“Must the sword devour forever” (2 Samuel 2:26)
Israel is the sixth-largest exports of arms and military equipment. The only countries ahead of it are the largest economic superpowers in the world: The US, Russia, France, UK and Germany. Though Israel focuses on producing expensive and advanced combat technologies sold to wealthy countries, Israel still exports arms to developing countries at 9 million dollars annually. The Israeli public has never seriously engaged the fact that Israeli arms, military experience and training is being bought sold across the globe. This is the true “long arm of the IDF,” and it reaches everywhere, including totalitarian regimes and bloody conflicts.
The reason that a tiny state like Israel is able to compete with the superpowers in the production and sale of military equipment is connected to the experience accumulated by the IDF and Israeli military industry over decades of daily management and control of the Palestinian civilian population the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in wars with neighboring countries. The reputation of Israeli products depends on the fact that the technology, arms, and training techniques have been tested in real time and proven battle-proven. That is how their market value rises and the demand for them abroad increases.
Another reason has to do with the “revolving door” phenomenon. This refers to the relatively simple transition from the military to private industry and back, without any oversight concerning potential conflicts of interest and without cooling-off periods. Though Israel has a law against conflicts of interest in the public sector (Public Workers Law, Post-Retirement Restrictions, Application to Soldiers and Police Officers, 1976), this law is not enforced and the Exceptions Committee responsible for oversight often approves shortening the cooling-off period instead of enforcing the law. When former military officers transition immediately to selling arms following the conclusion of their military service, they are often authorized by the Israeli Defense Ministry to share “state secrets” or other classified information related to Israeli combat methods with their foreign customers. This is the merchandise that they sell to foreign countries. It is interesting to compare the fate of these former officers with that of others who shared classified information, such as Anat Kam or Mordecai Vanunu.
Despite the fact that Israel’s military industries create many benefits for Israel (75% of products are slated for export, and only 25% are for domestic use), there is no formalized, transparent system of oversight for military exports. Information about which states are the final destinations for the exports, and the identity of arms exporters, marketers and brokers is hidden from the public. Likewise, Israel reports on only a tiny part of its military exports to the UN agency appointed to oversee arms trafficking (The Register), who requests information on business and final destination countries. Following a Freedom of Information petition, Israel revealed the identity of 5 countries that it sold equipment to, out of a total of 130 countries. In addition, and in response to the petition, Israel said that it would only admit to reports that were submitted to the Register by the importing countries (given that they agreed of their own free will to admit to the Israeli exports to them, and to bear the political implications).
One positive step, though far from satisfactory, took place in 2007, when the Military Exports Oversight Law went into effect (replacing the Oversight Directive on Products and Services, in effect up to that point by force of the Products and Services Oversight Law, 1975). The new law was intended to formalize Israeli arms exports and prevent their reaching the wrong hands. According to the law, the issuance of an arms export license is a two-step process that requires receiving a marketing license, and afterwards receiving an export license that is granted only after registering with the military export registry. The types of equipment requiring oversight include combat equipment, missile equipment and dual-purpose equipment, meaning materials that were intended for civilian use but which could be used for military purposes.
The people entrusted with implementing the Oversight Law are the Defense Ministry Director, or the director of the Defense Exports Control Agency (DECA, or EPI in Hebrew). DECA’s responsibility and authority includes registering exporters in the military exports registry, issuing marketing licences and export licences, advising exporters and enforcing the law. Other parties involved include the Defense Export and Cooperation Agency (SIBAT) which promotes export by initiating and advancing international collaborations, the Director of Security of the Defense Establishment, the Defense Political Branch, the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (Maf’at), the Defense Establishment Legal Advisor’s Department and other parties from the IDF and the Foreign Ministry.
According to veteran human rights lawyer Itai Mack, “The special character of Israeli military exports, whose reputation and experience was bought with the blood of Israeli citizens, reputation that was bought over decades of war and military rule in the occupied territories, imposes a special burden of disclosure and transparency toward the Israeli public that may not exist in other countries.” For this reason, in 2013 Mack filed an administrative petition to disclose the names of persons and companies registered in the military exports registry as well as the licences granted to them by the Defense Ministry. According to the data presented in court, at the end of 2012 the military exports registry had 6,784 persons including 312 independent exporters and 1,006 companies who were collectively issued 19,000 marketing licences and 8,716 export licenses. According to data presented to the court by the Defense Ministry, by the end of 2013, 400,000 marketing and export licences had been issued. Out of those 1,000 companies, only a small number appear in SIBAT’s military exports guide, meaning that the rest are operating in the dark.
