Israel and South Africa

excerpted from the book

Israeli Foreign Policy

by Jane Hunter

South End Press, 1987



lsrael's ties with South Africa seem to be especially disturbing to many who follow Israel's international activities. Perhaps it is natural that Israel has been castigated more harshly for its arms sales to South Africa than for its sales to other countries: first, because there has been for a decade an arms embargo against South Africa; and second, because of the unsurpassed criminality of the white regime and the uses to which it puts the Israeli-supplied weapons.

It has also been said that those arms sales are understandable, given the striking similarities between the two countries in their day-to-day abuse and repression of their subject populations, South African blacks and Palestinians under Israeli rule; in their operating philosophies of apartheid and Zionism; and in their similar objective situations: "the only two Western nations to have established themselves in a predominantly nonwhite part of the world," as a South African Broadcasting Corporation editorial put it. That understanding, however, is somewhat superficial, and the focus on similarities of political behavior has somewhat obscured the view of the breadth and depth of the totality of Israeli-South African relations and their implications.

Israel's relations with South Africa are different than its interactions with any of its other arms clients. That Israel gave South Africa its nuclear weapons capability underscores the special nature of Tel Aviv's relations with the white minority government and begins to describe it - a full-fledged, if covert, partnership based on the determination of both countries to continue as unrepentant pariahs and to help each other avoid the consequences of their behavior.


Arms industry

Nuclear Apprentice

There are few areas where the respective needs and advantages of Israel and South Africa dovetailed so perfectly as in the field of nuclear cooperation.

"The most powerful reason for Israeli willingness to bear the undesirable consequences of expanded and more open trade with South Africa may be her desire to acquire material necessary to manufacture nuclear weapons," wrote a military analyst in 1980.' To that must be added Israel's great desire to test the nuclear weapons it already had, and the attractions of South Africa's vast territory and proximity to even vaster uninhabited spaces-the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Then at the point in its nuclear development where it was fashioning sophisticated bombs (devices which use less nuclear material but have infinitely greater explosive force than the "primitive" bomb dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima), Israel would find it particularly helpful to observe the performance, explosive force and fallout of a detonated weapon.

Since 1984, Israel had been operating a plutonium extraction plant in a secret underground bunker at Dimona in the Negev Desert. Built by the French in the late 1950s, the Dimona plant also included facilities for manufacturing atomic bomb components. At the time of the 1976 accords, Israel was preparing to build an adjoining plant for the extraction of lithium 6, tritium and deuterium, materials required for sophisticated thermonuclear weapons.

Israel's reasons for devoting what had to have been a significant portion of its scant resources to such an ambitious nuclear weapons program - nuclear experts have recently ranked it as the world's sixth nuclear power, after the U.S., the USSR, Britain, France and China - have been variously offered as the desire to develop a credible deterrent to attack by its neighbors and the desire to substitute that deterrent for at least part of the costly conventional arsenal that Israel, with one of the world's most powerful military forces, maintains, and also (with much less frequency) as an "umbrella" over a partial withdrawal from the occupied territories.


The South Africans began teaching the lessons of Israel's 1967 war at their maneuver school, and Israeli advisers began teaching the Boers the arts of suppressing a captive population and keeping hostile neighbors off balance...

The white government's practice of domestic counterinsurgency l combines outright military brutality with the extensive use of informers and collaborators. It is impossible to know how many refinements of these age-old techniques have been borrowed from the Israelis' occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. The Israeli system of village leagues is obviously comparable to the hated town councils imposed on segregated townships by the apartheid government. The collective punishment employed by the Israelis, such as the destruction of a whole family's home when one of its members is arrested as a suspect in an act of resistance, has lately been matched by the recent South African practices of sealing off townships, and assaulting entire funeral processions. What is perhaps more salient is the South African victims' perceptions of Israel's involvement in their oppression and how readily that perception is communicated...


The Frontline States

The South Africans noted that their May, 1983 aerial attack (dubbed Operation Shrapnel) on Mozambique's capital, Maputo, was analogous to Israel's attack on Beirut the previous summer. one analyst, Joseph Hanlon, believes that one of South Africa's objectives in the attack was to see how its version of events would play in the media. It was received very well indeed, according to Hanlon, with the Western press accepting South Africa's claim that its attack was in "retaliation" for an ANC attack and that ANC "bases" were hit.

Instead, the South African Air Force hit a child-care center and private houses with "special fragmentation rockets," leaving 6 dead and 40 wounded. This follows the Israeli practice in Lebanon of speaking about PLO installations while civilians are the actual targets, and attacking with particularly heinous anti-personnel weapons-cluster bombs and phosphorous bombs.

