By Basil Farraj
Abstract: The Colombian state has for decades relied on Israel for much of its security know-how and weapons. The once strong military and security relationship, however, appears to be shifting, with the Colombian president strongly condemning Israel’s ongoing genocidal war and noting the long history of Israeli sponsored violence in Colombia. These shifts are critical and must be utilized to further isolate Israel, and to shed light on the globality of its violence.
Colombia and Israel have long had a strong relationship, manifested in deep military trade as Colombia purchased much of its weapons from the Israeli state. This was the case until Israel unleashed its most recent genocidal war against Palestinians—a war that has been causing notable shifts in the relationship between Colombia and Israel, in addition to other Latin American countries. To tell this story, the story of Israeli weapons manufacturing and trade must be told first.
The Israeli settler-colonial regime is the world’s tenth largest weapons exporter. In 2020 alone, Israeli defense exports reached $8.3 billion, an estimated 15 percent rise from the year before. This included purchases of approximately $800 million in Israeli arms by Persian Gulf States that signed normalization agreements with the settler-colonial regime during the same year. The following year, the Israeli Haaretz reported that the Israeli defense exports had “hit an all-time high” as they reached $11.3 billion, 41 percent of which were purchased by Europe and 3 percent by South America. These figures constituted a 30 percent rise in defense exports as compared to the previous year. In 2022, the same news outlet boosted that “Abraham Accords Partners Received 24% of Israel’s Record Defense exports,” and that Israel exported a record $12.556 billion in defense products, thus marking a 50 percent increase over the previous three years.
These figures, albeit solely pointing to the last three years, should not come as a surprise. During these years alone, the Israeli regime has been actively testing its warfare technologies and weapons against Palestinians. During the 2018/2019 Gaza “March of Return” protests, Israeli military forces killed 223 Palestinians and injured over 8,000 Palestinians with live fire. In May 2019, the Israeli military unleashed a three-day attack against the Gaza Strip, leading to the deaths of 25 Palestinians and the injuring of hundreds. Again in 2021, the Israeli forces conducted an 11-day attack against the Gaza Strip, killing at least 261 Palestinians and injuring over 2,200. This is in addition to the killing of hundreds of Palestinians and the injuring of thousands across Palestine’s other geographies of dispossession, including the West Bank and Jerusalem, over the past few years. As these words are being written, the settler-colonial regime continues its genocidal war against Palestinians, particularly in the Gaza Strip, that has led to unspeakable deaths and injuries. According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, the destructive power of the bombs dropped on the Gaza Strip during the first month of the war alone exceed that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in Japan at the end of World War II. Indeed, until 2 November 2023, the Israeli regime had dropped more than 25,000 tons of explosives on the Gaza Strip, equivalent to two nuclear bombs.
The settler-colonial regime does not only export weapons tested on Palestinians. It also exports surveillance technologies, cyber security, and know-hows related to torture and interrogation practices. In 2001, a Central Intelligence Memorandum cited Israeli legal warfare practices as an example to be emulated for interrogation practices in the USA’s multiple black sites and detention centers. The memorandum notes that the “CIA could argue that torture was necessary to prevent imminent significant and physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm.” Israeli torture and interrogation tactics to which Palestinian prisoners are subjected continue to circulate globally. The export of Israeli technologies and cyber security software has, however, earned a market of its own following decades of subjecting Palestinians to a military rule that controls and monitors every aspect of their life. This has earned the Israeli regime numerous names alluding to its status as an exporter of security knowledge, including being referred to as a surveillance-security state and a surveillance industry hub. Pegasus, sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, is one notorious example that has been purchased globally and used to facilitate human rights violations. These violations will continue unless boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel intensify.
Colombia is one of 130 countries that have for decades purchased Israeli-manufactured weapons, drones and spying technologies. Israeli violent practices and know-hows were deemed extremely important for the South American nation, which was involved in a decades-long war against rebels demanding political and social change in the country. In fact, in 2013, as negotiations were ongoing between the Colombian State and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president at the time who was granted a Novel Peace Prize in 2016, proudly asserted that “we are clients of Israeli industries in defense equipment. So this is an important element of our relations, but it’s not the only one.” Santos went on to say, “If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud. I admire the Israelis, and I would consider that as a compliment.”
There is a long history of ‘admiring’ Israeli violence in Colombian public discourse. Carlos Castaño, one of the co-founders of the right-wing paramilitary group, the Auto-Defensa Unidas de Colombia (AUC), wrote in his autobiography,
I learned an infinity of themes in Israel and from that country I owe a part of my culture, my achievements both human and military, and while I repeat myself, I did not learn only about military training in Israel. It was there that I became convinced that it was possible to defeat the guerrillas in Colombia. I began to see how a people could defend itself from the whole world. I understood how to get someone involved who had something to lose in a war, by making such a person the enemy of my enemies. In fact, the idea of “autodefensa” [self-defense] [in terms of owning and distributing] weapons I copied from the Israelis; every citizen of that country is a potential soldier).
