How America keeps its ally armed to the teeth

The US is flouting the rules over the supply of weaponry to its Middle East friend. Robert Fisk reports from Beirut
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ALMOST every missile, shell and bomb dropped on Lebanon by Israel over the past 20 years had "Made in America" stamped on it. Sometimes quite literally. When Israel was dropping hundreds of cluster bombs on civilian areas of Beirut in 1982 - in contravention of their conditions of sale - I found their white-painted casings marked "US Navy". Several contained timing devices with the abbreviated name of an American manufacturer, "Gen Time Corps", stamped on them.

In Washington last summer, I was shown a confidential request made to the US government by Israel for immediate delivery of 98,000 artillery shells of 155mm calibre; they were shipped at once as a routine military transfer, no questions asked or conditions attached. For the single all- important and most sensitive connection between Israel and its American patron is the weapons pipeline through which pours a tide of US fighter- bombers, helicopters, missiles, shells and high-performance technology.

In 1973, the Americans were stripping their forward armoured units in the Fulda Gap, Germany, to ship US tanks - in their hundreds - to Israeli troops in occupied Sinai. An Oceania airbase commander once recalled for me how half his squadron of US aircraft were painted in Israeli colours overnight and sent to Israel without consultation.

Almost every artillery piece, warplane, helicopter, missile and shell used in Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon in 1996, in which almost 200 civilians were slaughtered, was American-made.

It was not always thus. In the early days of Israel's statehood, its young pilots made do with second-hand Messerschmitts and third-hand Spitfires. Until General de Gaulle imposed an arms embargo, the Israelis were flying Mirage jets. But America's armourers are now the mainstay of Israel's weapons supplies, providing it with an overwhelming military supremacy over its Arab neighbours while winking at the 200 nuclear missiles Israel keeps in the Negev.

In theory, the United States maintains some leverage - a much-misused word in the Middle East lexicon - over the use of its arms. But you only have to read of the day Ronald Reagan learnt of Israel's attack on Iraq's Osiris nuclear reactor in 1981 to understand Washington's indulgence. The raid had been carried out with American-made F-16s, all part of a 1975 batch of 75 such aircraft sent to Israel "for defence purposes only". When Reagan's aides looked to the President for a reaction, he replied: "Boys will be boys."

As long as the Soviet Union existed - and sent its own ordnance to the Arab states - Israel could argue that it was, in the former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger's phrase, America's "unsinkable battleship" in the Middle East. In 1968, the Israeli prime minister, Levi Eshkol, asked Washington for the sale of advanced F-4 fighters to offset Egypt's limited-range Mig-21s. The Pentagon argued that Israel had sufficient A-4 Skyhawks to cope with the Migs. President Johnson's staff then proved ready to trade 50 F-4s for Israel's signature on the non-proliferation treaty. Israel didn't sign but was promised 27 more Skyhawks and F-4s if they needed them.

In reality, over the past two decades, Russian equipment never measured up to Israel's. Syria lost two-thirds of its air force in a one-day battle in 1982, and its present stock of Scud missiles are two decades old. The last Hizbollah Katyusha to be fired at Israel in 1996 fell two miles short of the frontier because, the UN later discovered, it was manufactured in Stalin's Russia in 1944.

Paul Findley, the Illinois congressman who lost his seat primarily because of his criticism of Israel, has recorded incidents when Israeli intelligence officers had penetrated the Pentagon so thoroughly they were able to tell American officers the exact military location in the US of shells and other ordnance that Israel was requesting. Even when Israel passed on US technology to third parties - when, for example, it secretly sent agents via Scandinavia to China to install new laser-guidance equipment on Chinese tanks in the 1980s - the Americans made no public comment. The Egyptians discovered what had happened when the Chinese offered them new tanks with Hebrew writing on the laser equipment.

The repeated "transfer" of weapons - as opposed to sale - means air-to- ground missiles are often sent to Israel with no conditions attached. In a long investigation last year, The Independent discovered a Boeing- Lockheed missile fired by an Israeli helicopter pilot at an ambulance in southern Lebanon in 1996 had been sold not to the Israelis but to the US Marine Corps. The missiles killed two women and three children in the vehicle while the Israelis justified the slaughter by saying there were Hizbollah members inside - which was untrue.

It transpired that the AGM 114C rocket had been purchased by the Marines, sent to the Gulf in 1990 for use against Saddam Hussein's army and, after the war, was sent to Israel with dozens of other identical missiles as a quid pro quo gift for Israel's forbearance in not bombing Iraq. Not a single complaint was made by the United States to Israel about the attack; indeed, the State Department and Defense Department would make no comment on the affair even after 30 telephone calls from The Independent.

Israel's own arms industry - including the Kfir fighter-bomber and the Merkava battle tank - has given the country a semblance of self-sufficiency but it is the US which gives Israel its cutting edge, and continues to do so long after the demise of the Soviet Union.

A powerful Jewish lobby in the United States sees to it that Congress raises no serious questions. Boys, it seems, will go on being boys.