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Panama and Israel have a long history of supportive bilateral relations, beginning with Panama’s vote for UN Resolution 181 to create the State of Israel. Panama used Israeli surveillance technology by NSO Group. Panamian police forces were trained by the Israeli Army. 

Israel-Panama Relations

Panama has consistently voted with Israel since 1947, including voting against a resolution for Palestinian statehood on November 29, 2012; 138 countries voted in favor of the resolution, with just Israel, Panama, and 7 other countries opposing it.[1]Panama and Israel: A special relationship

Israel and Panama signed a free trade agreement that entered into force on January 1, 2020, which granted preferential market access for goods, aiming to eliminate trade barriers between the two nations.[2]Israel-Panama free trade agreement enters into force In 2021, Panama imported $9.15 million of goods from Israel, primarily technical apparatuses, machinery, and electrical equipment.[3]Panama Imports from Israel

In 2022, the countries signed a bilateral agreement on migration cooperation which aimed to improve management of migration between Israel and Panama and increase access to legal pathways to immigration.[4]US, Panama sign bilateral agreement on migration cooperation – Blinken

Military Relations

Panama is currently one of two countries in Latin America (the other being Costa Rica) to permanently abolish its standing army, although it retains a small paramilitary national security force called the Panamanian Public Forces (FPP).[5]Panama Ground Forces The abolition occured in 1990 following the U.S. invasion of Panama (1989-1990) to depose de facto ruler and dictator General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno.

Prior to the FPP, General Noriega had established the Panamanian Defense Forces (FDP) when he formally assumed power in 1983. Because General Noriega had forged close ties with the Israeli military and intelligence community (most notably, ex-Mossad agent Mike Harari) while serving as Panama’s intelligence chief, upon assuming power in 1983 he brought in Harari to establish a special operations battalion of the FDP and reorganize the Panamanian intelligence establishment.[6]Noriega’s Pet Spy General Noriega has been described as an “Israelophile,” having received parachute training in Israel and apparently wearing his Israeli parachutist wings on his uniform.[7]The Mossad Agent Who Was Second Fiddle to Panama’s Dictator

In 2022, the New York Times Magazine linked the 2012 vote to a private meeting earlier in the year between then-president of Panama Ricardo Martinelli and then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu in which the two leaders discussed Israeli military and intelligence equipment, resulting in the establishment of NSO systems (including Pegasus software) within Panama.[8]The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon Martinelli continued to serve as Panamanian president until 2014, when he was replaced by his Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, and faced charges of illegal surveillance (using Pegasus software) and embezzlement.[9]Accused in Spying Case, Ex-Panama President Fights Extradition in Miami With Martinelli’s replacement and indictment, NSO systems were also discontinued in Panama.

In 2021, the Panamanian police faced scrutiny when an image was released in which, during a joint training course with representatives from the Israeli military, Panamanian policement pointed and fired their bullets at a target figure wearing the traditional Palestinian kuffiyeh.[10]Panama-Israel Relations Go beyond the “Shooting” Scandal

Human Rights Violations

Panama Under Manuel Noriega

When former General Noriega was extradited from France to Panama in 2011, Amnesty International called for fresh investigations into his role in numerous human rights violations and crimes against humanity occurring in Panama dating back to the 1960s, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.[11]Panama: Fresh investigations urged after Manuel Noriega extradition

During Noriega’s time in power and creation of the Panamanian Defense Forces (FDP) from 1983-1990, the FDP regularly utilized birdshot, rubber truncheons, water cannons using acid-laced water, and tear gas to disrupt public demonstrations and peaceful assemblies. Large scale arrests of peaceful protesters and torture of detainees were also reported.[12]Panama: Assault on human rights In 1988, the FDP formed “dignity battalions,” composed of paramilitary groups of civilians, FDP members, unemployed people, released criminals, and government employees. These battalions received small arms and some military training from the FDP, and were increasingly deployed throughout 1989 to harass political opponents and disrupt public demonstrations.

In 1989, during the 7 May elections and 3 October military rebellion against Noriega, Panamanians reported waves of arrests, detentions, torture, and even execution by members of the FDP or dignity battalions. Following the 3 October uprising, as many as 90 rebel soldiers of the FDP were reportedly killed by Noriega and his loyalists (even after laying down their arms) and between 200-600 were arrested and incarcerated.
[13]Panama Defense Forces (PDF)

Panama After Noriega

In the decades since Noriega was removed from power, Panama has been censured by human rights groups on various occasions. In the years following Noriega’s capture in 1990, Panama’s legislative assembly considered pardoning thousands of human rights abuses that occurred during Noriega’s dictatorship.[14]Panama Amnesty Plan For Abuses Draws Fire[15]Panama: fear of gross impunity / legal concern: amnesty law to be debated in legislative assembly In 2011 and 2012, Panama faced pressure from Amnesty International to investigate circumstances of excessive use of force or even execution by Panamanian police during protests against the selling of state-owned land.[16]Panama must account for protest deaths in Colón[17]Panama: Protester deaths need proper investigationAdditionally, gender non-conforming and LGBTQI+ people in Panama are still fighting for equal rights, including marriage equality, as of 2022.[18]The Fight for Marriage Equality in Panama[19]Panama: Bill Bars Same-Sex Couples from Adoption[20]Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for Panama During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Panama faced criticism for its policy of gender-based lockdowns, which resulted in greater levels of violence against women and transgender people.[21]Panama’s Gender-Based Lockdown and the Resilience of Transgender Activism[22]Panama: New Trans Discrimination Cases Under Covid-19 Measures