Finland shopping for “battle-tested” Israeli weaponry

Finland’s Ministry of Defense has narrowed the field in its competition to provide the Finnish army with mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Of the five remaining bidders, four are Israeli firms with deep ties to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Syrian Golan Heights. In addition, three of the models offered are or have been in active recent use in Israeli military operations in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and south Lebanon. The Finnish army already employs a UAV produced by Israel Aerospace Industries, as well as other “battle-tested” Israeli weapons including anti-armor missiles, artillery munitions, avionics and more.

The aviation news website Flight Global recently reported that the remaining models were the pan-European consortium EADSDRAC model, and four models from Israeli manufacturers: BlueBird’s Spylite, Elbit Systems’ Skylark, the Israel Aerospace Industries Bird-Eye 650 and Aeronautics Defense Systems’ Orbiter. The article noted that the Finnish army “plans to acquire 30-45 UAV systems that will include between 120 and 176 air vehicles, with the deal to have a value of around $25 million” (“Five bidders to contest Finnish UAV deal,” 1 December 2010).

Mini UAVs have become key parts of modern infantry operations. According to the Aeronautics Defense Systems’ Orbiter brochure, “Designed for use in military and homeland security missions, the system presents the ultimate solution for ‘Over the Hill’ reconnaissance, low intensity conflicts and urban warfare operations” — a description fitting most Israeli military activity in the occupied territories (“Aeronautics Defense Systems: 2010 Orbiter brochure” [PDF]). The lightweight and compact designs of the systems allows for their use in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in short and medium distance engagements such as those carried out by the Israeli military during the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, dubbed Operation Cast Lead. 

This, in fact, is a selling point. The Orbiter brochure notes it to be a “field-proven, mature operational system.” Similarly, BlueBird’s SpyLite is marketed as “combat-proven.” The company’s brochure states that it “has been operated successfully in combat conditions for the [Israeli army] and has been chosen for use by the Israeli Air Force” (BlueBird Aero Systems, 2009 Spylite brochure [PDF]). The website notes that the SpyLite has “been used during air strike executions” by the air force in Gaza (“ BlueBird Aero Systems).

The marketing is not only limited to company brochures. The Israeli military itself described the Skylark produced by Elbit Systems as “a star [which] was born in the Gaza skies” after its “hundreds of operation flights” during Operation Cast Lead. The ministry added that it “assisted the commanders with artillery fire” and caught “many terrorists in hot pursuit” (“Israel Defense Forces, Life-Saving Weaponry,” 27 December 2009).

Although the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Bird Eye 650 has not been deployed against Palestinians, other UAV models produced by the company have been sold to foreign customers and the Israeli military. This includes the Heron model, which Human Rights Watch reported in 2009 was used by Israel during Cast Lead. Human Rights Watch stated that “Israel used both the Hermes and Heron drones armed with the Spike [missile]” during the assault on Gaza, including in a strike on a group of students waiting for a bus in front of the United Nations-run Gaza Technical College (“Precisely Wrong,,” 30 June 2009). Israel Aerospace Industries’ UAVs have been used extensively over the years by the Israeli military, including the Ranger model already in service in Finland.

Finland’s diplomatic stance toward Israel’s occupation is in sharp contrast to its military procurement. In a June 2010 meeting, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb noted that one of Finland’s objectives was fostering the birth of an independent Palestinian state and that “the 1967 borders must be restored” (“The EU sent a clear message to the Middle East: Settlement building must end,” 23 March 2010 and “Foreign Minister Al-Malki of the Palestinian National Authority and Foreign Minister Stubb discussed the Palestinians’ situation,” 17 June 2010). Four months later, during a visit to Gaza in October, Stubb stated that “The EU’s aim is [the] complete dismantling of the blockade.” The corresponding press release noted that “the situation in Gaza is still worrisome and unless there is a change, the population’s difficult living conditions will further increase the region’s instability” (“Foreign Minister Stubb in Gaza: ‘The EU’s aim is complete dismantling of the blockade,’” 14 October 2010). After helping to finance and produce a photo exhibition titled Summer Games in Gaza, currently on display at the UN headquarters in New York, Finland’s Permanent Representative to the UN Jarmo Viinanen stated that “peace is [Palestinian children’s] right” (“Permanent Representative to the UN: The children of Gaza have the right to peace,” November 2010). How purchasing technologies implicated in war crimes against Palestinians will further these goals is not clear.

The Finnish-Israeli arms trade has received negative coverage in Finland’s mainstream media. More than 225 influential Finnish public figures — including eminent professors of international law and dignitaries of the arts, sciences and politics — are publicly calling for the immediate end to all forms of Finnish-Israeli military trade and cooperation (“Public statement by Finnish dignitaries”). Additionally, for years Finland has pushed for an international and legally-binding arms trade treaty that would ban all forms of arms trade — import, export, transfer — with countries that violate human rights (“Arms trade treaty supported by Finland progresses at UN,” 27 October 2006). However, since 1994, Finland has bought Israeli weapons for more than 170 million euros (““Finnish-Israeli arms trade,” June 2010). Moreover, it continues to serve as an occasional arms supplier for Israel, as The Electronic Intifada has previously reported.

The mini UAV bid is expected to be narrowed to two finalists in February 2011 with a contract to be awarded in April. In sourcing its current mini UAV tender primarily from Israeli military contractors implicated in the occupation of and war crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Helsinki is sending the signal that violations of Palestinians’ human rights are hardly as worrisome as their diplomats claim. Should the Finnish army purchase occupation-related UAVs from Israel, it will have abandoned any claim to moral superiority and the next time Finnish representatives at the UN advocate the arms trade treaty it will be from a position of deep hypocrisy.

Bruno Jäntti is the founder of ICAHD Finland, the Finnish branch of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. He can be reached at brunojantti [at] yahoo [dot] com

Jimmy Johnson lives in Detroit, MI with his books and can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com