BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Escalating tensions between Colombia and Israel over the Gaza war could undo decades of close military ties between them and hamper Colombia’s ability to fight drug traffickers and rebels, security analysts say.
Israel has been one of Colombia’s main suppliers of war planes, surveillance equipment and assault rifles since the 1990s. But on Sunday its foreign ministry announced a suspension of defense exports to Colombia, after President Gustavo Petro refused to condemn Hamas’ attack on Israel and compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to those of Nazi Germany.
Analysts in Bogota say that the suspension could jeopardize several contracts, including a $5 million deal between Colombia’s Defense Ministry and Israeli company IAI to maintain Colombia’s ageing fleet of Kfir fighter jets.
Colombia’s government also recently hired an Israeli company to outfit two Boeing 737’s with electronic warfare equipment and intelligence tools that can help the military jam communications of the nation’s remaining rebel groups and monitor their movements.
Israel’s embassy in Bogota declined to answer questions about the export ban and whether it applies to contracts that have already been signed.
Security analysts in Bogota said that if the ban is sustained, it could seriously affect Colombia’s armed forces due to their reliance on Israeli hardware and technology.
“It will be debilitating and extremely costly,” said Jorge Restrepo, the director of CERAC, a security think tank in Bogota. “It can take months or years to find new providers and to train personnel to use and trust new equipment.”
Colombia deepened its military ties with Israel in the late 80’s by purchasing a group of Kfir fighter jets. The war planes, whose name translates to young lion, are able to launch laser-guided bombs.
They were used by Colombia’s air force in numerous attacks on remote guerrilla camps that debilitated the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and helped push the group into peace talks that resulted in its disarmament in 2016.
But as Colombia’s fleet of 22 Kfir fighter jets becomes older it also relies more frequently on maintenance from its Israeli manufacturers, said Erich Saumeth Cadavid, a Colombian defense analyst.
Cadavid noted that one potential result of the export ban could be less sorties for the Kfir planes, which are Colombia’s only fighter jets and also the only planes in the nation’s arsenal that are capable of launching bombs with precision.
Colombian officials have been slow to replace the fleet despite offers from manufacturers in France, Sweden and the United States, as Petro’s administration prioritizes spending in other areas.
Israel’s military export ban comes as Colombia’s government continues to face the threat of rebel groups that did not join the 2016 peace deal with the FARC, and have grown stronger in some rural parts of the country following the FARC’s withdrawal from these areas.
Petro’s administration recently signed cease-fires with two of these groups — the ELN and the EMC — that will expire early next year, while it is fighting against the drug trafficking group known as the Gulf Clan, which is the nation’s second largest armed group.
Wilder Alejandro Sánchez, a military analyst and president of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm based in Washington, said that the effects of Israel’s export ban will take some months to be felt by Colombia’s armed forces.
He said that while Colombia has a “diverse” set of weapons in its arsenal, including Brazilian made Super Tucano planes that can attack enemies on the ground, the nation relies heavily on Israel for the maintenance of surveillance equipment, including drones.
“Colombia continues to face a plethora of internal security challenges, and they need a strong military with various capabilities” Sánchez said. “So this ban, if it really does come through, comes at a really bad time.”
Another contract that could be jeopardized by the ban, Sánchez said, is a license through which Colombia’s state owned military factory, Indumil, produces Israeli designed Galil assault rifles, which have become the principal weapon used on the ground by Colombian troops.
Following Israel’s announcement of its intent to suspend military exports, Colombia’s leftist president threatened to cut diplomatic relations with Israel and blamed the country for the growth of paramilitary groups in Colombia, though he didn’t provide evidence for that claim.
“If we must suspend relations with Israel, then that is what we will do,” Petro wrote on the social media platform X. “From the people of Israel I demand help for the construction of peace in Colombia, in Palestine and in the world.”
Petro, who was once a member of a left-wing rebel group that made peace with Colombia’s government in the 1990s, has written dozens of messages on X about the war in Gaza since the conflict began on October 7.
In some, he has compared the conditions in the Gaza strip to those of a concentration camp, and in other messages he has written that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is equivalent to “genocide.”
But the president has refused to condemn Hamas’ attack on Israel, despite numerous calls by Colombian politicians and intellectuals for him to do so.
While Petro’s supporters commend him for speaking forcefully about the plight of Palestinians, critics are worried that his brand of online diplomacy could eventually lead to a complete rupture of relations with Israel, and undermine Colombia’s relations with other countries.
“By not condemning the terrorist attack, he is drifting away from Colombia’s strategic allies and putting Colombia next to the nations that support terrorism,” said Diego Molano, a former Colombian defense minister.
“Petro is impulsive and he sees in the Palestinian cause something that he can become a vocal supporter of that aligns with his ideology and his passion for anti-colonialism,” said Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota. “But he is not taking Colombia’s interests into consideration, and it puts Colombia in a difficult position.”
On Thursday afternoon Petro held separate meetings with the ambassadors of Israel and Palestine and posted photos on X. He announced Colombia would send humanitarian aid to the residents of the Gaza strip and wrote on his account that he had told both ambassadors about his desire to help set up an “international peace conference that opens the path for two free and independent states.”
Follow AP’s coverage of Latin America and the Caribbean at https://apnews.com/hub/latin-america