Myanmar is a long way from Eitay Mack’s modest office in West Jerusalem. But on a recent day during the Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles holiday, while fellow Israelis were vacationing, this self-effacing young lawyer was fretting about the upcoming elections in Myanmar (Burma).
Mr. Mack is dismayed that in September Israel hosted a senior Army delegation from Myanmar, which included a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and visits to leading weapons technology producer Elbit Systems Ltd. and naval and air force bases. The European Union has imposed an arms embargo, and the United States military sanctions, against the Southeast Asian regime because of its poor human rights record.
Mack is concerned that by hosting the visit, Israel has sent a message of support for Myanmar’s military government precisely when the country’s transition to civilian democracy is facing its biggest test following Nov. 8 elections.
“Israel has increased the risk that the transition to democracy will not be successful,” Mack says. If the military maintains a dominant role after the vote, Mack intends to file a lawsuit against the Israeli Defense Ministry demanding that it disclose all of its security ties to Myanmar.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment, saying that it does not respond to queries about weapons sales.
Mack says Myanmar is just the tip of the iceberg. In recent years there have been reports in Israeli and international news media, and from organizations such as Privacy International (based in Britain) and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, of Israel providing weapons to regimes that are egregious human rights abusers without having a prior national discussion.
Now that may be changing, in large part because of Mack’s efforts.
Mack, who wears the kippa, or skullcap, of an observant Jew, is trying to pierce the wall of secrecy around Israeli weapons exports and is pressing for an end to weapons and know-how transfers that he says are helping to fuel conflicts worldwide. He has his sights set on reported Israeli sales of weapons or expertise to South Sudan, Eritrea, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, and Chad, among others.
Yaacov Havakook, Israel’s Defense Ministry spokesman, declined to comment on whether Israel is equipping these countries nor did he respond to criticism that it is abetting human rights violations.
Mack, who believes he is on a lifesaving mission, does the work on a voluntary basis, although it often takes up most of his time.
“I want to do all I can to stop war crimes and crimes against humanity...,” he says. His office is adorned with the iconic photo of a lone protester facing a column of tanks during a protest in China’s Tiananmen Square. “I am a citizen of the world, and I have global responsibility,” he says.
In December the EU imposed an embargo on weapons sales to South Sudan after that country’s civil war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of nearly 2 million people. The US, for its part, has halted all military assistance to the South Sudanese government.
But Israel, according to Mack’s information – which he says is based on press reports, or comes from aid workers he has interviewed and other sources he cannot divulge – is providing Israeli-made rifles and training South Sudanese forces. It is flouting the EU embargo, he says, and in June openly hosted a senior South Sudanese delegation at a weapons fair in Tel Aviv.
At the same time the guests were being welcomed in Israel, South Sudanese forces and their allies were winding up an offensive in which they burned villages and carried out scores of rapes and killings, according to Human Rights Watch. It said the regime was guilty of committing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during South Sudan’s April-to-June military push.
“Israel is prolonging the fighting in South Sudan,” Mack says. (The conflict has continued despite the signing of a peace deal in August.)
Mack has joined forces with a liberal Israeli legislator, Tamar Zandberg, a member of the Meretz party, who demanded that the Defense Ministry cut all Israeli military aid to South Sudan. Mack helped organize several street demonstrations that drew attention to the issue.
The Defense Ministry rebuffed Ms. Zandberg’s request, saying that it couldn’t discuss arms exports to a specific country. “They don’t want a public discussion,” Mack says. “What is most threatening to them is that the public will start to intervene in what they are doing.”
Mack and Yair Oron, an Israeli academic, are also fighting a court battle to obtain the release of all documents related to weapons that may have been provided to Rwanda during its genocide in 1994 and to the Serbs in Bosnia from 1991 to 1995. The Defense Ministry responded by specifying that release of the documents would harm foreign relations and the security of the state.
A lower court has backed the ministry. Mack and Mr. Oron are appealing the decision to Israel’s Supreme Court.
Born near Tel Aviv, Mack acquired his interest in world affairs at an early age. Rather than have a party for his bar mitzvah, the religious rite of passage into manhood at age 13, he persuaded his parents to take him on a trip to China, which he had become curious about from reading National Geographic magazine.
But it wasn’t until he traveled to South America in 2004 that he began to think seriously about Israel’s military role in the world. On that trip he met a traveler from Ireland who was wearing a well-known Israeli brand of sandals. He asked her why she had on Israeli footwear. She explained that she was going into the jungle in Colombia, and that Israelis were training the forces fighting there. She thought that if she wore the sandals she would be protected.
Mack wondered why Israel was involved in Colombia.
“I began to research, and I found that in some cases we are training and arming both the government and the rebels,” he says. “I found out we are supporting many dictatorial regimes and are involved in violent conflicts throughout the world.”
Mack makes a modest living by representing Palestinians who have suffered physical harm or property damage from Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank or from the Israeli army. He does not charge his clients but takes a percentage of the damages if he wins a case.
He refuses to establish a nongovernmental organization to pursue his goals, something that would enable him to seek foreign funding. “I’m independent, and I do what I believe in,” he says. “I’m not subject to donors or agendas. I do what seems right, and what seems right is international law, which I try to apply here in Israel and to the security exports abroad.”
Mr. Havakook, the Defense Ministry spokesman, has also declined to comment on Mack’s activities.
“Eitay Mack is one of the most important human rights activists in Israel today,” says Zandberg, the Israeli legislator. “He is a very rare combination of dedication, commitment to values, and professionalism, with a very strong moral emphasis. Without him, the Israeli public wouldn’t know about these sales and the security establishment wouldn’t be forced to know it has to be accountable. I’m sure his work will lead to operative steps like increased supervision and legislation that we have to work on.”
“What he’s doing is especially hard because it’s a security issue and that’s a holy of holies in Israel,” she adds.
“Many people don’t think civil society and civilians have the right to work on this. They think it should be the domain just of generals and security people. There’s no doubt that what he does is difficult, but that just shows how important it is.”
How to take action
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