Human rights attorney Eitay Mack presented arguments to Israel’s High Court of the Justice on Wednesday against the sale of surveillance equipment to civil war-hit South Sudan, as part of a petition filed by left-wing lawmaker Tamar Zandberg.
The court did not reach a final decision on Wednesday. A ruling was expected to be issued on Thursday, but as of Thursday evening nothing has been handed down, Mack told The Times of Israel.
However, even when a decision is reached, the court’s ruling and the arguments presented in the case cannot be revealed, due to a gag order imposed by the court.
In May, Zandberg of the Meretz party filed the petition that called for the Defense Ministry’s arms sales oversight department to rescind a permit allowing Israeli companies to sell tracking equipment to South Sudan, as the technology had been used, in part, to hunt down political opponents, according to a United Nations report.
In December 2013, the fledgling South Sudan, which broke off from Sudan two years before, descended into a bloody civil war. A ceasefire was reached between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former vice president Riek Machar in August 2015, with Machar reinstated to his former position.
However, the shaky peace fell apart in July, forcing Machar to flee the country. The conflict has thus far killed tens of thousands of people — estimates range from 50,000 to 300,000 — and displaced 2 million.
While gun sales to South Sudan have reportedly stopped in 2013, surveillance equipment has been and may still be sold to the African nation, according to Zandberg.
In January, the UN Security Council released a report on the situation in South Sudan, which noted that Israeli technology had been used by Mayardit’s government in the “arbitrary arrest and detention” of those who support the opposition.
The people in custody are “subjected to beatings and other forms of inhuman or degrading treatment,” according to the January report.
“The [South Sudanese National Security] Service’s ability to identify and illegally apprehend individuals has been significantly enhanced since the beginning of the conflict because it has acquired additional communications interception equipment from Israel,” UN officials wrote.
The state requested that the contents of the case be kept secret, ostensibly to protect national security. The court granted the request in June, barring reporters from the courtroom and keeping the arguments under a gag order, prompting condemnation from Zandberg.
“The petition is based on open material that has been published in reports and the media,” she tweeted at the time. “What is there to be afraid of?”
Mack said he was also disappointed the case was being hidden from the public eye, especially since so much of the information comes from abroad and is drawn from public data, which is not subjected to the court’s suppression order.
“It’s insane. The whole story with the gag order only causes harm to the country,” Mack said.
“There’s a gag order in Israel, but [the information] is not something that’s at some secret base in Israel — it’s in South Sudan,” he said.
However, Mack saw a positive change in that the court would now provide “additional external oversight” to the arms export process, which was previously conducted “behind closed doors” and solely by the Defense Ministry.
“For decades it was carried out internally by the Defense Ministry, but there’s another branch of any democratic nation, the judicial branch, which now also monitors defense exports. This is something new. Every time this comes before a court, the court also has to give its approval for its legality,” Mack said.
Zandberg and Mack have been working together on the issue of Israeli arms sales to human rights violators for years, along with a number of other activists and politicians who work parallel to and with them.
‘What matters is context’
As the technology sold by Israel is being used to persecute political dissidents, Zandberg and Mack argue there is no difference between the surveillance equipment and a rifle.
“What matters is context,” Mack said over the phone.
“You can send rifles to prevent a genocide, to defend, or those rifles can be used to assist in the crimes. The same is true for a surveillance system. It can be used against terrorist organizations or it can be used against [political] opposition,” he said.
In a statement, Zandberg referred to the technology being sold as a “surveillance weapon,” which is “identical to a weapons system that shoots.”
According to the Meretz MK, the technology “directs the firearms of ruthless despots, who are going after civilians, women and children.”
A similar understanding was reached by the European Union, which has an embargo on the sale not only of weapons, but of “related materiel of all types,” according to a May 2015 regulation.
According to the UN and some international aid organizations, a portion of the casualties in the South Sudanese civil war were caused by Israeli Galil and Tavor assault rifles.
The sale of weapons, mostly small arms, to South Sudan by Israeli firms reportedly stopped in 2013, yet the UN found that the “Micro” variant of the Galil is “present in larger numbers than before the outbreak of the conflict.”
According to the Israeli government, those guns were purchased by South Sudan from Uganda, who had initially bought them from Israel. However, under Israeli law, companies are required to know who the end users of their products are — not just the buyer — in order to receive an export license, which means the sales to South Sudan were either done with the Defense Ministry’s knowledge or would have constituted a violation of the law and required an investigation into the offending company. No investigations are known to have been opened, Mack told the Associated Press earlier this month.
“The State of Israel cannot stand to the side and hide behind being gag orders and the secrecy of security in order to obfuscate the fact that weaponry and surveillance systems we have created are being used in one of the most bloodthirsty conflicts in the world,” Zandberg said.
The AP contributed to this report.