The Ovda Israeli Air Force base near Eilat welcomed an Azerbaijani cargo plane for a two-hour stay last Thursday. Subsequently, the Ilyushin-76 flew south over Israel, turned north over Turkey, and then flew eastwards to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. This was the usual route of the airlift returning to its home field.
Haaretz News conducted an inquiry using publicly available aviation data showing 92 cargo flights from Azerbaijani Silk Way Airlines landing at the Ovda airbase in Israel in the last seven years. This airfield is the only one in the country that allows explosives to be transported in or out.
For the past 20 years, Israel has partnered strategically with Azerbaijan, a country populated with a majority of Shia Muslims. Israel spends substantial sums of money on weapons for Azerbaijan, and in return, Azerbaijan provides Israel with oil and access to Iran, as per sources.
Foreign media reports have indicated that Azerbaijan has granted Mossad permission to open a forward branch for monitoring Iran, located south of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, an airstrip has been constructed to help Israel if it chooses to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Two years ago, it was reported that Mossad operatives who stole the Iranian nuclear archive smuggled it to Israel with the help of Azerbaijan. Official records from Azerbaijan have confirmed that Israel has provided the country with various sophisticated weapons systems, including ballistic missiles, air defense and electronic warfare systems, kamikaze drones, and more.
Asia’s Silk Way airline is documented as a subcontractor for defense ministries globally. Three flights are flown in Boeing 747 cargo freighters between Baku and Ben-Gurion International Airport every week. Last year, the company was the third most significant foreign cargo transporter in volume at Ben-Gurion.
For the first time, newly released figures demonstrate that since 2016, Silk Way’s IL-76 planes have touched down at the Ovda airport 92 times or more, a place atypical for passenger aircraft. Moreover, the company is one of the few airlines that land at Ovda; just a handful of airlines from Eastern Europe transporting explosives have visited this landing strip over the years. Silk Way was the focus of a 2018 investigation by the Czech media, claiming that a forbidden sale of arms to Azerbaijan had occurred via Israel despite the arms embargo.
Aviation industry sources reported that Israeli aviation law prohibits the regular transportation of explosives from Ben-Gurion Airport due to its location in the center of a heavily populated area. The only airport from which it is permissible to export and import explosives is the Israel Air Force base in Ovda. In October 2013, the head of the Israel Civil Aviation Authority, Giora Romm, signed a waiver permitting Silk Way planes to fly shipments of explosives – “labeled as dangerous materials banned to fly” – from Ovda to a military airfield near Baku. This waiver, displayed then on the Civil Aviation Authority’s website, demands rigorous safety regulations and contains a list of the Azerbaijani aircraft allowed to transport explosives from Ovda to Azerbaijan.
The aircraft of Silk Way has touched down at Ovda close to one hundred times since the approval was granted. Moreover, the figures show a quickening rate of flights to Baku mainly in mid-2016, late 2020, and the end of 2021, which all happen to be times of combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. This region has been a source of contention between Azerbaijan and Armenia for decades, especially after the two countries achieved autonomy after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In 2016, Silk Way Airlines was granted a special exemption to keep landing at Ovda, even though the aircraft did not comply with the Israeli aviation noise regulations. The flights were identified using the call sign of Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is well-known for the long-standing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia that it has caused. The Soviet government successfully calmed tensions between Christian Armenians and the Shi’ite Azeris. In 1988, the parliamentary assembly of the Nagorno-Karabakh region voted to have a referendum on seceding from Azerbaijan and joining Armenia. This decision resulted in violence, with massacres of Armenians in Baku and other parts of Azerbaijan and vice versa.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, a violent battle broke out, ultimately resulting in an Armenian triumph in 1994, obtaining control over several territories neighboring the enclave. As a result, hundreds of refugees from both sides were forced to evacuate or leave to save their lives.
The long-standing feud between the two countries has resulted in both being subjected to trade sanctions and prohibitions in Europe and the United States. Ilham Aliyev, succeeding his father, Heydar Aliyev, has held a firm grip on Azerbaijan, and his regime has a record of curtailing civil rights and detaining dissidents. The US State Department published a report in 2017 wherein they denounced the state of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan, who are targets of persecution, discrimination, abduction, torture, and assassination.
