Amid uproar, Israel halts arms sales to Myanmar — report

Sources tell Intelligence Online magazine that Avigdor Liberman has blocked defense exports to Asian nation accused of ethnic cleansing

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Rohingya refugee carries an elderly woman toward a makeshift shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia, October 26, 2017. (AFP/Tauseef MUSTAFA)
A Rohingya refugee carries an elderly woman toward a makeshift shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia, October 26, 2017. (AFP/Tauseef MUSTAFA)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has reportedly frozen military export licenses to Myanmar, which has been accused of extensive war crimes, amid an international outcry against the arms sales.

“The Israeli defense minister has discreetly but significantly decided to block military export licenses for Myanmar,” the French Intelligence Online magazine, which focuses on international intelligence issues, reported Wednesday, citing anonymous sources.

According to the report, the decision was made to “appease the United States.”

Liberman’s office said it was not prepared to comment on the report.

Eitay Mack, an attorney who has led the fight against arms sales to human rights violators, expressed skepticism. He pointed out that the report was not verified and that while Israel has, in the past, halted specific arms sales, it has not cut off entire countries from its military products over allegations of human rights violations.

Israel was one of the few countries selling weapons to South Africa during apartheid and only stopped selling weapons to Rwanda during the genocide there after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that put an arms embargo on the country.

“This would be a first,” Mack told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, “but I do want to say that I hope it’s true.”

In its report, Intelligence Online noted the “strong reaction to Israeli assistance to Myanmar’s security services.”

On Monday evening, a group of Israeli activists and lawmakers from both left- and right-wing parties staged a protest outside the Knesset, calling for Israel to halt arms sales to Myanmar.

And last week, hundreds of religious leaders in the United States signed a petition calling on Israel to stop exporting weapons to Myanmar over the Asian nation’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya population.

Their letter joined one written weeks before by dozens of Israeli rabbis and community leaders, including a former government minister, who called for an end to the arms sales and the passage of a law that would forbid defense exports to countries that commit gross human rights violations.

Rabbi Avidan Freedman, who organized the petition by 55 Israeli religious leaders, said even if the Intelligence Online report was true and Israel did halt arms sales, nothing has been done to address the mechanism that allows for defense exports to human rights violators — their classified nature.

“That Israel, under the cover of secrecy, makes a small change because people made noise, that’s not the outcome I’m looking for,” Freedman said over the phone on Wednesday.

He said he suspected that defense exports to human rights violators will continue “so long as there’s still this mantle of secrecy, and no legislation or way for us to be assured as citizens that we’re not involved in things like this.”

Freedman called for clear “moral red lines” that are enforced by law.

Myanmar has been accused of brutally mistreating the minority population for decades, but its actions have picked up in recent months, with Rohingya testifying that Myanmar troops were committing mass murder and systematic rape, and burning entire villages.

United Nations officials have described the situation in Myanmar as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

The Intelligence Online report noted the recent controversy over Israeli arms sales to Myanmar, but did not say when exactly Liberman gave his order; nor did the magazine reveal its source.

“The issue of military sales to Myanmar has been under discussion in Israel since a number of key deals were revealed recently,” the report said.

The majority of the revelations were made by the Myanmar military junta itself.

This included the sale of patrol boats to the country’s navy, which Myanmar publicized on government-run Facebook pages both after the agreements were made and when the boats were delivered.

The Israeli company Tar Ideals Concept also revealed on its website, apparently accidentally, that it had sold its CornerShot gun modifier, which allows the user to shoot at 90 degree angles, to Myanmar and trained the country’s special forces.

Intelligence Online also noted a second reason that there may have been pressure on Israel to halt the arms sales: Israel’s cooperation with China on drone technology, which the US opposes.

According to the magazine, one of the companies affected by the ostensible freeze on weapons sales is Commtac, a subsidiary of Aeronautics Defense Systems, which works with the Chinese drone manufacturers that supply Myanmar. (Aeronautics made headlines earlier this year when Israel suspended its export license to Azerbaijan amid allegations that it had conducted an illegal live weapons test in the country against Armenian forces.)

The US has long expressed disapproval of Israeli-Chinese weapons development cooperation, as many of the weapons developed by Israel have American components, which China can reverse-engineer and learn to counter.

Earlier this month, in response to the recent petitions, the Foreign Ministry released a statement that did not deny weapons were being sold to Myanmar, but said that Israel was not directly involved in the apparent ethnic cleansing there.

“Israel vigorously denies the false reports being spread by the media about Israel’s alleged involvement in the tragedy in the Rakhine state in Myanmar,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. “The State of Israel’s oversight policy for defense exports are reviewed regularly in accordance with different considerations, including the human rights situation in the country, as well as the policy of the UN Security Council and other international bodies.”

Since late August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the army campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. A recent report by the UN human rights office accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing, including seeking to permanently expel the Rohingya by planting land mines at the border with Bangladesh where the refugees are sheltering.

UN rights officials spoke to refugees who gave accounts of soldiers surrounding homes and firing indiscriminately as residents ran for their lives, and of uniformed men gang-raping women and girls.

AFP contributed to this report.

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