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Analysis

Israel eases restrictions on defense exports but refuses to disclose its customers

Data shows a large jump in exports following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet information about the countries purchasing Israeli systems remains largely hidden

Foreign military officials seen at Israel's Defense, HLS and Cyber Exhibition (ISDEF), in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Foreign military officials seen at Israel's Defense, HLS and Cyber Exhibition (ISDEF), in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The year 2022 is shaping up to be a record-breaking one for Israeli defense exports. Yet, there is no public information on which countries are buying Israeli products, and what exactly they are purchasing.

In a recent announcement about the retirement of the head of the Defense Ministry body responsible for exports — the International Defense Cooperation Directorate (SIBAT) — it was noted that Brig. Gen. Yair Kulas was “one of the leaders of the sharp jump in defense export figures” up to an all-time high in 2021, reaching $11.3 billion (around 8 percent of Israel’s total exports, including goods and services).

A few months ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew site Zman Israel that the value of defense exports in 2022 will far exceed that of 2021. As early as June 2022, Defense Ministry data showed a large jump in exports following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to an increase in purchases made by Western countries.

However, the Defense Ministry has refused to provide a list of the countries that purchase Israeli arms and defense products, and the nations that are targets for growth by the defense industry.

Recently, the Defense Ministry published regulations that — when they go into effect — are supposed to reduce restrictions on defense exporters. However, the public is unable to pass judgment or comment on those regulations as most of the content is under wraps.

The regulations are set to change defense exports in two ways — first by expanding by 50% the list of unclassified products that can be marketed without a license. The Defense Ministry refused a request to provide a list of those products, saying it is secret.

Illustrative. Israeli soldiers launch a Spike anti-tank guided missile during a training exercise. (Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)

Second, the Defense Ministry is expanding the list of countries to which it is permitted to export unclassified products without a license. When asked for the list of permitted countries, again the ministry refused to provide it.

If 2022 breaks last year’s record for defense exports, it is likely that 2023 will again shatter the record in light of the easing of regulations.

However, while the defense industry’s export branch is growing and flourishing, the state is hiding the products, categories and destination countries to which exports can take place relatively easily.

This level of secrecy can pose a danger to the State of Israel; the more the information is hidden, the greater the fear of corruption, bribery and questionable mediation. Israel should have an interest in encouraging transparency in its export transactions.

However, one way to locate the information is through the defense budgets of the foreign countries to which Israeli products are being sold. In contrast to the Israeli defense budget — which is not segmented and reported — some of the foreign countries’ budgets contain data on defense procurement.

While not all the information is visible, it is possible to find some of the defense procurement transactions that took place or were completed in the last two years.

Some recent transactions include the purchase through intermediary countries by Indonesia (a country without formal ties with Israel) of unmanned armored vehicles.

Foreign military officials seen at Israel’s Defense, HLS and Cyber Exhibition (ISDEF), in Tel Aviv, on March 21, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Indonesia was one of a number of countries, including the Philippines, to purchase systems developed by Cellebrite, a company that makes hacking software.

Azerbaijan has bought Israeli armed drones, which were reportedly used in 2020 to attack Armenian targets in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Azerbaijan also transferred these drones to Equatorial Guinea, a dictatorship.

Turkmenistan has purchased off-road vehicles as well as armed drones while the Czech Republic bought radar and missile systems from Israeli manufacturers.

India is one of the Israeli defense industry’s biggest customers, with the joint Israeli-Indian Barak-8 missile defense system of particular note.

The Philippines has purchased patrol boats, as well as artillery systems and 32 Sabrah Light Tanks. Côte d’Ivoire has also purchased Israeli patrol boats.

Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer who is highly critical of Israeli weapons exports, recently contacted the Defense Ministry with information published by the Philippine authorities about tens of thousands of rifles, pistols and machine guns that Israel sold to the Philippine police. Police in the Philippines have been accused of summarily executing hundreds, if not thousands, of alleged criminals, often shooting them at close range.

Brazil has purchased UAVs, radars and missiles. Germany has also bought Israeli missiles and drones and is also expected to purchase Israel’s Arrow-3 system, considered one of the most advanced air defense systems in the country’s arsenal.

A test launch of the Arrow 3 missile defense system released by the Defense Ministry on July 28, 2019. (Defense Ministry)

Poland has purchased $152 million worth of Israel’s Spike-MR/LR anti-tank guided missiles, which will partly be produced in Poland. Slovakia has purchased an Israeli radar system that is slated for delivery by 2025.

The United States has purchased Rafael’s Samson RCWS-30 unmanned turret, which is controlled remotely, thus preventing soldiers’ exposure to enemy fire. The Americans have also purchased long-range Spike missiles and two Iron Dome batteries in a $400 million deal.

Singapore also purchased Rafael’s RCWS-30 unmanned turret, while Romania decided to buy a number of Elbit’s IFV unmanned turrets.

Italy purchased Spike missiles, as well as Israeli-made missile launchers. Britain has purchased five advanced navigation systems for fighter jets, expected to be installed on Eurofighter Typhoon jets.

Iron dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Ashkelon on August 7, 2022. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel sees defense exports as key to driving upgraded ties with countries around the world, but it has come under scrutiny for sales of weapons, drones and cyberspying technology to regimes accused of having spotty human rights records, to say the least.

The country’s defense exports are regulated according to a 2007 law that requires defense contractors to consider how and where the Israeli weapons will be used. The law is designed to prevent companies from knowingly selling weapons to countries that intend to use them to commit atrocities.

While the contractors are legally required to take potential human rights violations into consideration under the law, this requirement can be overruled out of diplomatic or security concerns.

According to an independent global security think tank, Israel was ranked the 10th-largest international weapons exporter over the past five years.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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