The U.S. authorities' recent arrest of an Israeli for seeking to sell arms to Somalia raises disturbing questions and answers.
By Yossi Melman
Armed fighters from the militant group Hizbul Islam in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu, last week.
Photo by: Reuters
At least seven Israeli arms dealers are currently in jail in four countries - the United States, Russia, France and Britain - on charges of illegal arms dealing. Some of them are also suspected of crimes such as forgery, bribery, money laundering and violating UN Security Council embargoes. Such arrests are briefly covered in Israel and then forgotten. But they have a cumulative effect that is very damaging to Israel's image, or what remains of it.
Even though it is doubtful whether those in jail know one another, they have quite a lot in common. All are men in their fifties or sixties. All are well to do (or were in the past ), having made most of their money in international arms dealing or in exporting security services and equipment from Israel. They served in the Israel Defense Forces and reached mid-level ranks (from captain to lieutenant colonel ), and when they were arrested, they denied the charges. Friends who came to their assistance described them, naturally, as "the salt of the earth."
All seven are familiar faces in the corridors of the defense establishment, and at one time received arms dealing permits from the Defense Ministry. All sought to "expedite procedures" in violation of local or international laws, and did so out of pure greed. Due to this covetousness, they also fell into traps and can expect to face many years in jail.
Shimon Naor-Hershkowitz is detained in France and will apparently be extradited to Romania, where he will serve an 11-year jail sentence. He was convicted of forging documents (end-user certificates ) that he used to purchase Romanian arms together with a Romanian partner (who later informed on him to the authorities ). The arms were ostensibly destined for Togo, but in reality were sent to rebels in Angola.
Yair Klein has been held for over a year in a Russian jail, after being arrested there at the behest of Colombia, which wants him on charges of training drug barons' bodyguards. Klein, almost 70, may be the Israeli who comes closest to being a "mercenary" of the ugliest sort. He has previously done jail time in Sierra Leone.
In a British jail sits Gidon Sarig, 58, who was sentenced several months ago to seven years in prison for selling arms and other combat gear to parties in Venezuela, Peru, Senegal, Nigeria, Gabon and, primarily, Sri Lanka.
And in January, Ofer Pazaf, 50, the president of a Kfar Sava company that works as an intermediary and represents security consultants and defense industries, was arrested in Las Vegas. Arrested with him were two other Israelis who have lived in the U.S. for several years: Yohanan Cohen, 47, the CEO of a San Francisco company that manufactures security gear, and Haim Gary, 50, the president of a Miami company that functions as a middleman for defense companies.
All three, along with 20 Americans and people of other nationalities, were arrested in a sting operation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. One of the agents posed as a representative of the defense minister of an African country and pretended to be looking to purchase arms in return for a bribe - known in the professional lingo as a "commission."
The latest Israeli to find himself behind bars is Hanoch Miller, 53, who was arrested a few days ago in the United States. Together with his partner, retired U.S. Air Force colonel Joseph O'Toole, he is charged with attempts to obtain and sell thousands of AK-47 (Kalashnikov ) rifles to the "government" of Somaliland, a separatist region of northern Somalia. The arms were to have been purchased in the United States and to have been sent on cargo planes to Panama and Bosnia, and from there to Somaliland. But the plan fell through because the third partner, who was supposed to purchase the rifles for Miller and O'Toole, was actually an informer for the customs authorities.
European sources - security and insurance personnel working in Somalia, who are well acquainted with the area - told Haaretz that this story does not make sense, and that the official version put out by the U.S. authorities may conceal a different story. For instance, the indictment stated that the arms were to have been sent to a city called Bandera in northern Somalia. But a look at a map of Somalia reveals that this name is fictitious: No such place exists in Somalia.
Moreover, the shipping documents stated that the cargo was for "the Ministry of Defense of the Somali Republic." But the government of the separatist area known as Somaliland does not refer to itself as the "Somali Republic." Ever since the military coup in 1969 that sent the country down the sewer, its official name has been the Democratic Republic of Somalia.
And above all, there is the question of why the government of Somaliland would need to hire the services of Hanoch Miller, an Israeli arms dealer, when it could easily obtain the arms it needs from the United States or Ethiopia, which both support it. There are several possible answers.
One is that Miller, who initiated the deal, either intended to supply the arms to one of the armed groups operating in Somalia or was tricked into doing so. Somalia, it must be recalled, is also home to various training camps for global jihad operatives. Indeed, two of the Israeli Arabs arrested in the Galilee this week - on suspicion of murdering a taxi driver and seeking to set up a world jihad cell inspired by Osama Bin Laden's philosophy - flew to Ethiopia (where they were arrested ) in order to infiltrate into Somalia and undergo training in one of these camps.
The second and equally worrisome possibility is that the arms shipments were a camouflage to enable the planes to land in Somalia, where they would load up with other merchandise that fetches high prices on the streets of Europe. Either way, it is doubtful if we will ever know the truth about Hanoch Miller's exploits in Somalia.
The only consolation that those who care about Israel's reputation can find is that if in the past, the supposed creme de la creme of Israeli society would quickly receive high-profile assistance from government officials, ministers (like Ephraim Sneh on behalf of Naor-Hershkowitz ) and former comrades in arms, this time - apparently because of Israel's commitment to adopt the norms of the OECD, which it recently joined - the arms dealers are attracting only low-key interest and getting assistance from relatives and close friends alone.