For several years in a row, the Israeli State Comptroller’s report has raised serious misgivings concerning the enforcement of this law. The main claims are that the Defense Ministry does not demand the level of reporting required by law from the exporters, and that most of the enforcement actions are conducted only in response to information received from various parties concerning violations of the law, and not in a continuous manner as the law requires. In addition, DECA passes only partial information to customs officials concerning approved export licences. This does not allow the Customs Administration to carry out its duties optimally. Likewise, DECA and the Customs Administration do not employ professional personnel with the relevant technical knowledge that would allow them to check the contents of deliveries and match them with the manufacturers’ documents. In addition, there are only three employees responsible for enforcing a law pertaining to the thousands of registered exporters and export companies. These three employees are also responsible for enforcing the law concerning any and all Israelis and Israeli companies that are operating without a license.
Though years have passed since the law came into effect, the Defense Ministry has yet to put into effect the articles of the law pertaining to oversight of brokering activities between foreign parties. The law says that “…brokering activity between foreign parties concerning combat equipment or missile equipment conducted by an Israeli resident or Israeli corporation must receive a brokering licence from the authorized authority.” In other words, even in cases where there is oversight on a deal with State A, there may still be Israeli parties transferring the equipment to State B without reporting it. Likewise, companies being overseen by the Defense Ministry attend meetings with regulators in which decisions pertaining to purchasing are made. Therefore, there is a legal bypass of the Oversight Law due to the built-in conflict of interest.
An additional problem with oversight of military exports is the connection and codependency between the IDF and private companies. The three largest military equipment manufacturers in Israel are Elbit Systems, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries. The IDF and the military establishment have extremely close ties with these companies. Because the IDF is a relatively small army when considered on a global scale, and given that 75% of exports are earmarked for export while only 25% are meant for the local market, a strong codependency between the IDF, the Israeli security forces and private companies has developed. The IDF needs the military industries to develop systems for it, while the military equipment companies need the IDF’s reputation to promote sales abroad. In addition, larger profits from foreign sales for these private corporations means a lower price for the same products in Israel. The relationship between the IDF and the industries is also a personal one: most people who work in the arms industry are former senior officers or people who continue to serve in senior positions in the reserves, meaning that there is no actual separation between public service and private businesses. According to writer and researcher Rela Mazali, “In actual fact this is a closed men’s circle, a well-connected caste of military men or ex-military men who enjoy privileges that are granted to them far from the public eye, with no cooling-off period between the different positions they take.”
If we place Israel in the international context, in 2013, after a lengthy struggle waged by human rights organizations headed by Amnesty International, the UN General Assembly approved the Arms Trade Treaty by an overwhelming majority. Its goals are: to set international standards for the sale of conventional arms, to make sure that there are no violations of international human rights law, to prevent war crimes and to advance the protection of civilians. The treaty was not intended to oversee the use of arms within each country, but only to formalize the activity of arms sellers.
Though Israel voted in favor of the treaty, it did not ratify it, meaning that it is ostensibly not obligated to comply with it. The Israeli position is understandable considering the abovementioned position of the Israeli military industry. It is also possible that Israel’s position in the international arena is similar to its behavior in other areas where it does not want to be seen to be “surrendering” to international pressure. The fear of legitimizing the treaty also has to do with the fact that other states who signed it might stop buying and selling Israeli military equipment because of the human rights violations committed by Israel itself. Another dimension is the fear of losing customers because of human rights violations committed by purchasing states. Given that we do not live in a world that has 130 “peaceful” states, it can be safely assumed that many of the states that Israel sells weapons to use them for dubious ends. If Israel ratifies the treaty, it will be forced to give these customers up. The US did not ratify the treaty either, and there are US Senators opposed to the treaty only because they understand that the treaty would likely create an embargo on Israel due to Israel’s human rights violations.
What this substandard oversight means is that Israeli citizens are paying a price for what is done in their name. Likewise, democratic governance is dealt a serious blow when the Defense Ministry allows citizens and companies to export lethal weapons without any governmental or civilian oversight.
Examples of Israeli exports to countries can be found in the military exports map**
 Authorization of the initiation of contacts related to the sale of the manufacturers’ military goods and the state that they could be marketed to.
 Final authorization for exporting the product abroad following the signing of the agreement that allows the product to pass through customs.