Behind the Headlines: Israeli Firm’s Activities in Colombia Raise Questions About Military Ties

The activities of Israeli mercenaries in Colombia currently under police investigation have triggered a debate over the morality of such undertakings and concern for Israel’s international image.

So far there is no proof that Israel Defense Force reserve Lt. Col. Yair Klein and his associates in the Hod Hahanit security consulting firm were providing military training or equipment to “hit squads” of the Colombian drug cartel.

Klein emphatically denies that he or his associates had any dealings with the drug syndicate that is now waging a terrorist war against the Colombian government.

But some news media reports on Tuesday claimed the Israeli authorities were aware of Klein’s activities and warned him to discontinue them, on the grounds that he was violating Colombian law.

Klein is only one of an estimated 800 Israeli individuals and firms engaged in the murky area of security counseling and training in Latin America.

Those who justify their activities say that Israel, like most other developed countries, officially provides arms and training to foreign regimes, some of them of dubious character.

Therefore, when Israeli entrepreneurs, mostly retired IDF officers, engage in this sort of business privately, they do it with the knowledge and consent of the defense establishment.

The Defense Ministry denies this, pointing to its highly selective licensing requirements for the export of weapons and military know-how.

Some Israelis think the practice should be abandoned.

They question whether former IDF officers should be allowed to utilize the skills they acquired doing national service to make money abroad by means that are at best unwise and may well besmirch Israel’s name.

NOT ONLY ISRAELIS INVOLVED

The Hebrew daily Ma’ariv quoted Haim Aharon, the Israeli ambassador to Colombia from 1981 to 1984, as saying that “the entire matter of the export of know-how and military training in Colombia is not exclusive to Israelis.

“It should be kept in mind that numerous Americans and South Africans are involved in it,” the former envoy said. “If there was any Israeli involvement, it was undoubtedly very marginal.”

“We are used to the fact that the moment Israelis are involved in any matter, Israel is placed in the spotlight,” he said. “Even if a connection exists between Israelis and military training in Colombia, this is a far cry from drugs.”

The debate is likely to continue long after the Hod Hahanit case is over.

Klein, the principal owner of the company, and reserve Lt. Col. Amatzia Shouali, his director of military and security training, were questioned separately for seven hours Monday at the police criminal investigation division headquarters in Petach Tikva.

Both men surrendered their passports and were released on their own recognizance.

Police escorted Klein to his home in the Jordan Valley on Monday night and reportedly confiscated additional documents for examination.

Other alleged mercenaries and middlemen are being called for questioning.

Two of those summoned for questioning on Tuesday are both IDF reserve lieutenant colonels.

Avraham Zadka was a military instructor in Colombia, and Yitzhak Shoshani is described as a go-between for Hod Hahanit and its Colombian clients.

The Hebrew daily Ha’aretz reported that Shoshani told the police that Israel Aircraft Industries, a defense establishment firm, is the biggest supplier of planes, gunboats and military equipment to Colombia.

WARNING FROM EMBASSY IN BOGOTA

While the police interrogations are closed to the public, Klein and his associates have been most eager to give their version of events to the news media.

The story originated when NBC News broadcast a videotape on Aug. 22 showing uniformed men identified as a drug cartel “hit squad” being trained by a Hebrew-speaking officer.

Israel Television promptly identified the officer as Klein, who readily admitted that his company had a contract to provide security training in Colombia, which he said, ended about 18-months ago.

He said his clients were farmers and ranchers who needed protection from guerrillas and cattle rustlers the Colombian authorities could not control.

Klein said he made the broadcast videotape to advertise the services his company offers, which would have been “idiotic” if he were training drug hit men.

As further proof that his clients were not involved in the drug cartel, Klein said he was paid $40,000 for his services, a negligible amount to receive from drug traffickers.

Shoshani, the middleman quoted by Ha’aretz, put the sum at $76,000.

But Israel Radio reported Tuesday that Klein received $800,000 for smuggling large quantities of arms and military materiel into Colombia.

Israel Radio correspondent Ronnie Daniel said the security officer at the Israel Embassy in Bogota had instructions from Jerusalem to order Klein to cease his activities immediately and withdraw his training team from the country.

Daniel attributed his information to “highly reliable defense-establishment sources.”

The report, quoting those sources, also claimed that Klein and Shouali were active in Colombia as recently as four months ago and fled the country only after being targeted by kidnappers.

It said that Klein was cautioned that his activities probably contravened Colombian law, because the militias he trained might turn against the Colombian government.

But Klein ignored the warning, Israel Radio said.

Meanwhile, Eitan Coren, an Israeli in Bogota, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that Jews in Colombia have reason to fear reprisals from leftist guerrillas who have been the victims of militias trained and supplied by Israeli mercenaries.

There will be no Daily News Bulletin dated Monday, Sept. 4 because of the Labor Day postal holiday in the United States.

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