The sanctions presented a business and strategic opportunity for an unexpected ally: Israel. The two countries’ shared perception of Iran as a direct danger strengthened their bond. In October of 1991, Azerbaijan proclaimed its independence, and Israel, one of the first countries to accept the new nation, opened an embassy in Baku in 1993.
In 2009, Rob Garverick, the head of the political and economic department in the US Embassy in Baku, observed in a telegram published by Wikileaks that Azerbaijan and Israel have a discreet yet close relationship.
“Azerbaijan’s relations with Israel are discreet but close,”
Wrote Rob Garverick, the head of the political and economic department in the US Embassy in Baku, in a 2009 telegram published as part of the Wikileaks documents. “Each country finds it easy to identify with the other’s geopolitical difficulties, and both rank Iran as an existential security threat. Israel’s world-class defense industry, with its relaxed attitude towards its customer base, is a perfect match for Azerbaijan’s substantial defense needs that are largely left unmet by the United States, Europe, and Russia for various reasons tied to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Aptly described by Azerbaijani President Aliyev as being like an iceberg, nine-tenths of it is below the surface, this relationship is also marked by a pragmatic recognition by Israel of Azerbaijan’s political need to hew publicly and in international forums to the [Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s] general line.”
In terms of its economy, Azerbaijan is primarily reliant on its oil and gas industries. However, due to their strategic alliance, they have become a primary source of oil for Israel, with an estimated half of Israel’s imported oil coming from that nation.
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) November 20, 2021
In the initial stages of their self-governance, Armenia and Azerbaijan depended on Soviet military supplies. However, since 2016, the Stockholm International Peace Institute has reported that Israel is the primary provider of arms to Azerbaijan, with over 70% of its weapons coming from the nation.
Reports, statements, and videos from Azerbaijan illustrate that Israel has exported a vast array of weaponry to the country, from Tavor assault rifles to high-tech systems such as radar, air defense, antitank missiles, ballistic missiles, ships, and drones for both intelligence and attack purposes. Additionally, Israeli companies have supplied advanced spy technology, such as Verint’s communication monitoring systems and the Pegasus spyware from the NSO Group, which was utilized against journalists, members of the LGBT community, and human rights activists in Azerbaijan.
The utilization of Israeli weaponry was pivotal during the Four-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016. It was especially apparent in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020 and the clashes in 2022. Jeyhun Bayramov, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, expressed to the Israel Hayom paper in April 2021, “The Armed Forces of Azerbaijan made good use of high-tech and high-precision weapons, including those from Israel, such as drones, which were indispensable in attaining military triumph. I am certain our mutual ties will be further strengthened and broadened in many areas after the Patriotic War.”
According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, in 2005, Israel Military Industries (IMI Systems) sold the Lynx multiple launch rocket systems to Azerbaijan, having a range of 150 kilometers (92 miles). Subsequently, Elbit Systems, which purchased IMI in 2018, provided the LAR-160 light artillery rockets with an operational range of 45 kilometers. Human Rights Watch’s report showed that Azerbaijan used these rockets to fire illicit cluster munitions at residential areas in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Footage of a LORA ballistic missile being launched from Azerbaijan during the war was captured.
Armenia deployed cluster munitions made in Russia, but much unexploded ordnance remained in civilian regions. Israel, the US, Russia, and China are among the states that reject the 2008 international Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the production and use of cluster munitions and has been endorsed by 123 countries.
In 2007, Azerbaijan made a deal with Aeronautics Defense Systems and purchased four drones capable of gathering intelligence. This was just the start of their purchases, as a year later, they secured 10 Hermes 450 drones from Elbit Systems and 100 Spike antitank missiles from Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. They followed up in 2010 and bought an additional ten intelligence-gathering drones.
In 2008, Elbit’s Soltam Systems sold Azerbaijan its ATMOS self-propelled guns, 120-millimeter Cardom mortars, and, in 2017, more advanced Hanit mortars. In addition, a telegram revealed in Wikileaks showed that a deal to provide Azerbaijan with sophisticated communications equipment from Tadiran had also been completed.
