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Tough times for Israeli arms dealers

TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Seven Israelis, all ex-military men, are behind bars in four countries on gunrunning charges, a state of affairs veteran that veteran security analyst Yossi Melman laments "is very damaging to Israel's image, or what remains of it."

All face judicial proceedings, including extradition, that could lift the veil on their alleged business interest and links with the Middle East, Africa's perpetual wars and the Latin American narcotics trade.

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Melman, writing in the daily Haaretz recently, said all these men were driven by "pure greed" but had all been licensed by Israel's Defense Ministry.

Yet the activities of several of these men help illuminate the dark relationship between many intelligence communities and the criminal syndicates that run the arms-for-drugs trade and how Israel allegedly engages in covert operations in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere often at the behest of the Americans.

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One of the Israelis is Yair Gal Klein, a hardened veteran of the international arms trade and the shadowy world of the soldier of fortune, where the line between legal and illegal is usually a fine one, frequently crossed.

In 1989-90, Klein spent 16 months in a Sierra Leone prison for selling guns for "blood diamonds" during the civil war there. He was released in mysterious circumstances.

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Klein, now nearly 70, was detained at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport Aug. 27, 2007, on an Interpol warrant when he attempted to fly to Tel Aviv with a doctored passport.

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He had been on the run since a Colombian court had sentenced him in absentia to 10 years' imprisonment in 2001 for training right-wing paramilitaries in the 1980s. A Moscow court ruled March 12, 2008, that Klein, a former lieutenant colonel and special forces commander in the Israeli army, could be extradited to Colombia.

Shimon Naor-Hershkowitz, a former commando and senior officer in the Israeli navy, is being held in France and is expected to be extradited to Romania to serve an 11-year prison term imposed in 1999 for forging documents to buy weapons in Romania destined for Western-backed Angolan rebels.

Gideon Sarig, 58, is in a British prison serving a seven-year sentence imposed earlier this year for selling arms to various organizations in Venezuela, Peru, Senegal, Nigeria, Gabon and Sri Lanka.

Ofer Pazaf, 50, is in a U.S. jail awaiting trial with 21 others arrested Jan. 18 in Las Vegas on charges of plotting to bribe U.N. and African officials for an arms deal. He is president of an Israeli company that works as an intermediary for Israel's defense industry. Arrested with him were two other Israelis, Yohanan Cohen, 47, and Haim Gary, 50, both resident in the United States and top executives of defense-related companies.

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Hanoch Miller, 53, is also jailed in America. He was recently arrested with retired U.S. Air Force Col. Joseph O'Toole on charges of attempting to sell thousands of AK-47s to Somaliland, an autonomous region in northern Somalia.

Melman noted that all seven men "are familiar faces in the corridors of the defense establishment and at one time received arms-dealing permits from the Defense Ministry."

In an earlier report on the murky side of Israeli arms deals, Melman noted that Israeli defense industry officials, "backed by the various defense ministers, have adopted an attitude that has permitted the secret sale of arms to the worst dictators.

"They did this with full knowledge that if the matter were to be revealed, it would be forgiven. The Foreign Ministry occasionally sought to moderate this attitude … but the relative apathy of the foreign ministers regarding the aggressive sales policy of the Defense Ministry has reached new heights."

In Latin America, the Israelis operated during the Cold War in an alliance of convenience with the United States.

It was one Israel's defense establishment found extremely lucrative in terms of arms sales to unsavory regimes and other questionable parties with whom Americans couldn't be seen to be dealing.

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This arrangement, according to Andrew and Leslie Cockburn in their book "Dangerous Liaison," "came with the tacit understanding by all parties that Israel could do what the United States could not."

Israeli Gen. Mattityahu Peled put in more bluntly a few years ago, "In Central America, Israel is the 'dirty work' contractor for the U.S. administration. Israel is acting as an accomplice and arm of the United States."

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