Have I caught an arms dealer telling lies?
For the past decade the Belgian firm OIP has belonged to Elbit, Israel's top weapons exporter.
As the OIP website contains almost no information about where its products end up, I recently phoned Freddy Versluys, the company's chief executive, asking him the value of his annual sales to Israel. "Zero," he replied.
Versluys added that there is "no way that we can get export licenses" for Israel from the authorities in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium. When I enquired about the last time he received a permit for selling material to Israel, he said: "I can't even remember. Fifteen or 20 years ago."
His assurance contradicts information contained in reports on arms exports published by the Flemish authorities. The 2012 annual report, for example, says that a consignment of "fire control systems" were approved for transport to Israel during 2011.
OIP is a known manufacturer of this technology. Its catalogues boast of how its state-of-the-art "fire control systems" raise the "first-hit probability of a vehicle mounted gun." In layperson's terms, this means that OIP is helping to make guns more lethal.
Hans Lammerant, an arms trade monitor with the anti-war group Vredesactie, told me that OIP is "the only [Flemish] exporter, as far as I know" selling goods in the "fire control" category of weapons (the category is known as "ML5" by officialdom).
This was not an isolated case. In 2007, OIP was also awarded a number of licenses for exporting to Israel.
These approvals were issued on the understanding that once the weapons were delivered to Israel, they would be transferred to other countries. (The export for 2011 named Romania as the eventual destination of the fire control systems sent to Israel).
Belgium has been one of the European Union's top four weapons exporters to Israel in the recent past. At €14 million ($18.5 million), the value of Belgian arms sales to Israel was especially high in 2005. That was the year before Israel attacked Lebanon.
Tomas Baum, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, a group working inside the parliament for Flanders, said that the authorities follow an "ambiguous" policy on arms exports to Israel. In response to public unease over Israel's crimes in Lebanon and its abuses of Palestinian rights, the Flemish government has stated that exports to Israel are conditional on the weapons sent there being transferred to a different "end-user."
By definition, any sale of weapons or components to Israel is a gesture of support for that apartheid state. Israel can benefit economically from these exports by integrating the material into its own weapons systems and then selling them abroad.
OIP's acquisition by Elbit -- a maker of drones used to terrorize Gaza's 1.6 million inhabitants -- has done wonders for the Belgian firm's order books. In 2005, OIP's turnover reached €17.5 million, twice that of 2003.
Israel routinely tests out new weapons and surveillance equipment on Palestinian civilians. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has helped Israel both build up a lucrative arms industry and to advertise new products as "battle-tested." Versluys claimed his principal clients are in Asia and North Africa. Assuming he is telling the truth in this instance, this means that he is helping his parent company Elbit to penetrate new markets. Asia, his target continent, suffers from pronounced levels of poverty and inequality. It should be unnecessary to add that there are better ways its governments could spend their money than on Belgo-Israeli weapons.
Furthermore, Versluys has helped Elbit to get a bigger slice of the European market. In 2009, OIP opened a new plant to produce "overhead remote-controlled weapon systems." The Belgian army was the "launch customer" for these cutting-edge killing machines.
History of deception
Versluys and his colleagues have a history of deception. As well as heading OIP, Versluys is the chief executive of Sabiex, an arms company based in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. In 2008, Sabiex became embroiled in a controversy when it emerged that it had sold tanks to Chad, via France. According to Versluys' version of events, the Walloon authorities had granted him permission to sell these vehicles to Chad. But the authorities insisted that they had only approved the exports to France and had no knowledge that Chad was intended as the final destination.
The scandal has not prevented Versluys from retaining considerable influence in Brussels' corridors of power. He is a board member of the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), a lobbying outfit that has played a pivotal role in making the European Union become increasingly militarized.
Considering its lack of transparency, I was amused to read on OIP's website that it has "implemented a code of conduct on business ethics" and that it plans to publish a "complete version" of the code "soon."
When I asked how a weapons manufacturer can pretend to behave in a moral fashion, Versluys retorted: "My dear friend, we are involved in defense. Do you want the police to be unarmed?"
I informed Versluys that most police in the Republic of Ireland do not carry weapons. This does not appear to have hampered them from operating effectively. The rates of most crimes recorded in Ireland have fallen over the past few years.
Versluys seemed a little taken aback by encountering someone who believes that police shouldn't have guns, so he simply added: "Every democracy has a right to protect its citizens."
This platitude does not alter how his own career has been boosted by his relations with Elbit, a company profiting from occupation and apartheid. Nor does it negate the likelihood that he is a liar.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 24 February 2013.
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