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Israel arms sales: Court decision ends hopes for transparency

Supreme Court judges reject petition to reveal key details about secretive Israeli weapons exports
An XACT TH64 Thermal Weapon Sight made by Israeli company Elbit Systems is unveiled to journalists in the Israeli city of Netanya on 8 June 2016 (AFP)

A legal campaign to expose details about Israeli arms exports came to an end this week, as the country's Supreme Court not only rejected a petition regarding tracking technology made by an Israeli cyber company, but also shut the door on all future petitions.

Appeals from Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack and a group of Israeli activists, who first embarked on a campaign to expose secretive Israeli arms sales over five years ago, demanded that the country’s Ministry of Defence release documents and records pertaining to the sale of weapons and military systems to countries under military embargo, engaged in civil wars and in systematic violation of human rights.

The campaign, led by Mack, demanded better legal and moral standards to govern Israeli arms exports. One of these supporters, settler Eli Yosef, even created a political party, while two members of the Israeli parliament - Ofer Cassif (Hadash, Joint List) and Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) - have supported the struggle from inside the Knesset.

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Their latest petition revolved around Israeli company Cellebrite, which produces a system to hack and track phones used to follow and arrest dissidents in Russia, Belarus and Hong Kong. Although the company promised this March to end sales to these countries, the recent petition to the court demanded that the systems already sold be deactivated to prevent further human rights abuses.

But in a ruling on 27 June, Supreme Court judges Alex Stein, David Minz and Anat Baron not only rejected the petition, saying that defence exports were out of their jurisdiction, but also said that no future appeals would be discussed in court, adding that except in extreme cases, the government can exercise its own judgment on sales of arms and offensive technology.

“It’s incredible that in a state which defines itself as Jewish and democratic, it was decided that preventing aid to genocide, to crimes against humanity, to war crimes and to severe violations of human rights is not a topic with which courts should engage,” Mack told Middle East Eye.

Legislation lacking

The website of Mack’s organisation, Hamushim, has become a platform to publish and disseminate otherwise unavailable information on Israeli arms sales. It revealed, for example, information on the extensive network of Israeli weapons dealers in Africa, who promoted a deal with Uganda to take in refugees in exchange for Israeli arms.

Although the Israeli government refused to ratify the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, it remains bound by international law not to assist acts of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Israeli legislation to ensure that Israeli arms companies comply with this obligation is insufficient, according to Mack.

A 2017 Haaretz article revealed that 99.8 per cent of arms export permits were approved.

A bill to address the lack of regulation was rejected by the Knesset in December 2020.

Shady sales

A series of scandals involving Israeli arms exports - to Chile under Pinochet, South Africa under apartheid, Guatemala during the civil war, and others - has given the country’s arms sector a reputation for providing weapons without asking questions.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said during a 2018 visit to Israel that he buys Israeli weapons because there are no restrictions.

Mack wanted to use his petitions to shed light on more recent scandals: including exports two weeks into the genocide in Rwanda, sales to Myanmar during the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, and Israeli rifles that ended up in the hands of the far-right Azov Brigade in Ukraine.

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But over the past five years, all have been rejected, with the Supreme Court issuing gag orders to keep the details of the deals secret.

In the case of arms deliveries to Rwanda, before and during the 1994 genocide, the court adopted the position of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs: that publication of any details could jeopardise national interest and Israeli foreign relations.

Despite the legal failure of the appeals, Mack’s campaign has become a check and balance on Israeli arms exports. The department that handles weapons sales within the Israeli Ministry of Defence, SIBAT, is constrained by few regulations, but the threat of media attention - because of petitions to the Supreme Court - has halted past Israeli exports.

Mack says that shortly after he filed petitions regarding cases between 2016 and 2021, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it was halting the export of lethal weapons to South Sudan, restricting exports to Burundi, ending all security exports to Myanmar, stopping export permits to the commando unit of President Paul Biya of Cameroon, ending delivery of Tavor rifles to far-right militias in Ukraine and stopping the sale of the Cellebrite system to Russia, Belarus, China and Hong Kong.

Israeli arms sales reached $8.3bn in 2020, the second-highest annual total ever, due to the prevalence of Israeli weapons in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Israeli companies market their weapons as “battle-tested” and showcase the use of these weapons in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip as proof of their effectiveness. 

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