Judge fines petitioners for challenging Israel’s arms sales to Philippines

A judge imposes a fine on petitioners who brought suit against the government in an attempt to end its arms exports to the Philippines, sending a clear message to those protesting Israel’s complicity with some of the world’s most repressive regimes.

The Philippine Coast Guard presenting a shipment of 70 Israeli-made machine guns at the PCG National Headquarters Port Area on May 7, 2018. (Philippines Coast Guard)
The Philippine Coast Guard presenting a shipment of 70 Israeli-made machine guns at the PCG National Headquarters Port Area on May 7, 2018. (Philippines Coast Guard)

Judge Gilia Ravid of the Tel Aviv District Court issued a ruling Thursday on the petition filed by human rights attorney Eitay Mack on behalf of more than 50 human rights activists, who demanded that Israel cease its arms exports to the Philippines. As is customary with petitions of this kind, the hearing was held in camera and the ruling itself was embargoed. However, in an unusual move, the judge imposed a 10,000 NIS ($2,800) fee in legal costs on the petitioners — the only part of the ruling that was cleared for publication.

In response to the state’s request, the hearing was held in camera “to prevent any damage to state security and foreign relations.” While this is the norm for such proceedings, one cannot help but wonder about the motive behind and effectiveness of such a request, since most of the evidence submitted by the petitioners was already in the public domain and had been reported by both Israeli and international media.

The petition was based on official press releases by Philippine authorities that lay out the arms purchases from Israel in detail. The evidence includes posts on the Facebook page of the Philippine police, Coast Guard, and a weapons company that facilitates sales with Israel, in addition to official reports published by Philippine police, the Defense Ministry, and government media.

During Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Israel in September 2019, he admitted to ordering his security forces to purchase weapons only from Israel, since, as opposed to the United States, Germany and even China, Israel does not place any restrictions on its arms deals. He made this statement at a press conference in Jerusalem, in the presence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and several world leaders.

How Duterte’s government is using these weapons is also no secret. According to human rights groups, since Duterte assumed office in June 2016, Philippine police and militias associated with it have killed at least 12,000 people without due process, as part of the regime’s “war on drugs.”

If all the information in the petition is open and available to the public, why was the hearing held in private? And why was the judge’s ruling embargoed? As usual, the magic words are “state security,” which is enough to make judges acquiesce to the will of the security services and the government. The District Attorney’s Office, representing the state, argued in favor of the media blackout by claiming that, since the state cannot respond publicly to the proceedings, its silence could be misconstrued by the media.

This is assuming the Israeli media would take any interest in this kind of petition. Historically, local media has failed to challenge the state’s heavy censorship on information regarding its arms sales to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. This is despite the petitions having been filed in “real time,” while the countries that are purchasing the weapons carry out grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

No less preposterous than the court upholding the censorship of the case is Judge Ravid’s decision to charge the petitioners a fee. This sends a clear and bleak message to the public: “You have been warned: protesting comes at a cost.”

“These kinds of petitions are filed with an inherent lack of balance of power, because the state files its materials to the court ex parte,” said Mack. “The court has now topped this off by punishing citizens who are exercising their civic duty by attempting to prevent their country’s complicity with crimes against humanity,” he added.

According to Mack, the petitioners are almost done collecting the funds needed to cover the court-imposed fee. “I get support from all groups in society, truly everyone, including right wing figures who are leading their own struggle on this issue,” he said.

“There is something anachronistic about the Foreign and Defense Ministries’ repeated requests for these media blackouts. The public finds this behavior repulsive. The ministries may be winning the battle, but they are losing the war. No embargo can erase the horrifying images coming out of the Philippines,” added Mack.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.