A Perspective on Israel's Arms Trade


During her time working as an intern at War Resisters' International, Taya Govreen-Segal, a consceintious objector, delivered a talk to the “Britain and Palestine: Past History and Future Role” conference, held at Sarum College, Salisbury, UK, on 13th February. Below is a transcript, providing detailed analysis of the role of the arms trade in the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

I am going to assume that you already know about the violation of human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, that you've heard about the occupation, the military rule and siedge, and focus on one of the forces profiting from this situation and maintaining it: the arms trade.

Gaza, summer 2014, source: activestills.org
Gaza, summer 2014, source: activestills.org

I would like to start with Gaza 2014. By the end of the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, Gaza was destroyed. In Gaza, approximately 2,200 people were killed, 40-70% of them civilians, while in Israel 5 Israeli civilians, 1 Thai worker, and 66 soldiers were killed.

During the battle in Gaza, newspapers started reporting on new weapons that were put into use. These weapons immediately started being marketed as “battle proven”.

As Barbara Opal-Rome wrote in Defence News “as it is we do aggressive marketing abroad, but the work of the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] definitely affects the marketing. For the military industries, this operation (Protective Edge) is like drinking a super strong energy drink; it just gives a strong push forward.”


How this process happens is explained by General Yoav Galant, commander of operation “Cast Led” in Yotam Feldman's film, “The Lab”: Making blood into money. This is how Israel got to be the largest arms exporter in the world, in relation to the size of the economy.

When I’m talking about Israeli military exports, I’m talking about weapons, ammunition and combat aircraft as well as guerrilla warfare training, police training, tactics and tools for riot control, executions, and surveillance and intelligence technologies. This is our contribution to humanity.

In order to understand the arms trade, I find it important to understand how the Israeli arms trade developed, how it receives public backing, and its tight connection to the IDF and the occupation.

The development of the arms trade

Manufacturing arms started as early as the 1920s in illegal workshops hidden from the British Mandate when Zionists who “made aliya” - that is, migrated to historical Palestine, often illegally - discovered that the Arab population already living there didn't think much of their plan of creating a Jewish state in the area.

IMI factory, 1955
IMI factory, 1955
By 1933, IMI (Israeli Military Industries) was founded, and is one of the largest Israeli arms companies to this day.

Israel was founded in 1948 with the Zionist narrative of a small country surrounded by enemies, of the Jews after the holocaust having nowhere else to go, and of a young country surviving against all odds, thanks to the heroic young people fighting for their homeland. The young state was diplomatically isolated due to the Arab League boycott that threatened to cut trade connections with any country that traded or had diplomatic connections with Israel.

Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel came up with a plan to create trade and diplomatic connections and gain support in the UN: to “start from the periphery” and make connections with nations seeking independence from colonialism, mainly in Africa. One of the main needs of these countries was arms, which Israel was happy to sell to them from its own excess.

A good example is Burma (now Myanmar). In 1954, Burma was the first country to buy arms from Israel, and a year later, the president of Burma was the first president to come on an official visit to Israel.

While Israel created rifles and grenades, it was never self-sufficient in making all of its own weapons, and in these years was very much dependant on France for weapons, including tanks and planes, which it improved and refurbished.

In 1967, following the Six-Day War that France condemned, France stopped arming Israel.

In 1973, in the “Yom Kippur” War, Israel ran out of both weapons and foreign currency. This led Israel to a decision to start exporting arms as a way of securing both needs.

At this point, Europe, the US and the communist bloc were already controlling the arms industry. What could Israel bring to the table? What would be its expertise? The answer was weapons not for fighting an army, but for oppressing and fighting civil uprisings, and controlling the civilian population: a field in which Israel had no lack of experience.

By the early 1980s, arms export was 25% of Israel’s export.

In the 90s, the global arms trade underwent two significant changes: following the cold war, there was less of a need for weapons, and Europe and the US changed their values and started considering human rights. This was a good opportunity for Israel to replace them in arming countries that violate human rights.

By Israeli law, Israel is bound by the decisions of the UN Security Council, but this didn't stop Israel from selling weapons to Rwanda during the genocide, former Yugoslavia during the war in Serbia, or South Africa during apartheid.

Even this September, Israeli arms found their way to Myanmar, a country that has been under EU and US embargoes since early 90s.

