was a good deed because it meant that the victims would die more quickly from a bullet wound than from being hacked apart with a machete.

Given the deep connection between the Israeli defence ministry and the defence industry, it would be nearly impossible that senior members of the Israeli government weren’t aware of the arms deals with Rwanda.

In separate but related news, the first Sudanese refugee in Israel was granted asylum seeker status this month. There are roughly 5,000 Sudanese refugees in Israel, many of whom have been indefinitely detained in prison camps without being charged with any crime.

Thousands more from Eritrea and other parts of Africa suffer a similar fate because Israel has so far been unwilling to accept non-Jewish refugees into the country because it would unbalance the Jewish majority.

As a self-described Jewish and democratic state, resolving the tension between Israel’s democracy and its ethnocracy will not be enough on its own to fix the refugee issue. Tel Aviv’s continued military relationships with Africa’s most notorious regimes such as Eritrea will have to come under scrutiny. As such, the refusal to release records related to its involvement in the Rwandan genocide doesn’t bode well for the prospect of robust discussion going forward.

This debate is reminiscent of the early arguments against Zionism. Anti-Zionists argued that statehood would thrust the Jewish people into a position where matters of state would trump moral judgment. The occupation of the West Bank proves this point, but it doesn’t stop there.

Israel’s relationship with Africa, whereby the country profits from the continent’s conflicts and refuses to accept asylum seekers, demonstrates that there is no morality in statecraft.

On Twitter: @ibnezra