United Kingdom arming of Israel is challenged

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

London—The UK government may have a fight on its hands as activists and lawyers tighten the noose on British weapons sales to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The advocacy group, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), has challenged business secretary Vince Cable over the UK’s export of weapons, claiming shipments to Israel may be illegal if used in Gaza.

“The public is rightfully shocked by the bombardment that has been taking place and the UK needs to take responsibility by revoking all current (arms export) licenses,” said CAAT spokesman Andrew Smith on Aug. 12. “It should announce a full embargo on all arms sales to Israel as well as an end to all military-industrial collaboration with Israel.”

Despite citing Israel’s alleged “right to self-defense,” the government subsequently bowed to public outrage by launching an inquiry into existing arms sales. Documents obtained by The Independent claim that a total of 130 UK weapon manufacturers share 42 million pounds worth of armament deals with the IDF. The European Union legislates that arms exports must be subject to specific criteria regarding the likelihood of weapons being used on civilians and the human rights record of the purchasing nation. Yet as of Aug. 16 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was reported to be considering prohibiting just 12% of current export licenses only in the event of a breach of the then existing ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Until then, current exports would remain at full capacity.

WHAT ARMS CONTROL POLICY?

According to CAAT, what constitutes a breach of the ceasefire has not been defined, which leaves open the question of British weapons being utilised in alleged war crimes. “We always hear about the strength of the UK’s arms control policy, but this underlines how poor it actually is,” said Smith. “Even by Vince Cable’s own admission, UK weapons may have been used in Gaza. The UK’s failure to even suspend these licenses unless the violence resumes is simply not good enough. It is a very weak position, and it will be seen as a sign of political support for the Israeli government and military.”

CAAT believes that the UK currently sells components to the IDF used in the manufacture of armed drones such as the Hermes, as well as equipment used to maintain the Merkava series of battle tank. Additional items on sale are thought to include bulletproof jackets, components for naval warships and ammunition for a variety of small arms. IDF officials have cited the Hermes as constituting the “backbone” of its reconnaissance and targeting operations, with the drone having seen extensive action thus far in Operation “Protective Edge.”

ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES TARGETING CIVILIANS

Yet it’s the IDF airborne campaign that has become notorious when it comes to targeting civilian objects, with the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) citing extensive damage to schools, hospitals and water infrastructure. In the latter case, the IDF is reputed to have intentionally fired on Gaza’s water pumping stations and sewage treatment facilities on several occasions, at one point leaving “hundreds of thousands” without drinkable water, according to ICRC. In a press release last month, the ICRC described “repeated bombing…devastating Gaza’s fragile water infrastructure.” The above constitutes a direct violation of Article 54 of Additional Protocol One to the Geneva Conventions, where it’s explicitly “prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population” with “drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works” being cited specifically.

MOUNTING OPPOSITION

Britain has shared in the escalating outrage over Israeli forces, with several demonstrations drawing sizeable numbers and over 100,000 protesters hitting the streets of London last month. “There is a deep and longstanding movement in solidarity with the Palestinians that encompasses trade unions, community groups, faith groups and activists,” said Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition. “But it is also partly because our government is seen as complicit in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. We provide arms, we trade with Israel, and we defend the actions of the government there.”

­—Dan Read

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