Israel has the largest security industry in relation to the economy of any country in the world, exporting weapons to 130 different countries. All the countries marked in red on this map buy Israeli weapons. Israel refuses to join the 82 states that have ratified the Arms Trade Treaty and commit to not selling weapons that will be used for genocide, crimes against humanity and violation of human rights, since it fears signing it will lead states to stop trading with Israel.

And this is how Israeli weapons look in the world:

(From left to right: Israeli weapons in Ethiopia, Ferguson, Missouri, you know, the Black Lives Matter protests that were violently suppressed by the police? The police were trained by Israel. Israeli tanks in Brazil, where Israel trained the police to treat the favelas of Rio based on the IDF’s experience in Gaza; an Israeli fence in Kashmir between India and Pakistan; Israeli weapons Nigeria, in Peru, Israeli drones over the skies of Gaza, Ferguson again, and an Israeli fence in the Mexico-US border.)

But Israel isn't only one of the largest exporters of arms, in 2014 it was the 6th largest importer of arms, importing mainly from the US, which provides Israel with a couple billion shekels of military aid every year, of which 75% must be used to buy from the US. From Britain, Israel imports mainly components for combat aircraft and drones, as well as anti-armour ammunition and weapon night sights.

UK arms links to Israel
UK arms links to Israel

Two examples of arms companies that have UK sites and arm Israel are:

  • Elbit Systems: an Israeli company that manufactures the Hermes 900, that was first used in operation “Protective Edge”, has 4 sites in the UK

  • G4S: a private British security company that provides services for businesses in the West Bank settlements, detention centers, prisons imprisoning Palestinian political prisoners and checkpoints.

Overall, in 2014 Britain granted nearly £12 million worth of export licences to Israel, and over £25 million worth of export licenses for dual use.

Just an example for what dual use may mean, because it's a very ambiguous term.

On my first visit to an unmanned arms exhibition, I was surprised by the way drones were marketed. Suddenly the main use for drones was “carrying cameras” and “delivering packages”. When I asked an IAI (Israel Aerospace industries) representative about a 30 meter long drone whether it could also be used to carry bombs, he answered: “things like using drones for executions in Gaza – we don't talk about them”. It's hard for me to imagine that specific one would be considered a dual use item, but maybe the components were? I have no way of knowing.

Public Backing

Moving on to understanding the root of public backing for the arms trade, it's interesting to look at the popular narrative on Israel's security situation; a small country surrounded by enemies, diplomatically isolated because of BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), the Jews having nowhere else to go, and of survival against all odds, thanks to our strong army and cutting edge technology.

This narrative - that has stayed almost the same since the founding of the state - is maintained through the educational system and media, and breeds fear. Fear legitimises military solutions and militarisation of society as necessities, as the only way for us to be secure. For example: This picture is of an armed soldier speaking in a school shows a common scenario, and one which I experienced many time throughout high school; soldiers coming into school to share their experience, explain about the different positions in the military, and encourage “meaningful service”.

Fear and militarisation contribute to a lack of transparency. Anything that has to do with “security” is left to the decision of a small inner circle, far away from public discourse for “security reasons”. This is true of anything that has to do with “security”, whether it's the question of Israel's possession of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, or the security budget. Only 20% of the security budget is transparent in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and Ministry of Finance that need to approve it. Additionally, huge sums of money are added to the initial budget throughout the year without being brought to parliament.

Looking at the defence budget for 2015, you can see that after an addition for the month of December, an addition for Operation Protective Edge, a special security addition and the US military aid, the budget is nearly 20% larger than it was initially.

This lack of transparency is also true of the arms trade. The export control department was founded only in 2007 following American pressure, and is part of the ministry of defence. It consists of 2-3 workers, who are responsible for monitoring 8,000 people and companies and 400,000 marketing and export licences a year. This information on the amount of licences, along with the figure of 130 countries were only exposed thanks to a freedom of information petition filed by Eitay Mack, an israeli human rights lawyer, but we have still to discover who are the 8,000 people and companies, since at the moment only 0.02% of their names are exposed.

Arms Trade and the Occupation

This whole industry is dependent on the occupation and the IDF using the arms developed in war and in maintaining the occupation; not only do the Ministry of Defence and the government not stop the exports, they back it and assist them. Only recently it was revealed that the Ministry of Defence gives arms dealers letters of recommendation in which it states that the given weapon was successfully used by IDF soldiers.