The victims of South Africa's angst are not blind to the similarity of attacks-or motives.

President Samora Machel likened the Israeli Government to the Pretoria regime. He said that because of its inability to contain the fury of the Palestinian people led by the PLO, the Zionist regime is trying to transfer the war to other regions.

So reported Mozambican radio shortly after Israeli aircraft bombed PI headquarters in Tunisia in October 1985.

The model provided by Israel, which punishes every internal act of resistance and violent act outside its jurisdiction with a bombing raid on Palestinian targets in Lebanon-almost always refugee camps cynically identified by the Israelis as "terrorist bases" or "headquarters"-has served South Africa well. In January 1986, the white government's radio delivered a commentary on "the malignant presence" of "terrorism" in neighboring states and said "there's only one answer now, and that's the Israeli answer." Israel had managed to survive "by striking at terrorists wherever they exist."

In May 1986, South Africa demonstrated that it had assumed the right to attack its neighbors at a time and on a pretext of its own choosing. The chosen time was during a visit by the Eminent Persons Group of the Commonwealth of Nations, which was attempting to establish negotiations between the apartheid regime and its opposition. The victims-Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, all Commonwealth members-were chosen for their alleged harboring of "terrorists"; the real victims were South African exiles and an employee of the government of Botswana. The South Africans said they had attacked "international terrorism" and compared their raids to the Israeli attack on Tunisia and the U.S. attack on Libya in April 1986.

The attack was similar in style to Israel's 1985 attack on Tunisia. Initially, the Israelis had been threatening Jordan and perhaps because King Hussein of Jordan was at the time on an official visit to the U.S., the Israelis chose to take revenge for the killing of three Israelis (believed to be top Mossad agents) in Larnaca, Cyprus on the PLO in Tunisia.

Two weeks after its three-pronged attack on its Commonwealth neighbors, South Africa attacked the Angolan harbor of Namibia, firing their version of the Israeli Gabriel missile.

Israel has also been connected with the mercenary forces deployed by South Africa against Angola and Mozambique. In the 1970s Israel aided the FNLA (Angolan National Liberation Front) proxy forces organized and trained by the CIA to forestall the formation of a government led by the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-now the ruling party of Angola). John Stockwell, who ran the CIA operation against Angola, recollected three arms shipments Israel made in cooperation with the CIA: a plane full of 120 mm shells sent via Zaire to the FNLA and Unita; a shipment of 50 SA-7 missiles (all of which were duds); a boat-load sent to neighboring Zaire in a deal that the Israelis had worked out with President Mobutu, even though the Zairian strong man had broken ties with Israel two years earlier.

When Israel reestablished relations with Zaire (in 1982) and began to train Zairian forces in the Shaba border province, Angola had cause for concern. The leader of the FNLA had been Holden Roberto, brother-in-law of Zairian president Mobutu, Israel's new client. In 1986, it would be established that Zaire acted as a funnel for "covert" U.S. military aid for the Unita forces of Jonas Savimbi.

In 1983, the Angolan News Agency reported that Israeli military experts were training Unita forces in Namibia. Since Zaire began receiving military aid and training from Tel Aviv, Angola has been ill at ease. Its worries increased after discovering that:

Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was personally involved in the organization, training and equipping of "commando" units of the army of Zaire, especially organized for missions along the borders of the RPA [Angola].

In 1984, the Financial Times (London) wrote of "joint Israeli-South African support for Unita forces." Other sources also report the transfer of Israeli arms and financial support to Unita.

In 1983, Angola's President Jose Eduardo dos Santos told Berkeley, California Mayor Eugene (Gus) Newport that an Israeli pilot had been shot down during a South African attack. The Angolan President showed Newport pictures of captured Israeli weapons. The following year, Luanda reported the capture of three mercenaries who said they had been trained by Israeli instructors in Zaire.

Israel has also been involved with the Mozambican "contras," the South African-backed MNR (Mozambique National Resistance or "Renamo"), which has brought great economic and social distress to Mozambique. Renamo has a particular reputation for ideological incoherence, being regarded by most other right-wing insurgencies as a gang of cutthroats. For several years there have been stories coming from Southern Africa of captured mercenaries of Renamo who say they were trained in neighboring Malawi-one of the four nations to maintain relations with Israel after the Organization of African Unity (OAU) declared a diplomatic embargo in 1973-by Israelis. And more than one report has told of "substantial Israeli aid" to the MNR, thought to have been funded by the CIA and Saudi Arabia as well as South Africa and former Portuguese nationalists.

Israeli Foreign Policy

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