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Colombia breaks diplomatic relations with Israel, but its army depends on key equipment built by Israel

BOGOTÁ, Colombia (AP) — Colombia has become the latest Latin American country to announce it. will break diplomatic relations with Israel for its military campaign in Gaza, but the repercussions for the South American nation could be broader than for other countries due to long-standing bilateral security agreements.

colombian president Gustavo Petro On Wednesday he described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide” and announced that his government would end diplomatic relations with Israel starting Thursday. But he did not address how his decision could affect Colombia’s military, which uses Israeli-built fighter jets and machine guns to fight drug cartels and rebel groups, and the free trade agreement between the two countries that entered into effective in 2020.

Also in the region, bolivia and Belize have also broken diplomatic relations with Israel over the war between Israel and Hamas.

Here’s a look at Colombia’s close ties with Israel and its consequences:

WHY IS SECURITY COOPERATION BETWEEN COLOMBIA AND ISRAEL IMPORTANT?

Colombia and Israel have signed dozens of agreements on wide-ranging topics, including education and trade, since establishing diplomatic relations in 1957. But nothing unites them more closely than military contracts.

All Colombian fighter aircraft are Israeli-made. The more than 20 Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets were used by its air force in numerous attacks on remote guerrilla camps that weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The attacks helped prompt the rebel group to enter peace talks that resulted in its disarmament in 2016.

But the fleet, acquired in the late 1980s, is aging and requires maintenance, which can only be carried out by an Israeli company. Manufacturers from France, Sweden and the United States have approached the Colombian government with replacement options, but the Petro administration’s spending priorities lie elsewhere.

The Colombian military also uses Galil rifles, which were designed in Israel and for which Colombia acquired the manufacturing and sales rights. Israel also helps the South American country with its cybersecurity needs.

WILL PETRO’S ANNOUNCEMENT AFFECT COLOMBIA’S MILITARY CONTRACTS WITH ISRAEL?

It is not clear.

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that “all communications related to this announcement will be made through established official channels and will not be public.” The ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press, while the Israeli embassy in Bogotá declined to address the issue.

However, a day before Petro announced his decision, Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez told lawmakers that no new contracts will be signed with Israel, although existing ones will be honored, including those for maintenance of the Kfir and one for the missile systems.

Velásquez said the government has established a “transition” committee that would seek to “diversify” suppliers to avoid dependence on Israel. He added that one of the possibilities being considered is the development of a rifle by the Colombian military industry to replace the Galil.

Security cooperation has been at the center of tensions between the two countries. Israel said in October that would stop security exports to Colombia after Petro refused to condemn the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel that sparked the war and compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to those of Nazi Germany. In February, Petro announced the suspension of arms purchases from Israel.

For retired General Guillermo León, former commander of the Colombian air force, the country’s military capabilities will be affected if the Petro administration fails to fulfill its contractual obligations or even if it fulfills them but refuses to sign new ones.

“At the end of the year, maintenance and spare parts run out, and from then on, the fleet would quickly enter a condition where we would no longer have the means to sustain it,” he told the AP. “This year three aircraft were removed from service due to reaching their useful life cycle.”

WHAT IS THE TRADE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES?

In August 2020, a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel came into force. Israel now buys 1% of Colombia’s total exports, which include coal, coffee and flowers.

According to the Colombian Ministry of Commerce, exports to Israel last year totaled $499 million, which represents a 53% drop compared to 2022.

Colombia’s imports from Israel include electrical equipment, plastics and fertilizers.

Neither government has explained whether the diplomatic dispute will affect the trade agreement.

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