What would it take for Britain to stop arming Israel? Not, it seems, last summer’s carnage in Gaza, in which 2,205 Palestinians, including 521 children, were killed, and where there is credible evidence that Israel committed a series of war crimes, according to a recent UN investigation.
The spectacle of children in a refugee shelter being shelled in their sleep, airstrikes hitting schools and hospitals, and whole civilian neighbourhoods being levelled to the ground was apparently not enough to prevent ministers approving £4 million of arms exports to Israel in the weeks and months immediately following the war, as a report released this week shows.
The report, which I authored and which is published jointly by War On Want, Campaign Against Arms Trade and Palestine Solidarity Campaign, lays bare the worthlessness of Whitehall’s arms export control regime. Neither the Israeli military’s consistently atrocious record in wartime, nor its role in enforcing the illegal colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territories, have disturbed its status as a customer of the UK weapons industry.
The British government is clearly intent on approving arms sales up to the outer limits of what the embarrassment of bad publicity will allow.
The absurd lengths to which ministers will go to avoid stopping the flow of arms is at times worthy of a Monty Python sketch, albeit a deeply unfunny one. Four weeks into last summer’s violence, and under fire for siding strongly with Israel even as the brutality of its behaviour became clear, David Cameron announced that the government would conduct a review of current arms export licences.
A week later, during one of the short ceasefires that occurred during the latter stages of the war, the government said it had identified 12 licences for equipment which had potentially been used by Israel in Gaza, and which it would suspend in the event of a resumption of “significant hostilities”.
In a letter to the chair of the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls dated 19 August 2014, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond admitted that “there could be a risk that the items [covered by the licences] might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”. The conflict resumed the following day and continued for several days, but the government did not deem this a “resumption of significant hostilities”, so the licences remained in effect.
In correspondence with CAAT’s solicitors, Vince Cable, then the secretary of state responsible for approving arms sales, was unable to say how the government had decided that the hostilities were not significant, or even to provide a definition of “significant hostilities”.
The UK government’s position appears to be that, even when it acknowledges a risk of UK exports being “used in the commission of a serious violation of international law”, it will not suspend (let alone revoke) the relevant export licences until after the commencement of the “significant hostilities” in which those crimes would be committed (with “significant hostilities” remaining a conveniently undefined term). It is with squalid manoeuvrings like these that ministers manage to weasel their way around official export control safeguards, and carry on supplying the Israelis with weapons however they decide to use them.
Britain is also a customer of the Israeli arms industry, which given the circumstances is in predictably rude health. After all, as Neve Gordon, a politics professor at Ben Gurion University, told Al Jazeera recently, “What they are selling is Israel’s ‘experience’ and expertise gained from the occupation and its conflicts with its neighbours”.
The British Ministry of Defence has allowed Israel to benefit from this experience by awarding a £1 billion joint venture contract to Thales UK and Israel’s Elbit Systems for the development of the UK’s Watchkeeper surveillance drone. All in all, one doubts that the Israeli government feels overwhelmed by the force of Whitehall’s concern for its treatment of the Palestinians.
One bullet is too many
In recent years, Israel has fought three wars in Gaza, and in each case world-leading human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented copious evidence of serious crimes being committed. Over the course of those conflicts, 3,762 Palestinians have died. Amongst that number are 887 children, each of them no different from the little people that you and I know in our own lives. One terrible passage from last week’s UN report still remains lodged in my mind:
“…..according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, in Gaza, more than 1,500 children were orphaned. Anas “Bader” Qdeih, aged 7, was seen pleading for help from people fleeing Khuza’a while holding his intestines, which were coming out of his abdomen, “I don't want to die. Don’t leave me.” He died soon afterwards, after his medical evacuation was delayed.”
Whitehall suits may imagine themselves very clever for concocting amorphous phrases like “significant hostilities”, so that the UK can continue supplying the Israeli military, but the games they are playing are with real people’s lives.
British arms comprise a small proportion of Israel’s total military imports, being mostly high-tech components rather than major weapons systems like those sold to Saudi Arabia. But when we’re talking about crimes like those of the Israeli army, to put it in figurative terms, one bullet provided is one bullet too many. Perhaps more importantly, such material support inescapably constitutes an expression of political support, which coming from one of the world’s richest nations and a permanent member of the Security Council can only encourage Israeli belligerence and diminish the prospects for peace.
The campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel has been the subject of increasing discussion since the horrors of last summer, and in light of the Israeli prime minister’s revealingly racist and rejectionist comments concerning Palestinian rights in the run-up to March’s election.
We can debate and discuss in good faith whether various forms of boycott - be they academic, cultural or economic – would be effective or appropriate in advancing the cause of peace and Palestinian independence. But the case for a two-way arms boycott – no sales, no purchases, and no joint projects - is surely now unanswerable.
It’s long past time for Whitehall to quit acting as the Israeli state’s accomplice, and to put the lives of occupied and besieged Palestinians before the balance sheets of British arms dealers.
- David Wearing is a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he teaches courses on Middle East Politics and International Political Economy. He sits on the steering committee of Campaign Against Arms Trade.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem on June 5, 2015.