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
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
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
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
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