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Controversy mounts over Israeli arms deal

This transmitter vehicle is part of the IFASS system.

(Swiss defence ministry)

As tensions in the Middle East rise, calls are mounting for Switzerland to stop its military collaboration with Israel and other countries in the region.

In particular, the Green Party and an anti-war group want the Swiss government to call off the purchase of a telecommunications system from Israel, part of the latest army procurement programme.

Switzerland's reaction to Israel's military intervention in Lebanon was clear. In a statement released on July 13, the foreign ministry criticised the Israeli attacks as "disproportionate", while also condemning the aggression by militant Islamic group Hezbollah as violation of international human rights.

But the Green Party and the Group for Switzerland without an Army want the government to go a step further. They have called on Switzerland to stop trade in weapons and military equipment with Israel and other countries in the Middle East.

"Our demand sticks to the spirit of the federal law on military equipment," Green Party parliamentarian Josef Lang told swissinfo. "It also mirrors the population's feelings, because people don't want Switzerland to undertake military collaboration with countries at war."

In a statement, the Group for Switzerland without an Army said that in February 2005 Defence Minister Samuel Schmid had justified the decision to restart arms deals with Israel – after a three-year hiatus – on the basis of "positive developments" in the Middle East.

Détente

The worsening of the situation requires a new embargo, said the group. "Whoever uses this 'détente' as a justification should admit today that a mistake was made and overturn earlier decisions," said Lang.

"But at the defence ministry the prevailing sentiment is one of wanting to pursue the collaboration with Israel for technical reasons as well as political ones."

The defence ministry has so far not commented on the demands made by the Green Party and the anti-war group.

But the foreign ministry said no action was being taken to change the current military cooperation because the conflict was between Israel and the Hezbollah and not between two states.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said her ministry would continue to follow the situation and if Friday's meeting of the United Nation Security Council decided that Israel's attacks constituted an attack on Lebanon, the Swiss position could change.

An embargo would in reality only affect Israel, which is the only Middle Eastern country that sells arms to Switzerland. Other countries in the region tend to buy Swiss weapons.

Latest figures show from the first half of the year show that Israel was one of the countries that had imported arms from Switzerland.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco) said that Israel had received around SFr81,000 ($65,000) worth of parts for FA/18 fighter jets. These are worked on in Israel and then sent on to the United States.

Communications systems

The Green Party and the anti-war group are targeting the expected purchase of a communications system for SFr395 million, which is partly produced by the Israeli firm, IAI ELTA Systems. The Israeli share of the contract is worth SFr147 million.The deal was approved as part of the Swiss army's procurement programme for 2005.

Lang strongly denies accusations that he is biased in any way. "In the Middle East Israel is by far the greater power. And obviously, Switzerland does not have any military collaboration with Hezbollah.

"However, we also opposed the sale of tanks to Iraq," he added, referring to a sale last year of used personnel carriers to Iraq via the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which was halted when it was revealed that the armoured vehicles would not be used for civilian purposes. In October the UAE cancelled the deal because of the delay.

Meanwhile, the Greens say they will try and block investment in the communications system when the issue is debated at parliament's autumn session.

Lang is also the co-author of another proposal that calls for the blanket suspension of trade in military materials with Middle East countries. It has been signed by 91 parliamentarians, including the newly-elected economics minister, Doris Leuthard.

swissinfo

In brief

The purchase of the Integrated Radio Reconnaissance and Transmissions System (IFASS) would be advantageous for the Swiss economy.

An important slice of the project, estimated at SFr134 million, would go to Swiss firms.

Swiss-Israeli military collaboration is not limited to the IFASS system. The Swiss firms Ruag (which is owned by the government) and Oerlikon Contraves have developed with Israeli company IAI ELTA Systems the Ranger drone, a small radio controlled surveillance aeroplane.

Apart from the calls by the Green Party and the Group for Switzerland without an Army, a people's initiative calling for a stop on the export of military materials has also been launched.

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