For the first time, Israel has provided training to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to assist its fight against Islamic State-linked separatists and terrorists, the latest sign of tightening strategic ties between the two US allies.
The bilateral training, scheduled to end on July 4, adds a new and potentially controversial dimension to a military relationship that has so far been confined to weapons sales and the sharing of intelligence about international Muslim extremists.
And while the strategic relationship is largely and nominally defined by combatting terrorism, Israel’s growing sales of sophisticated hardware, including advanced missile systems, to the Philippines will likely also raise antennae in China.
Even though Israeli boots were only on the ground in the capital Manila, their military presence risked alienating some of the country’s nearly 6% Muslim population who live mostly in the nation’s south, including the terrorism-prone island of Mindanao.
The Philippines’ volatile south has been battered by decades of violent insurgency and faces increasing Islamist demands for autonomy, and in cases independence, in a country that is over 80% Roman Catholic.
To dampen any controversy, only about 10 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers trained 180 Philippine Army troops who are now qualified to pass on those lessons to other soldiers.
The Counter-Terrorism Trainer’s Training (CTTT), staged between June 26-July 4, focused on how to fight an insurgency in urban and rural areas, including through the use of combat technology such as drones.
“The CTTT is the first training collaboration between the Philippines Army and the IDF to be held in the Philippines,” confirmed Philippine Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala.
“Although they have different experiences, there are similarities, so it’s important that we establish a methodology on how to go about our anti-terrorism and combat techniques,” Zagala said.
Bilateral relations have grown stronger and more personal during the tenures of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Those ties have also apparently facilitated arms deals.
The Philippine Air Force plans to procure millions of dollars worth of Israeli-made Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ medium-range, surface-to-air SPYDER missiles and Hermes medium-altitude, long-endurance drones.
The SPYDER is a low-level, quick-reaction missile system capable of engaging aircraft, helicopters, unmanned air vehicles, drones, and precision-guided munitions.
The Hermes drone, one of the most used worldwide, is designed for tactical missions with payload options that include electronic intelligence gathering and electronic warfare.
Those weapons will bolster Manila’s earlier purchases of Israeli drones, radars and 100 armored vehicles.
The Israeli-Philippine exercises and arms sales, tagged specifically to combat terrorism, will also significantly improve the Philippines’ broad defense capabilities, including potentially in sea theaters like the South China Sea.
The Philippines has fought diverse rebel groups during past decades, while in recent years several have pronounced extremist allegiance to Islamic State. While some peace deals have been struck, non-ceasefire groups are escalating their battles.
The bloodiest clashes involve the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an Islamist group that has openly allied with Islamic State.
ASG has waged battles for independence on Muslim-majority southern islands for several years, pushing their agenda through bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, including of captured foreign tourists.
“We recovered parts like head, feet. Both of them are male. We still don’t know if they are foreign or local,” the army’s Joint Task Force Sulu spokesman Gerald Monfort said on July 2, describing a likely double-suicide bombing which killed five people on June 28 at a military base.
“Our main suspect is Abu Sayyaf. They are the only one with a motive to sow terror” on Jolo island in the Sulu archipelago, Mr. Monfort said, according to Reuters.
In January, ASG were suspected of setting off two bombs, minutes apart, on Jolo island that destroyed a Roman Catholic cathedral during a Sunday Mass which left 20 people dead and 111 wounded. Islamic State claimed responsibility, according to the extremist group’s news agency Amaq.
In 2017, on nearby Mindanao island, hundreds of Abu Sayyaf and other ISIS-linked insurgents including foreigners besieged Marawi, the biggest Muslim city in the Philippines.
For five months, desperate government troops bombed and assaulted Marawi’s urban maze until they defeated the rebels. Authorities said 920 guerrillas, 165 soldiers and at least 45 civilians perished in the fight. Much of Marawi was reduced to ruins and over 300,000 residents fled.
During a four-day visit to Israel in September 2018, Duterte thanked Netanyahu for helping to end the Marawi siege which “could have dragged on were it not for the very substantial and crucial equipment” from Israel.
“The help that you extended was very critical in winning the war,” Duterte said without elaborating on what type of equipment or assistance Israel provided. US soldiers were seen operating drones in Marawi during the siege.
Both nations “share the same passion for peace, we share the same passion for human beings, and we share the same passion of not allowing our countries to be destroyed by those with corrupt ideologies,” Duterte said at the time.
Netanyahu replied: “Mr President, we remember our friends. And that friendship has blossomed over the years, and especially over the last few years.” The two sides will develop “military and intelligence products and hardware,” the Philippine government said at the time.
Manila’s growing military relations with Tel Aviv could soon appear on Beijing’s radar.
“Israel and the Philippines maintain close security ties, with Israel selling a large amount of weaponry to the Philippine Army over the years. And with tensions in the South China Sea, the overall flow of arms to the region has spiked,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
The Philippines is among several nations in territorial disputes with China in the resource-rich sea. China’s sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel near a contested bank has recently galvanized anti-China protests and calls for Duterte’s government to activate its mutual defense treaty with the US.
While Duterte has demurred as he strives to strike a middle position between the US and China, expanding military relations with Israel in the name of fighting terrorism represents a strategic hedge.
“Duterte has said in the past that he sees Israel as an alternative supplier of weapons, and during his visit he told President Reuven Rivlin that he intends to buy military equipment exclusively from Israel because of the country’s lack of restrictions, unlike the United States and other countries have refused to sell him arms over human rights violations,” the Times of Israel reported at the time.
Duterte is internationally condemned — including among Israelis — for his war on drugs which allegedly resulted in thousands of extrajudicial street executions, mostly by security forces, since he took office in 2016.
To personalize his visit to Israel, Duterte brought his daughter from his first wife Elizabeth Zimmerman. “My [former] wife is a Zimmerman…a descendant of an American Jew,” he told Israelis.
Israel has repeatedly praised the Philippines for sheltering more than 1,300 Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Germany and Austria during the Holocaust, and being the only Asian nation to vote for the UN Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947 before establishing diplomatic relations in 1957.
As a result, Israel allows Filipino tourists to visit for 90 days without a visa.
Netanyahu said his father, who died aged 102, “received incredible care by a caregiver from the Philippines, a woman of exceptional compassion and intelligence” who was among 30,000 people from the Southeast Asian nation currently working in Israel, mostly in the health care sector.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.