DSEI is one of the world’s largest arms fairs, which comes to East London’s Docklands every two years. For a week, the whole of the ExCeL Centre hosts arms companies from around the world to market their products, from missiles to fighter jets, tanks to sniper rifles. But the event is not only for private companies; it is also attended by governments and militaries from around the world, who are there to help promote their ‘national’ companies, and to shop around for the latest technology.
The UK government is also directly involved; the UK Defence and Security Organisation (DIT DSO), which is the Department of International Trade’s weapons-export promotion arm, extends official invitations to key commercial and military allies from other governments, including a large number from states who the UK Foreign Office considers to be “human rights priority countries”, the new euphemism for what used to be called “countries of concern”. This list includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Colombia. This year, for the first time, the DIT DSO has officially invited a state delegation from Israel to attend.
It’s hard to say what prompted this new invitation. In past years, Israel had its own “national pavilion” at DSEI, at which arms companies boasted of their weapons being “battle-tested” and “combat-proven” – i.e. they have been used in live combat situations, to devastate and destroy Palestinian lives and communities. It’s no secret that the Israeli arms industry benefits from the violence: Israeli forces order arms from Israeli companies, and feedback so the technology can be “fine-tuned”. Arms company officials have been open about the fact that their customers “appreciate that the products are battle-tested.” In this way, Israel’s international impunity for attacks on civilians translates into profit-making for arms dealers.
So what has happened in the past two years to explain the DSEI upgrading Israel from a just a national pavilion to an official invitee?
In March 2018, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began a “Great March of Return”, marching in the tens of thousands to demand that Israel end its illegal siege and demand their rights, including their right of return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948. Israel used military force to crack down on the unarmed protests, killing over 250 people including children, paramedics, disabled people and journalists, and injuring over 30,000 more. In one horrible day in May 2018, Israeli forces shot and killed some 60 Palestinians within a few hours.
In response, the International Criminal Court issued an unprecedented statement of warning, and the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the use of violent force in repressing the protests. This past March, the Commission of Inquiry reported that it found evidence of Israeli security forces having committed “war crimes or crimes against humanity” in the repression of the protests.
But the repression of Palestinians does not only happen in Gaza, and it is not an isolated event. Brutal, militarised repression lies at the heart of Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights. Israel’s security forces target Palestinians with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. They demolish Palestinian homes with armoured bulldozers, and carry out mass arrests and arbitrary detention of political prisoners. They restrict the movement of Palestinians with militarised checkpoints and the illegal Apartheid Wall. This violence is a part of the daily lives of Palestinians.
So the UK’s decision to herald the Israeli Ministry of Defence (IMOD) and Israeli arms companies – as well as other regimes found to be committing war crimes and internal militarised repression such as Saudi Arabia – to buy and sell tools of oppression at a grand arms fair on UK soil, is a statement. It says that the government does not care about international law. Israel’s recent boost even seems to imply that the more abuses committed, the more the relevant states and arms companies will be at the fair. Perhaps the state of Israel’s latest crimes pushed it over a key oppression milestone in the DIT’s “stringent process of scrutiny and approval before issuing any invitations to foreign governments”?
And it flies in the face of even the UK’s own policies on arms exports, which, if applied, would prohibit the sale of arms when there is a risk that they would be used for abuse of human rights and violations of international law. This makes it absurd that the UK not only continues to trade in arms with Israel, but takes the extra step of extending an invitation for it to market its weapons. If the UK government were to uphold its own policy on arms sales, it would result in a de-facto arms embargo with Israel.
Israel’s militarised repression of Palestinians is a grave injustice, but it is only made possible through the support from governments and corporations worldwide that endorse, enable and profit-from the ongoing situation of occupation and apartheid. At DSEI, states and companies will make the kind of deadly deals that end in the devastation of not just Palestinians, but of victims of war and militarised repression around the world. Palestinians have continued their struggle for equality and justice against incredible odds, and they have called for international civil society to show solidarity by holding their own complicit governments and companies to account. The UK should impose an immediate two-way arms embargo on Israel and other repressive regimes, in accordance with its own arms export licencing policy, and it should not facilitate Israeli arms companies to do business on our doorstep and profit from unlawful practices.