Israel’s Defense Ministry has lifted its ban on exports to Azerbaijan of “kamikaze” drones that are manufactured by an Israeli company accused of hitting Armenian positions in Nagorno-Karabakh with one of them in 2017.
According to Israeli media reports, the company, Aeronautics Defense Systems, was working on a potential $20 million deal with Baku when Azerbaijani officials asked its specialists to demonstrate its Orbiter 1K unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on Karabakh Armenian soldiers in the summer of 2017.
The reports said two Aeronautics employees refused to carry out the attack before two higher-ranking executives eventually agreed to do it. They said the drone did not directly hit their targets but two soldiers were injured in the attack.
Aeronautics' export license was suspended after a complaint was filed with the Israeli Defense Ministry. Israel’s Justice Ministry moved in August 2018 to charge the company’s chief executive, deputy CEO, and other employees with violating an Israeli law on security export controls. The company denied any wrongdoing.
The Times of Israel newspaper reported that the Defense Ministry returned the export license on Monday, leading the company to inform the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that the ban on Orbiter 1K sales to its “central customer ‘A'” has been lifted. “The company can continue to supply the UAV to the aforementioned customer as soon as possible,” Aeronautics said in a statement.
The ministry’s decision came three weeks after Aeronautics was purchased by another, state-owned Israeli defense company, Rafael, in a $231 million deal.
The Azerbaijani army heavily used similar suicide drones manufactured by another Israeli company during the April 2016 hostilities in Karabakh. Baku had bought the Harop drones as part of multimillion-dollar defense contracts signed with Israeli arms manufacturers.
In 2012, Israeli defense officials confirmed a reported deal to provide the Azerbaijani military with more weapons worth a combined $1.6 billion. Those included, among other things, sophisticated anti-tank rockets which were also used by Azerbaijani forces in April 2016.
Armenia has long expressed concern at the Israeli-Azerbaijani arms deals, saying that they undermine international efforts to end the Karabakh conflict. A senior Armenian military official hailed in September 2017 the freeze of Orbiter 1K sales to Baku.
Commenting on the lifting of the Israeli ban on Tuesday, an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said: “We will raise this issue both in our bilateral meetings [with Israeli officials] and on multilateral platforms … We will keep telling our international partners that an arms race is extremely dangerous for our region.”
The “suicide” drone scandal was exposed by the Israeli press more than two weeks after Israel’s Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi visited Yerevan in an apparent bid to improve his country’s frosty relationship with Armenia. Then Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian visited Israel and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in November 2017.