How cutting ties with Israel could hamstring Colombia’s military, ground Air Force

Jerusalem is sole provider of maintenance to Colombia’s aging fleet of Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets, and a key supplier of other arms, cyber security; trade will also be harmed

Kfir aircraft of the Colombian Air Force overfly a Colombian flag during a ceremony commemorating Colombia's Independence Day in Bogota on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP)
Kfir aircraft of the Colombian Air Force overfly a Colombian flag during a ceremony commemorating Colombia's Independence Day in Bogota on July 20, 2021. (Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia has become the latest Latin American country to announce it will break diplomatic relations with Israel over its military campaign in Gaza, but the repercussions for the South American nation could be broader than for other countries due to longstanding bilateral agreements over security matters.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Wednesday described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide” and announced his government would end diplomatic relations with Israel effective Thursday. But he did not address how his decision could affect Colombia’s military, which uses Israeli-built warplanes and machine guns to fight drug cartels and rebel groups, and a free trade agreement between both countries that went into effect in 2020.

Also in the region, Bolivia and Belize have also severed diplomatic relations with Israel over the Israel-Hamas war that started when Hamas assaulted southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking 253 hostages.

Here’s a look at Colombia’s close Israel ties and fallout:

Why is security cooperation between Colombia and Israel important?

Colombia and Israel have signed dozens of agreements on wide-ranging issues, including education and trade, since they established diplomatic relations in 1957. But nothing links them closer than military contracts.

Colombia’s fighter jets are all Israeli-built. The more than 20 Kfir Israeli-made fighter jets were used by its air force in numerous attacks on remote guerrilla camps that debilitated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The strikes helped push the rebel group into peace talks that resulted in its disarmament in 2016.

A Kfir multirole combat aircraft lands at Combat Air Command Base during the 210th anniversary of the country’s independence, in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca department on July 20, 2020. (Photo by Raul ARBOLEDA / AFP)

But the fleet, purchased in the late 1980s, is aging and requires maintenance, which can only be carried out by an Israeli firm. Manufacturers in France, Sweden and the United States have approached Colombia’s government with replacement options, but the spending priorities of Petro’s administration are elsewhere.

Colombia’s military also uses Galil rifles, which were designed in Israel and for which Colombia acquired the rights to manufacture and sell. Israel also assists the South American country with its cybersecurity needs.

Will the move affect Colombia’s military contracts with Israel?

It remains unclear.

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday in a statement that “all communications related to this announcement will be made through established official channels and will not be public.” The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press, while the Israeli Embassy in Bogota declined to address the issue.

However, a day before Petro announced his decision, Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez told lawmakers that no new contracts would be signed with Israel, though existing ones would be fulfilled, including those related to maintenance for the Kfir fighters and one for missile systems.

Velásquez said the government had established a “transition” committee that would seek to “diversify” suppliers to avoid depending on Israel. He added that one of the possibilities under consideration is the development of a rifle by the Colombian military industry to replace the Galil.

Security cooperation has been at the center of tensions between the two countries. Israel said in October that it would halt security exports to Colombia after Petro refused to condemn Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war and compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to those of Nazi Germany. In February, Petro announced the suspension of arms purchases from Israel.

A worker assembles a Galil-GT assault rifle at the Colombian-based military weapons manufacturer, Indumil, in Soacha, Colombia. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

For retired Gen. Guillermo León, former commander of the Colombian air force, the country’s military capabilities will be affected if Petro’s administration breaks its contract obligations or even if it complies with them but refuses to sign new ones.

“At the end of the year, maintenance and spare parts run out, and from then on, the fleet would rapidly enter a condition where we would no longer have the means to sustain it,” he told AP. “This year, three aircraft were withdrawn from service due to compliance with their useful life cycle.”

What is the trade relationship between the countries?

A free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel went into effect in August 2020. Israel now buys 1 percent of Colombia’s total exports, which include coal, coffee and flowers.

According to Colombia’s Ministry of Commerce, exports to Israel last year totaled $499 million, which represents a drop of 53% from 2022.

Colombia’s imports from Israel include electrical equipment, plastics and fertilizers.

Neither government has explained whether the diplomatic feud will affect the trade agreement.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report

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