Chile, a Testing Ground for Israeli Weapons

Mapuche and Palestinians alike · Both right-wing and left-wing Chilean governments have not renounced the military and judicial legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). Israel contributes to their fight against the Mapuche indigenous populations by providing them with weapons and training. Chile’s criminalization of Mapuche resistance can be compared to Israel’s repression of Palestinian resistance.

Benyamin Netanyahu and Sebastián Piñera.
GPO, 2019

Chile has united in nationwide demonstrations against right-wing President Sebastian Piñera and his commitment to the neoliberal agenda introduced by the late dictator Augusto Pinochet. Protestors have called for his resignation and demanded the drafting of a new constitution to replace the dictatorship legacy.

Piñera’s imposing of a state of emergency and curfews across Chile raised comparisons to Chile’s dictatorship era, as the military embarked upon an escalation of violence against civilians which included killings, beatings and sexual torture. The nationwide repression has captured attention for what it connects to in terms of memory. However, militarisation and criminalisation of resistance in Chile has roots in the anti-terror laws enacted by Pinochet and which subsequent governments from the transition to democracy onwards used against the indigenous Mapuche population.

The same as in the Pinochet dictatorship era, Israel is sustaining the current government’s human rights violations by selling military and surveillance technology to the Chilean government. Since the dictatorship era, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) predicted that Chile would continue buying weapons from Israel with “little risk of angering the Arab states, as long as it keeps its ties with Tel Aviv low-key and avoids public endorsement of Israeli policies.”

Looking for new partners

The latter has not proved difficult for Chile, both during the dictatorship era and later. Pinochet maintained ties with Israel and Arab states; the latter by avoiding “a clear cut stand on contentious Middle East political issues.” Likewise post dictatorship, subsequent governments navigated the duplicity, facilitated by the international community’s endorsement of the two-state compromise.

From 1973 onwards, in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war, African countries started breaking diplomatic ties with Israel. This forced the settler-colonial state to seek other countries to establish diplomatic relations, as well as possible markets for its arms industry to compensate for the loss of military collaboration with African states. With the US having gained a strong foothold in Latin America due to its backing of military dictatorships and region-wide operations to eliminate any socialist or communist influence, Chile, which recognised Israel in 1949, was a prime objective for the Israeli government. As the international community’s concern over human rights violations in Chile increased, the US was compelled to impose an arms embargo in 1976 in response, despite having funded Pinochet for the same crimes in the first place. Although it is possible that the CIA circumvented the US Congress’s decision, Israel was in a prime position to step in and fill the gap, making Chile one of its main arms buyers in the region.

A CIA declassified document reveals important details about Chile’s military purchases from Israel. From 1975 until 1988, Israel sold radar systems, air-to-air missiles, naval equipment, aircraft and anti-missile systems to the Chilean dictatorship. One reason why Pinochet chose Israel, apart from sophisticated weaponry and admiration for the Israeli army, was the fact that “Tel Aviv attaches no political strings to its transfers.” The latter was important for Pinochet, as was Israel’s duplicitous stance in contradicting its public statements of supporting a return to democracy in Chile, while supplying the dictatorship with weapons to be used in the country and in the region, as Operation Condor –-a region-wide plan implemented in 1975 by Latin American right-wing dictatorships to exterminate leftist opponents –-came into full swing. Besides selling weapons to Chile, in the 1980s Israel also provided Pinochet’s military with the opportunity to tour its defence industries and provided Chilean pilots and army officers with training exercises.

Comparable laws

In the post-dictatorship era, Chilean governments retained Pinochet’s constitution. The anti-terror laws of 1984 which Pinochet used for prolonging detention without pressing charges, have since been almost exclusively applied to the Mapuche population by both centre-left and right-wing Chilean governments. The legislation is similar to Israel applying administrative detention to Palestinians, incarcerating them without charge or trial and renewing the detention order periodically. Chile’s criminalisation of Mapuche resistance against neoliberal exploitation draws parallels to Israel’s oppression of Palestinian resistance. Both indigenous peoples face common struggles and similar oppressors. Surveillance—a tactic that has deep roots in Israel’s colonisation of Palestine, is one measure which Chilean governments have consistently applied against the Mapuche. In the Araucania region, Chilean governments operate Israeli surveillance technology—the militarisation in the region is a direct result of applying the anti-terror legislation to the Mapuche.

