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Israel proves that British arms export safeguards are worthless

Britain continues to sell arms to a state that shows continual and flagrant disregard for international law.

Naval strike on Gaza. Flickr/Israeli Defence Force

Late last Tuesday evening, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, announced the results of the government’s review into British arms exports to Israel. The review followed calls for a British arms embargo from voices as diverse as Amnesty International, a Conservative Foreign Office minister who resigned over Britain’s policy on Israel-Palestine, describing it as “morally indefensible”, and tens of thousands of people who attended a series of mass protests in London and other cities. Cable announced that 12 Whitehall-approved licences for “components which could be part of equipment used by the Israel Defence Forces in Gaza” had been identified, and consequently those licences would be “suspended in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities” and no new licences would be approved “until hostilities cease”. 

For years, anti-arms trade campaigners have been told by government ministers of all political parties that Britain has a tough and rigorous arms control regime, grounded in the requirements of international law. With depressing predictability, those claims have once again proven to be empty. By the government’s own admission (after the fact), British-made equipment may well have been used in a military campaign in which children in a UN refugee shelter have been shelled in their sleep, airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and a home for the disabled, family homes and indeed whole civilian neighbourhoods have been levelled, more than 1,000 civilians including over 400 children have been killed, nearly ten thousand people have been injured, over a quarter of a million have been made refugees, and as a result of which around 373,000 children will now require psycho-social support to deal with the traumas they have been subjected to.

What makes this shameful episode in British foreign policy even worse is that we’ve been here before, and very recently. In January 2009, during “Operation Cast Lead”, the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband denied that any evidence existed of UK-manufactured kit being used by the Israeli military in Gaza. However, under pressure from NGOs and journalists the government later conceded that this was not the case. In a written statement to parliament, Miliband admitted that Israeli combat aircraft, helicopters, naval vessels and armoured personnel carriers used in the conflict “almost certainly” contained components manufactured and sold by the UK . A few months later, following a further review, the government revoked five export licences for spare parts for guns on Saar 4.5 corvettes, which had reportedly fired missiles and artillery shells into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead . According to unnamed Israeli officials cited by the BBC, these were five out of an existing thirty-five licences relating to the Saar gunboat.

In 2009 and again in 2014, the government acted in as narrow a way as possible, did so only under duress from civil society, and with a response that came too late to help thousands of civilians killed and wounded by the Israeli armed forces. These are further examples of what Campaign Against Arms Trade describes as “arms control by embarrasment”. British policy is apparently to sell weapons irrespective of the threat to human security, and to only back-peddle to the smallest extent it can get away with when public scrutiny becomes too much to bear.

The government says that arms export licensing decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, using the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, adopted in October 2000. Ministers say that the subsequent use of any equipment licensed for export is kept under constant review. In a parliamentary answer in January last year , the then Minister of State for Business and Enterprise, Michael Fallon, said that three of the consolidated criteria in particular were seen by the government as relevant to exports to Israel. These are:

- Where there is a clear risk of the equipment being used for “internal repression”;

- Where the export would “provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts”; and

- Where there is a “clear risk that the intended recipient would use the proposed export aggressively against another country, or to assert by force a territorial claim”.

One notable omission here is the criterion stipulating that the government will take into account the buyer country's "respect for international law" (which is broader than merely stipulating that the specific kit being sold should not be used to violate international law). The omission is perhaps understandable, given that Israel’s violations of international law are so extensive and egregious that the government can only allow arms to be exported there at all by ignoring this criterion entirely.

During the latest conflict, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights remarked that “there seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes”. Amnesty International accused Israel of committing “crimes against humanity”, recommending that it be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “blatantly violating the laws of war,” documenting instances in which Israeli soldiers had shot and killed fleeing civilians. Of course, none of this need come as a surprise to Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, or Syeeda Warsi for that matter. This is simply a reflection of how the Israeli military operates, as has been copiously documented time and again by the world’s most respected human rights organisations.

In its 2006 war with Hezbollah, “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including war crimes” according to Amnesty International. These included “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on a large scale” such as “the sustained artillery bombardment of south Lebanon and, in particular, the widespread use of cluster bombs in civilian areas in the last days of the war”. Three years later, during Cast Lead, hundreds of Palestinian civilians including some 300 children were killed as large areas of Gaza were “razed to the ground” by both “direct attacks on civilian objects” and “indiscriminate attacks” breaching "fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law", Amnesty later found. Human Rights Watch documented a number of incidents where civilians had been attacked while waving white flags at IDF soldiers to show that they posed no threat.

During “Operation Pillar of Defense”, a further conflict over Gaza during November 2012, Israel again committed “war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law” carrying out "bomb and missile strikes on residential areas, including strikes that were disproportionate and caused heavy civilian casualties", according to AmnestyHuman Rights Watch documented at least 18 airstrikes carried out by the IDF that appeared to have violated the law of war, either because there was “no indication of a legitimate military target at the site at the time of the attack” or where the “attacks may have targeted Palestinian fighters, but appeared to use indiscriminate means or caused disproportionate harm to civilians”. None of this, needless to say, is justified legally or morally on grounds of self defence.

But the export control criterion requiring the British government to have regard to Israel’s "respect for international law" should not only be taken to apply to the latter’s behaviour in times of conflict. Since 1967 the Israeli military has enforced the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 242, and enabled the extensive colonisation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories in a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Through its consistent refusal ever to end the colonisation project, Israel has elevated contempt for international law into a core principle of bi-partisan state policy, now firmly established over several decades.

Israel’s colonial project, and its repeated refusal to allow the Palestinians full independence and sovereignty, constitutes the structural violence that is the root cause of the decades-long conflict. And structural violence of course breeds direct violence. Palestinians are continually subjected to brutality and human rights abuses at the hands of the occupying forces. In its latest world report, Amnesty noted that hundreds of occupied Palestinians continue to be imprisoned without charge or trial, with detainees reporting being subjected to torture. Israeli soldiers "routinely used excessive force against demonstrators in the West Bank, killing at least four" during 2012, as well as firing "tear gas canisters directly at peaceful protesters, causing serious injuries". The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported last year that “Palestinian children are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture” by the Israeli military and police. 

Therefore, as regards those criteria that Fallon chose to highlight, there must be a clear risk of any arms sold to Israel being used for “internal repression” or “to assert by force a territorial claim”, given that not just policing but maintaining the occupation is a core function of the IDF. Furthermore, to continue to sell Israel arms irrespective of its gross criminality is to grant it a form of moral and political impunity, which must necessarily “provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts”.

The British government claims to be supportive of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that would lead to a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state existing alongside Israel. It is difficult to see what reason Israel would have for relinquishing its illegal colonies so long as countries like the UK continue to supply its primary means of colonisation and repression—the IDF—and to treat its defiance of international law as at best an inconvenient detail to be worked around. Either by reference to its own export control criteria, or to basic moral principle, an embargo on arms exports to Israel is the only defensible way for the British government to proceed. Anything else amounts to complicity with Israel’s crimes, and with the seemingly endless, sadistic torture of the Palestinian people.


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About the author

David Wearing researches British-Saudi-Gulf relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he teaches courses on politics and political economy in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWearing.


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