Colombia’s ‘fascination’ with Israeli defense technologies is not only reflected in discourse. In January 2023, it was reported that the Colombian state purchased 18 units of the 155mm howitzer Atmos (a truck-mounted howitzer), worth nearly $101.7 million, from the Israeli firm Elbit Systems. During the same year, Colombia announced a contract worth $131.2 million to Israel Aerospace Industries for the truck-transportable Barak MX air defense system. Colombia has also acquired much of its military hardware and security equipment from Israel for decades. In addition to the equipment mentioned, the Colombian Air Force’s primary fighter jet is made by Israel Aerospace Industries. The Colombian military’s infantry rifles are the Israeli-made 5.56mm Galil automatic rifle machine gun and 7.62 mm Galil sniper rifle, which are currently produced in Colombia under license by the state-owned military weapons manufacturer company INDUMIL.
The extent of Colombia’s military and security relations with the Israeli regime is also evident in a video produced by the Israeli security company Global CST. The 2011 promotional video published by Global CST begins with the following narration: “From the challenges of South America to the needs of Eastern Europe, from Olympic game security systems to counter terrorism and law enforcement, time after time, Global CST is called upon to partner in solving sensitive security issues in the world’s most complex arenas.” The video features an interview with Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia, in which he says, “they [Global CST] are people with a lot of experience. They have been helping us to work better. It is like the person who is in the gym: you go there, and he tells you how to do it better.” Similarly, former President Ivan Duque’s response to Colombia’s April 2021 nationwide strike and its ensuing violence included the use of Israeli-made military vehicles and rifles against protesters.
Colombia has relied on Israel to provide training and security know-how for its military. The Israeli regime’s military forces continuously travel to Latin American countries, including Colombia, to provide training described by the Colombian state as “counter-terrorism and combat techniques.” Since the late 1980s, a well-known Israeli lieutenant named Yair Klein had been helping set up camps to train private armies in Colombia and the country’s far-right paramilitary groups on explosives, planting car bombs, and carrying out political executions. Klein, who was imprisoned in 1999 in Sierra Leonne for smuggling weapons, was convicted in absentia in Colombian courts in 2001 and sentenced to 11 years in jail due to his role in setting up training camps to teach private armies working for Colombian drug lords, and later for Colombia’s death-squads. Klein was arrested upon arrival to Moscow Airport in 2007. An attempt to extradite him to Colombia failed and he was later sent back to Israel.
What the references to the long history of collaboration between Colombia and Israel show is the extent to which Colombia has been viewed as essential to the export of Israeli technologies and know-hows. But they also show Colombia’s historical reliance on Israeli technologies and training—advertised as ‘tested,’—and on the notion that a shared history against ‘terrorism’ connects both locations.
As Israel’s genocidal war continues, however, these military and security connections appear to be slightly shifting.
On 15 October 2023, Lior Haiat, a spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that the Israeli regime decided to halt security exports to Colombia in response to the “antisemitic” statements of Gustavo Petro, the current president of Colombia. In a series of tweets prior to and following this decision, Petro refused to condemn Palestinian resistance, equating the Israeli regime’s violence with Nazism and calling the war a genocide. In one of his tweets in response to a massacre in Jabaliya refugee camp, Petro wrote, “It is from Nazis. Nazism is a form of fascism, deeply violent and genocidal. It is based on the belief of a superior race that gives it the right to exterminate and subordinate those who are different, whom it considers non-human.”
In another tweet directly responding to the decision to halt security exports, Petro emphasized that the violence which had raged across Colombia was aided and abetted by the Israeli regime. He wrote, “If we have to suspend foreign relations with Israel, we will suspend them. We do not support genocides.” Petro added, “Someday, the army and government of Israel will ask us for forgiveness for what their men did in our land, unleashing the genocide. I will hug them and they will cry for the murder of Auschwitz and Gaza, and for the Colombian Auschwitz.” In the same tweet, the Colombian president mentions Yair Klein and Raifal Eithan, two former Israeli military personnel and mercenaries, noting that both “will not be able to say what the history of peace of Colombia is. They unleashed massacre and genocide in Colombia.” This reference to the two former Israeli military personnel and their connection to violence in Colombia stresses the ways in which Israeli sponsored violence, equipment, and technologies have effectively shaped Colombia for decades. They continue to do so across other Latin American countries as well.
Recent shifts in Latin America, however, including those in Colombia, are a hopeful sign that Israeli sponsored violence and genocide will no longer be welcome in places that have had to deal with decades of violence and suffering. It is also a sign that other stories are being forcibly written. These are stories which directly connect Israeli settler-colonial practices and genocide with the violence that many have had to endure, and continue to endure, globally. It is also a hopeful sign that activists can continue to foster strong global solidarity ties, because what is occurring in Palestine – and what has been occurring for decades – has long been violently affecting populations across the globe. As activists always highlight, the struggle for freedom and justice in Palestine is a struggle for the freedom and justice of other dispossessed and colonized subjects whose suffering continues to be inflicted through Israeli-made weapons, technologies, and surveillance tactics, always advertised as being ‘tested’ on Palestinians.
Basil Farraj is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Cultural studies at Birzeit University, Palestine. He is an Arab Council for the Social Sciences’ Early Career Fellow working on a research project that explores the global circulation of Israeli carceral practices. Basil is a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian policy network. He has written extensively on the Israeli carceral regime and Palestinian prisoners’ resistance practices.