Elbit, IAI and Rafael are key suppliers to the Chilean government. Elbit and IAI are widely used by Israel against the Palestinian population. From surveillance systems, maintenance of computer systems, white phosphorus ammunition, demolition technology, to technology for fighter jets used in Israel’s bombing of Gaza, Israel’s military technology is largely requested in Latin America purportedly to fight drug trafficking and border crossings. However, it is control and repression mainly of indigenous populations that governments in the region are after.

In 2018, the Israeli and Chilean armies signed new cooperation initiatives in military education and training, leadership command and training methods. The agreement was signed in Chile by Israeli Major General Yaacov Barak and Chilean General Ricardo Martinez. During the visit, Barak toured with the Lautaro Special Operations Brigade. The former commander of the Lautaro Brigade, Javier Iturriaga, was appointed Head of National Defence by Piñera as the government imposed a state of emergency to counter the nationwide protests in Chile.

Weapons “tested in the field”

Israel markets its weapons and technology as a field tested. Palestinians in Gaza are the human experiment upon which military technology is tested, thus making any government purchasing weapons from Israel complicit in the colonial aggression against Palestinians. In Chile, this aggression takes on an even more sinister agenda. The Chilean government’s purchasing military technology from Israel to persecute the Mapuche population reflects the Israeli repression of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.

While the current ties between Israel and Chile are no longer concealed from public scrutiny, the relations between both countries during the dictatorship period remain classified by Israel. While the US has declassified many documents revealing its role in backing the Pinochet dictatorship, Israel is keeping over 19,000 pages worth of documents classified, despite the fact that they potentially hold information about Jewish relatives of Israeli citizens who were disappeared by the Pinochet dictatorship.

Refusal to open the archives

Chile’s military retains a pact of silence which accounts for a difficult process to obtain information, let alone justice for the thousands of tortured, killed and disappeared people during the dictatorship. In some cases, declassified documents aid in bridging the gap. Israel’s refusal to open its archives related to the Pinochet dictatorship is hindering justice for its citizens, two of who have filed a lawsuit in 2016 for publication of the documents which would uncover the extent of Israel’s collaboration with Pinochet, as well as probably reveal information about two executed and disappeared victims, Ernesto Traubman and David Silberman. Chile maintained close relationships with the Israeli airforce in the dictatorship era, which raises questions about Israeli involvement in the dictatorship practice in which the executed detainees would be disappeared into the ocean using aircraft. In addition, a select group of Chile’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINA) agents were trained in Israel by Mossad.

Besides seeking information about the killings and disappearances of their relatives, Lily Traubman and Daniel Silberman have insisted that their ultimate aim is to expose the extent of Israel’s involvement in the Pinochet dictatorship: “Arms sales should be regulated by law and there should be clear criteria establishing the prohibition of sales to countries or dictatorial regimes that frequently violate human rights.”

Israel’s colonial existence and violence have created a perpetual weapon testing zone in Gaza, giving it an advantage when it comes to selling its technology to governments also intent on repressing their citizens. “Proven in the field” is the euphemism used by the Israeli Ministry of Defence—the ultimate form of dehumanising Palestinian civilians. In Chile, the Mapuche predicament is similar—indeed one can draw comparisons as regards the struggle for liberation against colonial and neoliberal exploitation, appropriation and violence. Both the Mapuche and Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land by colonisers and the military ties between Chile and Israel serve to enhance militarisation. The normalisation of colonialism and neoliberalism at an international level, meanwhile ensures that the human rights violations perpetrated against both indigenous populations remain swathed in impunity.

In fact, it is possibly the Chilean governments’ commitment – with no exception between the centre-left and the right-wing – to militarise the Araucania region in persecution of the Mapuche that makes Israel a constantly valid partner for Chile. During his electoral campaign, Piñera vowed to alter the anti-terror laws to facilitate targeting the Mapuche. As the protests in Chile show no sign of abating until the Pinochet constitution is overturned, however, it is possible that Israel will find more lucrative opportunities in Chile, to the detriment of the entire population.