The Israeli army has released footage of its Maglan commando unit deploying the Iron Sting, a precision-guided 120mm mortar bomb, against Hamas in Gaza. Elbit Systems, a Haifa-based manufacturer, has been advertising its qualities on the public relations page of its website since March 2021, when it was integrated into the Israeli military. Benny Gantz, then Israel’s defence minister and now a part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, described the Iron Sting as “designed to engage targets precisely, in both open terrains and urban environments, while reducing the possibility of collateral damage and preventing injury to non-combatants”.
However, more than one month after Israel launched the aerial bombardment of Gaza following a surprise Hamas attack, it has killed at least 11,400 Palestinian civilians and injured 30,000 in the besieged strip and the occupied West Bank. More than 4,700 of Gaza’s children are dead. Hamas fighters killed 1,200 people in their October 7 attack.
Israel’s devastatingly “surgical” killing machines, tested on Palestinians, have global takers, say analysts. Ahmed Saeed al-Najar, 28, was driving his taxi in Rafah during Gaza’s third war of 2014 when a drone missile came in through the open sunroof of his taxi, instantly decapitating and killing all six of his passengers, his best friend included. The car had been targeted by an Israeli Spike drone rocket, which can be modified to carry a fragmentation sleeve of thousands of 3mm tungsten cubes, said to affect an area of approximately 20 meters in diameter. The cubes puncture metal and “cause tissue to be torn from flesh”, literally shredding anyone within range, according to Erik Fosse, a Norwegian doctor working in Gaza.
By 2014, drones that carry the Spike rocket had already become highly sought-after by other countries. The Heron TP “Eitan” drone is Israel’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and was brought into service in 2007. Manufactured by the state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel’s largest aerospace and defense company and the country’s largest industrial exporter, it can fly up to 40 hours continuously and can carry four Spike missiles.
After the 2008-09 Gaza war, IAI witnessed a surge in orders of Heron variant drones from at least 10 countries between 2008-2011. During this period, more than 100 drones were purchased, leased or acquired under joint venture schemes. India, Israel’s largest military buyer, which operates more than 100 Israeli-made UAVs, purchased 34 Heron drones in this period, followed by France (24), Brazil (14) and Australia (10).
Weapons exports have uses beyond the revenue they bring to Israel. They also serve as an insurance policy to insulate themselves from the intense pressure to change their behavior over the decades-long occupation of Palestinians. Last month, Colombian President Gustavo Petro refused to condemn the surprise attack launched by Hamas on October 7, instead responding that “terrorism is killing innocent children in Palestine”. In response, the Israeli government halted all sales of defense and security equipment and associated services to the Latin American country.
Israel is, by far, the world’s largest exporter of military drones: in 2017, it was estimated that it was behind nearly two-thirds of all UAV exports over the previous three decades. Elbit, the maker of the Iron Sting, provides up to 85 percent of the land-based equipment procured by the Israeli military and about 85 percent of its drones.
Israel’s defence industry sales remain largely hidden, with the process of selling arms shrouded in secrecy. A 2019 report from Amnesty International found that Israeli companies exported weapons that reached their destination after a series of transactions, skirting international monitoring. Israel has not ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits the sale of weapons at risk of being used in genocide and crimes against humanity. As a result, its weapons exports have influenced the course of history for several nations, many led by controversial regimes.
Israel sold weapons to the South African apartheid government in 1975 and even agreed to supply nuclear warheads, according to declassified documents. Napalm and other weapons were supplied to El Salvador during its counterinsurgency wars between 1980-1992 that killed more than 75,000 civilians. In 1994, Israeli-made bullets, rifles, and grenades were allegedly used in Rwanda’s genocide which killed at least 800,000 people. Israel supplied weapons to the Serbian army that waged war against Bosnia from 1992-1995.
Despite the Israeli government’s own statement in 2018 declaring it had ceased sales to Myanmar, the Haaretz newspaper reported last year that weapons manufacturers continued supplying the military government until 2022, in violation of the 2017 international arms embargo against the country. In September this year, Israel supplied UAVs, missiles, and mortars to Azerbaijan for its campaign to recapture Nagorno-Karabakh, during which 100,000 ethnic Armenians were displaced.
Part of what makes it hard to track Israeli weapons exports is the very nature of the arms trade. Governments buy and sell to each other directly and through their large defence contractors, but also there is a parallel trade by private firms that is usually not illegal but provides plausible deniability. As a major weapons exporter that doesn’t subscribe to the Arms Trade Treaty, Israel has built a reputation for loose export norms.
New government regulations introduced last year will allow Israel to sell more weapons to a greater range of countries without licenses – and so, with less oversight. It pays: Israeli weapon export figures have doubled over the past decade, totalling $12.5bn last year.
Israel’s war on Gaza has led to the development of new weapons, such as rubber bullets, artificial intelligence-powered robotic guns, and crowd dispersal solutions, which have inflicted severe injuries on Palestinians. Israeli weapons manufacturers can legitimately market their weaponry as “battle proven” when the combat often targets unarmed civilians.
The Israeli army has deployed a new precision-guided 120mm mortar bomb called the Iron Sting against Hamas in Gaza, killing at least 11,400 Palestinian civilians and injuring 30,000 in the besieged strip and the occupied West Bank. The Heron TP “Eitan” drone, Israel’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has seen a surge in orders from at least 10 countries between 2008-2011. Israel’s weapons exports have served as an insurance policy to insulate itself from the intense pressure to change their behavior over the decades-long occupation of Palestinians. Israel’s defense industry sales remain masked due to secrecy, with no documentation of sales and no clear timeline for the sale of arms. Israel’s weapon exports have influenced the course of history for several nations, many led by controversial regimes. New government regulations introduced last year will allow Israel to sell more weapons to a greater range of countries without licenses and with less oversight.