Ongoing commercial deals between Israel and Britain show our government’s active complicity in the crimes being committed in Gaza
A growing number of voices are calling for an end to the UK’s arms sales to Gaza. The last few days have seen Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigning from the government in opposition to its uncritical support of Israel, while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond have all backed calls for an embargo on arms sales.
This has been complemented by an increasing public movement which has seen tens of thousands of people marching against the bombardment of Gaza and a large number of people taking direct action. In Birmingham, activist group London Palestine Action successfully shut down and occupied a factory owned by Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms company.
In response, the government has announced that it will be reviewing all licences to Israel.
Unfortunately we have been here before. In 2009, the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, told parliament that it was “almost certain” UK weapons had been used in Gaza. He added, “we are looking at all extant licences to see whether any of these need to be reconsidered in light of recent events in Gaza.”
Nothing changed. Since Miliband’s statement, the UK has licensed £50m of weapons, including targeting equipment, gun sightings and components for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones). This includes some equipment which is sold to Israel and then repurposed and sold to other countries, but it does not include the 47 active open licences, which allow arms companies to supply an undefined amount of weapons of a certain category to a government with minimal oversight or transparency.
This is nothing new. In 2002, the government approved the export of components for F-16 fighters being made by the US company, Lockheed Martin, and sold to Israel. The then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, justified the sales by stating, “The government has judged that the UK’s security and defence relationship with the US is fundamental to the UK’s national security. Defence collaboration with the US is also key to maintaining a strong defence industrial capacity.” He went on to add, “Any interruption to the supply of these components would have serious implications for the UK’s defence relations with the United States.”
In other words, the commercial relationship between BAE Systems and US companies such as Lockheed Martin was judged more important than the human rights of Palestinians. Straw has described the current ongoing bombardment as “immoral”, but during his time as foreign secretary, he kept a largely uncritical relationship with Israel.
The current arms trade policy was laid out by Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt in 2011, when he wrote, “UK policy on the export of controlled goods and equipment to Israel has not changed since the coalition government took office. All export licence applications to Israel are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Export Licensing Criteria.” However, this says nothing – the real issue is how the criteria is interpreted. On paper, the UK has a strong arms control policy, but the reality shows it is anything but.
The relationship is very much a two-way one. A number of UK arms companies work closely with Israeli ones. For example, Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit Systems, is working with UK arms company, Thales UK, on a Ministry of Defence contract worth nearly £1 billion for the development of Watchkeeper WK450 drones.
This military relationship has been underpinned by a strong political one. David Cameron has described his support for Israel as “unbreakable” and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has put the blame for the bombardment firmly on the shoulders of Hamas, while refusing to even accept that the Israeli response has been disproportionate.
As long as these kinds of deals are central to UK-Israeli relations, it is unlikely that there will be any change in the current levels of political and military support being provided by Britain.
In many ways, the debate goes beyond Israel. The UK has a long and inglorious history of licensing weapons to a number of war zones. UK components and weapons have been used on pro-democracy campaigners in a number of countries, such as Bahrain, Egypt and Libya.
When a government sells weapons it cannot absolve itself of responsibility for what happens when they are used. That is why an immediate end to military co-operation and an embargo of all arms sales to and from Israel is essential.
An embargo would mean that UK arms companies would no longer profit from the misery of the Palestinians, and that the arms purchased by the UK will not be “tested” on Palestinians living under occupation. Just as importantly, it would set a crucial and long-overdue precedent by sending a strong message that people in the UK do not support the actions of the Israeli government and the collective punishment of Gaza.
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