As attempts to broker a peace deal between the South Sudanese government and rebel leader Riek Machar sputter, Israeli activists are working to stanch the flow of Israeli arms into the conflict.
Though Machar agreed to the terms of the deal Thursday, South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayarvit refused, demanding more time, even as the United States and United Nations threaten sanctions.
Both sides have been accused of human rights violations, in the two-year war. In documenting claims of ethnic cleansing, systemic rape, recruitment of child soldiers and more in the civil war, many also noted some of the weapons South Sudanese soldiers were armed with: Israeli Galil and Tavor rifles.
Israel has been providing the African nation with weapons, ammunition and training throughout its bloody civil war, according to Eitay Mack, a young attorney leading the charge against these arms sales.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg has been working with Mack to press the Defense Ministry for answers, while also trying to push forward legislation stymieing the alleged arms deals.
Some, however, maintain that the weapons, training and equipment are not bound for South Sudan’s civil war, but rather for its ongoing conflict with Sudan — a shared enemy with Israel.
The Defense Ministry, which oversees Israel’s sprawling defense industry, has refused to comment on weapons sales with any particular country.
‘It is as though we are helping ourselves’
Israel was one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan on July 10, 2011, establishing diplomatic relations with Juba only a day after the country’s independence.
The creation of an independent South Sudan was meant to put an end to its long-running war with Sudan.
The two countries, however, continue to fight over oil fields in the Abyei region, which both claim as their own.
If Israel is in fact selling weapons to South Sudan, it is to assist the South Sudanese in this conflict — not their civil war, Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, told The Times of Israel.
Israel has allegedly targeted Sudan, which receives significant funding from the Iranian government, at least five times in recent years for smuggling weapons to Palestinian terrorists, including most famously in 2012 when Israeli aircraft were said to have bombed a weapons plant in the capital Khartoum.
“By helping South Sudan, which is the enemy of Sudan it is as though we were helping ourselves,” Yatom said, though he denied any direct knowledge of arms sales to South Sudan.
Data on arms sales to specific countries are kept secret, but overall sales to Africa increased dramatically in the years following South Sudan’s formation.
In 2009 Israel sold just $71 million worth of weapons to the continent. In 2013, that number more than tripled to $223 million, and it reached $318 million in 2014.
In addition to generating money for Israel, Yatom explained, the arms sales can also pave the way to warmer diplomatic ties.
‘Israel supports South Sudan. Iran supports Sudan. And ‘Peace unto Israel.”
But Zandberg rejected the argument that the arms sales were part of a proxy war Israel is fighting against Iran via South Sudan and Sudan.
“I think that’s an overly simplistic view of the situation,” she said.
Israeli rifles committing war crimes
Since the beginning of the fighting in 2013, international organizations have documented numerous atrocities against civilians.
“This recent upsurge [in fighting] has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity,” the UN Mission in South Sudan reported in June.
But for all its severity, it is not a full-scale war with battalions, tanks and aircraft. It is being fought with machetes, grenades and rifles.
“The Israeli weapons that are getting there are playing an integral role in the fighting,” Zandberg said. “It’s hard for me as an Israel to think that this is happening in my name.”
Zandberg petitioned Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in May to cancel the licenses of the weapons companies doing business in South Sudan.
“It has become clear that it’s not possible to monitor the final destination of Israeli defense exports,” she wrote, “and there is an entirely legitimate concern that those exports are being used to carry out war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Along with her letter, Zandberg included a nearly 20-page report by Mack, who she said is “entirely independent” in his work on this issue, detailing his findings and relevant legal considerations for the appeal.
“The main small arms used are assault rifles especially Kalashnikov… and short and long barrel Israeli-made Galil rifles,” Amnesty International reported in 2014.
A Vice News crew also captured footage of Israeli Galil ACE Model 21 rifles while filming the civil war, Mack noted.
“There exists ongoing cooperation between Israel and South Sudan’s internal security service. Israeli officials have installed and help operate a surveillance network for oversight and internal inspections of South Sudan,” Mack claimed in the accompanying report.
Zandberg received a response from the ministry nearly a month later, though it did not directly address her concerns about South Sudan.
“The defense export policy to all countries is periodically checked by the Defense Ministry, in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and other authorities, in accordance with the security and political interests of the State of Israel, and this includes considerations of human and civil rights in the destination countries of the export,” Haim Blumenblatt, director-general of the Defense Ministry wrote.
“Of course, the existence of a civil war in the export destination country has consequences on the defense export policy to that country,” he added, the only allusion to the war-torn country in the response.
Zandberg also proposed new legislation that would require the oversight agency to reject a company’s request if it is believed the weapons may be used to commit human rights violations. The current law only requires “considerations regarding the end-user or the end-use.”
Zandberg proposed her bill before the Knesset disbanded for the summer, but it has yet to be voted on.
Weapons from Israel, China and Eastern Europe
Only Israel, China and some Eastern European countries have continued to sell weapons to the youngest nation in the world, and the international community has yet to declare an arms embargo on the battered region.
“Even if we are selling weapons to South Sudan, I don’t know of any restrictions on doing so,” Yatom said.
That may change soon. The US on Wednesday circulated a draft resolution to the Security Council calling for an arm embargo if peace is not reached by September 1, though Russia has expressed reservations.
There have already been seven ceasefires since the the bloody civil war began in 2013, but these were used by both sides to rearm.
As news of atrocities came to light, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order to stop arms sales South Sudan in 2014.
Yatom, however, claimed that this US embargo is in name only. “I don’t believe that,” Yatom said. “To the best of my knowledge, the United States is involved in South Sudan.”
In December of last year, the European Union, which includes some of the largest weapons contractors — Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain — similarly banned arms sales to the African nation.
Yatom does not believe Israeli weapons and systems are reaching the civil war. If they did, he said, he too would support an arms embargo on the country.
Dubi Lavi, head of the Israeli Defense Export Controls Agency, made a similar statement earlier this year in an interview with the Israeli financial newspaper Globes.
“We don’t want to see an Israeli weapon shooting a child or innocent person in any country,” he said, refusing to discuss South Sudan specifically.
“In places where we fear this can happen, we do not allow business deals,” he said.
Lavi’s department, however, is made up of just two people, Mack noted, making strict enforcement over the nearly 7,000 defense exporters an untenable goal.
This is not the first time Israel has sold weapons to countries accused of human rights violations.
Israel sold weapons to South Africa throughout the apartheid-era and to Guatemala during its 36-year civil war in which the military allegedly carried out a genocide against the native Mayan population. Israel even provided weapons to Iran in the 1980s for its war against Iraq.
Mack has petitioned to have the details of Israeli arms sales to Rwanda and Bosnia during the genocides there in the 1990s released, though they were denied on national security grounds late last year by a district court. Mack has since appealed those decisions and will argue before the Supreme Court later this year.