Israeli role in arming South Sudan under scrutiny amid violence
Questions raised over involvement in Africa after regime uses weapons from Jewish state against opponents
Escalating violence in South Sudan is casting a light on Israel’s murky involvement in the conflict and raising questions about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new strategy of strengthening ties with African countries.
Netanyahu has been forging alliances across Africa in an effort he says will help blunt Palestinian diplomatic initiatives against Israel at the United Nations. But critics says these new ties – illustrated by Netanyahu’s high-profile visit to several African countries in July – have come without regard for the human rights records of those allies.
Such concerns have been magnified by Israel’s close ties to South Sudan, where the government has used Israeli arms and surveillance equipment to crack down on its opponents. Critics say Israel’s global arms export policies lack transparency and proper oversight, and ignore the receiving country’s intended use.
“It is the role of the prime minister, the defence minister and the foreign minister to look out for Israel’s interests. But this has a limit: not at any cost and not with everyone,” said Tamar Zandberg, an Israeliopposition lawmaker who has filed a court appeal to halt sales of sensitive technology to South Sudan.
Israel has long viewed South Sudan as an important ally and a counterweight to neighbouring Sudan’s support for Islamic Palestinian militants. Israel was one of the first countries to recognise South Sudan’s independence in 2011, and leader Salva Kiir visited Israel months later.
Since South Sudan descended into civil war in 2013, 50,000 people have been killed and two million have been displaced. In July, hundreds died when fighting erupted in the capital, Juba. Troops went on a near four-hour rampage at a hotel, killing a local journalist while forcing others to watch, raping several foreign women, and looting the compound, several witnesses said.
Just days earlier, Netanyahu had travelled to four African countries – Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia – in a visit meant to cultivate new allies in his diplomatic battle with the Palestinians. It was the first visit to sub-Saharan Africa by a sitting Israeli prime minister in nearly three decades. During the visit, he convened a summit with seven regional leaders, including Kiir – nearly all of whom have been criticised by rights watchdogs for alleged abuses.
A UN report in January said Israeli surveillance equipment was being used by South Sudanese intelligence, allowing it to intercept communications in a “significantly enhanced” crackdown on government opponents.
The report also found that an Israeli automatic rifle known as the Micro Galil is “present in larger numbers than before the outbreak of the conflict”. According to the report, Israel sold the rifles to Uganda in 2007, which transferred the weapons to South Sudan’s National Security Service in 2014. According to the report, Israel said it did not receive a request from Uganda for the transfer.
Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer working with Zandberg, said weapons export licences require knowledge of end users and mid users – meaning the transfer would either have been done with Israel’s knowledge or would have prompted an investigation into the offending company. He said no investigation was known to have been opened.