This is also visible in the ISDEF, Israel's largest arms exhibit, that is advertised as the best place to “meet your counterparts from Israel such as end users and decision makers from the: IDF, MOD (Ministry of Defence), Police, Prison Service, Fire Department, SAR (search and rescue), Defence Industries, Civil Security Agencies, and Government offices.” It also states that there will be “international officials and industry professionals from over 90 countries” but it is impossible to find a list of the countries.

Source: ISDEF website
Source: ISDEF website
Attending this exhibit as a journalist, it was the first time I was exposed to the arms trade, and I was shocked by how normal it seemed, all these people walking around looking at weapons that are “battle proven”, tested and proven to kill people, yet the whole atmosphere was just like any other exhibit, they could have been selling cameras or cosmetics just the same.

But who are these arms dealers? Many of them are former high ranking officers, some still in reserve, going back and forth between the military and the industry. The IDF needs these the military industries to develop systems for it, while arms companies need the reputation of the IDF to promote overseas sales.

Source: Hamushim
Source: Hamushim

This Revolving door happens on a few levels:

  • ex-combatants from special units go to be security guards in Saudi Arabia or Kenya (How would the recruiters in these countries even get the names of the ex-combatants?)
  • Civil Administration Graduates go into consulting services, based on their experience in controlling civil population under military rule in the West Bank, and doing things like issuing entry permits to Palestinians.
  • High ranking officers and generals go into export and mediation. Mediation is assisting other countries in selling to each other. In most places this kind of work requires a permit, but not in Israel.

This means that the generals, who choose to go to war, are invested in the new weapons used in combat as an advertisement for the products of their associates - products that can later be sold as "battle proven".

Like some of the historical uses of the arms trade, also nowadays the arms trade is used as a diplomatic tool: for example, selling arms to Rwanda and Nigeria in return for them abstaining in the UN Security Council vote on recognition of Palestine.

Source: Ynet
Source: Ynet

Another example is arms given at a discount to Rwanda and Uganda in return for them accepting asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea.

And if you still aren't convinced, I would like to let the arms dealers speak for themselves, one said to “Haarez”: “A scenario in which there won't be a large military operation in 20 years will severely hurt the arms industries.”

The question remaining is how we work against it. In Hamushim, we focus on Israeli society: by spreading information and campaigning we try and change the narrative of the military industries as necessary for security and shift the discourse to their part in waging war and profiting from it.

General Yoav Galant spoke about the hypocrisy of countries condemning war and buying the arms tested in it, and I tend to agree. Anyone who wants this bloody conflict to end has to stop fuelling it with arms. And this is true for any conflict.

Here in Europe, it looks like things are moving in the right direction: Israeli arms companies have been requested by the IDF to develop parts that up till now have been purchased from Europe because the supply isn't steady enough to rely on, and they fear that items may be banned from export to Israel.

While it may seem that an arms embargo would have no effect on Israel, since it would be able to make its own weapons, this is not completely true. In addition to Israel being the 6th largest military importer, the agreements Israel have with the US stop it from manufacturing products that compete with those of American companies. Also, 75% of Israeli security manufacturing is for export. The Israeli military industries currently focus on developing innovative and new weapons or additions to existing weapons that may be used as a surprise in battlefield and will give a strategic advantage. Will it be financially feasible to develop arms knowing they can only be used by the IDF and not later be sold as battle proven?

Looking at the British law, Britain has every reason to stop arms trade with Israel. According to British law, arms should not be sold if there is a risk that they will be used for internal repression, aggravate existing tensions or conflicts, and should take into account the buyer country's respect for international law. So according to its own laws Britain has every reason to stop trading arms with Israel.

I would like to finish with an action that I find inspiring. This Elbit rooftop occupation stopped manufacturing for two days during Operation Protective Edge, and the charges against the activists were dropped because Elbit didn't want to expose what it was manufacturing fearing that may prove its activity was unlawful.

As activists interested in promoting a just peace between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, stopping arms trade with Israel should be high up on our list of priorities. Arms trade with Israel is one of the most direct ways other countries are involved in the occupation and they should be pressured to stop that involvement. The Elbit rooftop occupation is just one of many ways to target this involvement.

Activists in the UK occupy the roof of the Elbit Systems factory
Activists in the UK occupy the roof of the Elbit Systems factory

Programmes & Projects

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.