A kibbutz that markets low-grade chemical weapons is poised to sell millions of dollars worth of "riot-control equipment" to Zimbabwe in a move its critics warn will translate into heightened repression by President Robert Mugabe's regime (see story). But the firm, the Beit Alfa Trailer Company (BAT), insists its intention to sell equipment to Zimbabwe is actually humane: Demonstrators would be faced with water cannons, not live ammunition.
This is far from the first time Israel has supplied weaponry to a state increasingly considered an international pariah. Analysts say Israel's defense industrial complex - which is US-subsidized, and is massive for a country its size - is becoming one of the world's most competitive arms exporters. China, India, Burma, and Zambia are Israeli customers, despite the fact that the US either embargoes or severely restricts its own arms sales to those countries, says a Tel Aviv University study.
The UN reportedly had asked Israel to stop supplying both sides of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, including an air-surveillance system to Ethiopia and two navy boats to Eritrea, according to Ha'aretz, an Israeli daily.
Israel and South Africa's apartheid regime had a close defense-production relationship across a broad range of armaments, including nuclear weapons, according to Africa Business magazine.
The issue of BAT sales to Zimbabwe emerged in public discussion last week when Alon Liel, a former director-general of the foreign ministry and a former ambassador to Harare, wrote an opinion piece in Ha'aretz expressing revulsion that equipment produced on a kibbutz, Beit Alfa, would be used "to pursue the courageous proponents of democracy or the farmers trying to continue working their land, or against the thousand frightened Jewish citizens."
According to the website, www.bat.co.il, BAT builds riot-control vehicles and specializes in water-cannon technology. The chemical additives - to be used in restraining "dangerous inmate situations" in correctional facilities - "can be injected in the water stream, under further officer control, to further restrain and demobilize the inmate." Reuven Canfi, BAT general manager, says the chemical is a "food color" that aims at having "a psychological effect." But the website suggests other chemicals, such as pepper spray, can be injected into the cannon's water stream.
The company prides itself on producing nonlethal products that provide alternatives to opening fire. But its equipment has other uses. BAT sells an armored vehicle that comes with gun ports - which is basically an armored personnel carrier. Mr. Canfi says the latter type of vehicle would not be sold to Zimbabwe and that the planned transaction would concern only riot control vehicles that use water cannons.
The Zimbabwean newspaper, Financial Gazette, reported recently that Zimbabwe was seeking at least 30 riot control vehicles as part of a $10 million deal with BAT. Canfi says BAT plans to sell a much smaller number of vehicles in a deal amounting to far less than $10 million, but he would not specify.
"As long as they are using water with food color, instead of live ammunition, I'm happy," Canfi says. "It does not matter if it is Zimbabwe, Chile, or Angola, we help the government to save lives."
In 30 years of business, BAT counts among its customers the Israeli security forces.
The company started negotiating sales in Africa about a year ago, he says, with South Africa as one of its customers. During the 1980s, Israel maintained a close security alliance with South Africa while Pretoria was supplying Iran and Iraq, according to Africa Business. But even South Africa, which sells arms to Zimbabwe, is debating suspending those sales.
Yuval Steinitz, a legislator from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party, says he supports supplying Zimbabwe. "Beit Alfa cars usually end up saving lives of demonstrators. We would be happy if Saddam Hussein and the Syrians used them. I would be happy if the Chinese in Tiananmen Square had used only water cannons."
An Israeli official says the government "has a mechanism, including many checks and balances, that take into consideration all the sensitivities. When there is a fear that a sale would affect civilians in an internal conflict, we simply stop it."
"I think this is outrageous, and I don't think it helps Israel-Zimbabwe relations," said Nomi Chazan, a member of the Knesset from the liberal Meretz party. Israel, she say, should be forging ties with the people of Zimbabwe.