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Israeli Arms Sales to Rwandan Genocidaires Should Not Be Surprising

[Rwandan fighter looks on during the 1994 genocide. Image from] [Rwandan fighter looks on during the 1994 genocide. Image from]

A 24 June 2012 article in Maariv brought to light some new information about arms shipments from Israel to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Most of the basics about these transactions have been publicly available since 1999 when Brian Wood and Johan Peleman published The Arms Fixers. They reported, “Seven large cargoes of small arms worth $6.5 million were flown from Tirana [Albania] and Tel Aviv between mid-April and mid-July 1994 to the [Interahamwe] forces as they carried out the genocide, even during the time when the mass killings were being reported daily by the international news media.” The flights from Tirana were supervised by Israeli personnel. Sarah Leibowitz's article in Maariv adds a few names as well as information about Israelis training Rwandan military and paramilitary forces and earlier arms sales in 1992 and 1993. 

What is most surprising about the whole affair is that anyone would be surprised at all. Israeli arms―whether government sanctioned or black market, from multinational arms corporations or individual dealers and mercenaries―can be found in nearly every locale where human rights are violated. Anyone paying attention to Israeli arms production and exports over the last few decades would not be surprised by the latest revelations about Rwanda. 

A History of Arming Authoritarians

Israel began training the Iranian Shah's notorious internal security force, the SAVAK, in 1954 and selling Uzis to the Imperial National Guard in 1959. In 1963, Israel helped advise Iran's counterinsurgency operation against dissident tribes in the south, and in 1964 sold the Iranian army Uzis. Israel famously sold the Islamic Republic hundreds of millions worth of ammunition, artillery and other arms through the 1980s. Private dealers like Nahum Manbar, Eli Cohen and Avichai Weinstein sold the Khameini regime tanks, chemical weapons, armored vehicle parts and missile wires during the 1990s and 2000s. 

Elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, Israel assisted Sultan Qaboos ibn Said's totalitarian regime in Oman in its counterinsurgency efforts in Dhofar province during the 1970s, and joined with Saudi Arabia and Iran in supporting the royalists against the republicans during the 1962-70 Yemeni civil war. Israel more recently sold weapons to the Saleh regime, against which the Yemeni people have been rebelling since 2011. 

In Latin America, Israel sold small arms in 1957 to Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, and began arming Nicaragua's Somoza regime the same year. Israel would continue to arm successive Somoza dictatorships with small arms, aircraft, tanks and counterinsurgency training until the Sandinistas overthrow the younger Somoza in 1979. From there Israel shipped arms and advisors to the anti-Sandinista Contras as they attempted to overthrow Nicaraguan democracy during the 1980s. Israeli mercenaries provided small arms and military training to Colombian paramilitaries and narcotraffickers in the 1980s, and from the 1980s to present, counterinsurgency training, aircraft, missiles and small arms to the Colombian government – widely regarded as the worst human rights abuser in the Western Hemisphere. 

Israeli arms and training were key in the Guatemalan, El Salvadoran and Honduran repressions of indigenous, labor and progressive organizations and rebels from the 1960s through the 1980s. Between the three countries, hundreds of thousands were killed. Israel also was a major supplier of arms and training to a series of Argentine military juntas and Chile's Pinochet regime in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Israel first sold Uzis to apartheid South Africa in 1955. A decade later the country became a strategic ally. Israeli firms were building apartheid South Africa's border fences almost thirty years before the West Bank separation barrier. Israel supported South Africa with arms, training, advisors, technology and even tritium to boost the yield of South Africa's nuclear arsenal until the apartheid regime fell. 

Israel Military Industries licensed production of the Uzi to Portugal in the 1960s, which deployed these weapons in its brutal African colonial rule. Beginning in 1962 and continuing to the present, various Israeli governments, firms, arms dealers and mercenaries have provided everything from tanks to small arms to counterinsurgency training to Mobutu and his successors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Israelis assisted at various times all three sides – the FNLA, UNITA and the victorious MPLA – during four decades of Angolan civil war until it ended in 2002. 

Israel and Israelis sold, currently sell, or otherwise provided artillery to the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s, and armored vehicles in 2009 to the current U.S.-sponsored Karzai regime. In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel and Israelis provided private security, aircraft and military training to the Bophuthaswana and Ciskei Bantustan governments. To thte tyrannical Obiang regime in Equatorial Guniea Israel and Israelis sold naval craft (2004, 2008, 2011), drones (2008), military training (2005) and surveillance systems (2011). Ethiopia’s Derg junta was the recipient of counterinsurgency training, mercernaries, munitions and other systems from 1974 to 1987. 

Israel and Israelis armed the brutal Duvalier regime in Haiti with Uzis (1974-77), aircraft (1980), and counterinsurgency training (1970s-80s). For Turkey’s use in suppressing Kurdish liberation, Israel and Israelis sold drones (2004-2010), aircraft upgrades (1997-2005), tank systems (2002), armored personnel carriers (2009), and other systems. Zimbabwe received armored vehicles (2002) and crowd control systems (2008). And countless drones, surveillance and targeting systems, missiles, small arms, urban warfare and counterinsurgency training and whatever else to virtually all the forces involved in the U.S.-led invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

So if recent revelations in Maariv about arms sales to and during the Rwandan genocide are the least bit surprising, it is only because our conception of the Israeli arms industry is based upon something other than its actual history. Decades of sales to brutal regimes and colonial and imperial forces from the 1950s to present should have long ago dispelled any illusions. The Israeli arms industry is geared for export. The first small arms and munitions shops were founded in the 1920s to produce weapons to use against Palestinians during the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization and settlement has remained an important catalyst for research, development and testing of new technologies ever since. As Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi wrote in his 1987 study of the Israeli arms industry, Israel is exporting “the Middle East experience of Zionism.” When the whole industry is built upon the dispossession of the Palestinian people, how can sales to Hutu genocidaires in Rwanda – or any other tyrannical or oppressive government – be surprising? 

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