In 2011, Israel and Azerbaijan solidified their relationship with an enormous $1.6 billion agreement encompassing the purchase of Barak missiles for the interception of aircraft and missiles and Searcher and Heron drones from the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI). Moreover, according to reports, at the end of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, a Barak battery shot down an Iskander ballistic missile from Armenia.
In 2021, charges were brought against Aeronautics Defense Systems for allegedly violating the laws on defense exports in connection with one of its important customers. A court order prevents the disclosure of further details. Previously, the company had collaborated with the local arms industry in Azerbaijan, where some of the 100 Orbiter kamikaze (loitering munitions) drones were manufactured – drones that the defense minister of Azerbaijan referred to as “a nightmare for the Armenian army.”
In the early 2010s, Azerbaijan launched a project to modernize its army’s tanks. As a result, Elbit Systems provided Soviet T-72 tanks with advanced reactive armor and fire control systems to maximize their crew’s safety. The Aslan (Lion) tanks, upgraded with these features, were featured in the 2013 military parade.
In 2013, Azerbaijan beefed up its naval forces with six patrol ships modeled after Israel’s Sa’ar 4.5-class missile boats. The vessels were manufactured by Israel Shipyards and armed with the maritime version of the Spike missiles. Additionally, Azerbaijan obtained six Shaldag MK V patrol boats, each fitted with Rafael’s Typhoon gun mounts and Spike missile systems. To strengthen its navy, the country purchased 100 Lahat antitank-guided missiles.
In 2014, Azerbaijan acquired 100 Harop drones from IAI, which is pivotal in the upcoming battles. Furthermore, they obtained two state-of-the-art radar systems from Elta, an affiliate of IAI, to assist with aerial warning and protection.
Aliyev proclaimed during a visit to the combat zone and on his Twitter account that their military can complete any task owing to the modern air defense system and the powerful artillery acquired in the last few years. In addition, he stated that they had outdone the Armenians in political and economic arenas and could defeat them on the battlefield.
In two years, Azerbaijan acquired 250 SkyStriker kamikaze drones from Elbit Systems. Videos of the battles in the region depicted Israeli drones attacking Armenian forces.
During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stop in Baku in 2016, President Aliyev declared that contracts had already been established between the two countries to procure approximately $5 billion worth of “defensive equipment.”
In 2017, Azerbaijan acquired 900 Hermes drones from Elbit Systems and LORA ballistic missiles from IAI with a range of around 430 kilometers. The following year, President Aliyev inaugurated the airbase where the LORA missiles were placed, located roughly 430 kilometers away from Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia. However, during the military conflict in 2020, at least one of the missiles was let off and reportedly struck a bridge used by Armenia to give ammunition and other military supplies to its troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In 2019 and 2020, more advanced Spike missiles were dispatched. Moreover, along with Israel’s weapons systems, Turkey, a friend to Azerbaijan and adversary to Armenia, provided its Bayraktar TB2 drones that were prominent in wiping out Armenian objectives.
A formal journey and a diplomatic mission are the purposes of an official visit.
In October 2022, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Azerbaijan and held discussions with Aliyev. According to an official release, the topics of conversation were related to security and policy matters, as well as the betterment of the relationship between the two countries. However, what should have been made public was that Yair Kulas, the head of Israel’s defense exports directorate (SIBAT), had gone to Azerbaijan a month earlier and met with the Minister of Azerbaijan’s Defense Industries.
The Azeri ministry reported that the two nations discussed increasing their commercial ties with Israeli defense industries. Shortly afterward, Azerbaijan officially proclaimed its decision to open an embassy in Israel soon, dubbing it a “historic move.” However, they added that the potential of the relationship between the two countries and their citizens is unlimited.
Since the visit, Azerbaijan and its neighbor Iran have seen an increase in tensions, while Nagorno-Karabakh’s accounts point to relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalating to boiling point again. It appears that another violent confrontation may be imminent.
In the period since then, seven other planes from Azerbaijan have arrived at the Ovda airfield. Within two hours of loading their cargo on the ground, they left for Baku.