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Philippine 'war on drugs' architect Duterte seeks closer ties, arms deals on Israel visit

Israeli rights groups have protested over mass killings of drugs suspects in the Philippines, as a result of president's so-called 'war against drugs'
Israel refrained from holding an open press conference in bid to avoid any gaffes with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (Reuters)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte began a four-day visit to Israel on Monday in which he is expected to press for closer security ties between the countries and agree arms deals to buy more Israeli weapons.

The visit marks the first time a Philippine head of state has visited Israel since the Southeast Asian nation established diplomatic ties with Israel 60 years ago.

Duterte's visit has sparked criticism over his so-called war on drugs which has seen thousands of alleged drug offence suspects killed extrajudicially. He has compared the campaign to the Holocaust and favourably likened himself to Hitler.

Duterte has been explicit in his plans to increase security cooperation and has set his eyes on a potential aircraft deal with Israel.

Duterte bought a lot of weapons, especially rifles which are being used in what he calls the war against drugs

Eitay Mack, Israeli human rights lawyer

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said that tourism, labour and defence deals were on the agenda between the two US allies.

This visit comes as the Philippines attempts to pivot away from the United States and look elsewhere for weapons after Washington stopped selling arms to Manila over human rights concerns and diplomatic spats.

Figures released by the Israeli government show that Israel has already sold the Philippines three radar systems and 100 armoured vehicles.

Israeli rights groups have also raised concerns that Israeli weapons were used to perpetrate “mass killings” in the Philippines, during Duterte’s so-called “war against drugs” which has killed at least 12,000 people.

Earlier this year, government reports showed that Manila had bought Israeli-made Gilboa rifles and Galil rifles for its drug squads, who have been involved in extra-judicial killings of both drug dealers and drug users.

Eitay Mack, a human rights lawyer, condemned the visit and described Duterte’s intention to buy Israeli weapons as “business as usual”.

“In the last two years since Duterte was elected as president, he bought a lot of weapons, especially rifles which are being used in what he calls the war against drugs,” Mack told Middle East Eye.

“This is history repeating [itself] because in the 70s and 80s Israel supported the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and his death squads were being trained ... and got weapons from Israel."

Concerns have also been raised over Israeli arms sales to other South East Asian countries that have been accused of perpetrating human rights abuses.

Last year, Israel was accused of supplying Myanmar weapons at the height of its campaign against the Rohingya minority.

The Israeli weapons sold to Myanmar included more than a hundred tanks, weapons and boats used to police the country’s border, according to human rights groups and Burmese officials.

Israeli arms companies have reportedly been involved in training Burmese special forces who are currently in the Rakhine state where most of the violence has taken place.

Controversial comments

Duterte is also expected to hold a reception in Tel Aviv for the more than 28,000 overseas workers from the southeast Asian country, who constitute a major voting block for the Filipino president.

Ernesto Abella, an official with the Foreign Ministry in Manila and a former Duterte spokesman, said the issue of moving the Philippines embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as the United States did in May, had not been discussed.

Abella said the controversy around Duterte's Hitler comments had been settled "way back". Duterte later apologised for the comments. 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Israel "assign(s) great importance to this visit, which symbolises the strong, warm ties between our peoples as well as the enormous potential for developing and strengthening the relations".

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