The arrests come at a bad time for Israel, with the US increasingly hawkish on China and the fourth early elections in two years to be held for the Israeli premiership at the end of the month.
A group of over 20 Israelis, including former defence officials, were arrested by Israel’s secret police (ISA) for illegally selling suicide drones to China.
According to the Law For Oversight of Defense Exports, Israel’s Ministry of Defense is required to consult with the Foreign Ministry for weapons sales to any country. This allows Israel to mitigate harm to its foreign policy and international ties.
A previous attempt at selling intelligence collection drones to China was cancelled due to US pressure.
This comes nearly a month after three legal sales of the same weapon were sold to Asian nations. Within Israel, a gag order is in effect.
The revelation comes from investigative journalist Richard Silverstein’s blog, which has been reporting on the details of the sale since February 11.
Silverstein notes this isn’t the only time Israel has attempted defence sales to China, only to earn the United State’s ire.
Unmentioned was the relatively little regulation governing Israel’s defence industry. Israel’s historic record of arms sales shows little concern with human rights records.
The most recent sale of ‘loitering’ suicide drones is the second such deal made between the two nations, with the first taking place in 1998. The ‘Kamikaze’ drones are manufactured by local defence giants Rafael and Israeli Aerospace Industries.
Suicide drones, or ‘loitering munitions as they are technically known, are a hybrid between drones and guided missiles. They are defined by being able to ‘loiter’ in the air for a long period of time, before striking a target entering a pre-defined zone or waiting for human guidance.
Euphemistically described as a ‘fire-and-forget’ weapon, the Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Harop autonomously attacks any target meeting previously identified criteria, but includes a ‘man-in-the-loop’ feature that allows a human to technically prevent an attack from taking place without approval.
Given the cutting-edge nature of autonomous weapon platforms, there is little in the way of international law regulating their production or sale.
In his paper “The Necropolitics of Drones” Dr. Jamie Allinson says suicide drones give powerful military commanders the one weapon don’t already own. For most leadership, suicide drones are the perfect soldier. They never know reluctance or fear, and can hold a position for hours waiting for its chance to take others with it.
Allinson goes on to argue that the suicide drone and human suicide bomber cause the same level of terror rooted in the lack of warning.
To boost sales, Israeli aerospace companies have sold the story that they’re well acquainted with suicide bombings. Another trademark of Israeli defence offerings is the notion that their weapons are ‘battle-proven’.
The implications were rarely voiced. Israeli defence sale pitches don’t often admit they saw testing first and foremost on occupied Palestinians.
In recent years, Israel's defence spending has been shrinking slowly. Israel was formerly allowed to reinvest nearly a quarter of US defence spending into its own defence industries.
This came to an end after 2016, when the terms of the agreement were rebalanced by former US President Barack Obama. Coupled with a flagging economy and elected leader facing multiple charges of corruption, Israel’s security establishment seems overtaxed.
The most recent scandal has far-reaching implications on US-Israeli cooperation, particularly after the hawkish stance taken by Biden’s administration on China. This has prompted fears that Israel finds itself in an awkward bind with the new administration, even if it will only earn them a slap on the wrist
The US maintains strict regulations for military aid sent to Israel, which make it illegal to transfer US technology, compete with US defence companies, and spend the majority of the aid on US defence products.
This comes ahead of Israel’s early elections set for the end of March, after the coalition government failed to approve a budget. This would be the fourth such election held in four years.
Suicide drones have been in the international spotlight since Azerbaijan made use of Israeli loitering munitions in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to great effect. But even their involvement was later deemed questionable.
In 2017, Israeli company Aeronautics Limited was charged with fraud and violation of Azerbaijan’s export control laws. This came after Israeli members of the company “demonstrated” the effectiveness of their suicide drone with an actual strike on Armenian soldiers in the region.
The relatively small number of members also raises concerns over the growing ease with which militias and non-state actors are adopting suicide drone technology, most recently in Yemen.
It remains to be seen how Biden’s new administration will respond to news of the illegal sale with China.