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After Gaza: The UK must end its arms trade with Israel Comment

As a growing number of voices worldwide call for an embargo on all arms sales to Israel, the UK's response has fallen dismally short, warns Andrew Smith.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014 19:49 - 0 Comments


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A growing number of voices are calling for an end to the UK’s arms sales to Israel. The last few weeks have seen seen tens of thousands of people marching against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and a large number of people taking direct action against the UK’s perceived complicity. One high profile action came in Birmingham when the campaign group London Palestine Action successfully shut down a factory owned by Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest arms company.

Unfortunately, the response from the UK government has been extremely weak. Business Secretary Vince Cable has  accepted that there are currently 12 military licences for weapons and components that may have been used in Gaza, but has refused to even temporarily suspend them unless ‘significant hostilities’ resume. In effect the government’s position is that more people will need to die before anything is done. This response will not just be seen as weak, it will also be seen as a sign of political support for the Israeli government.

Unfortunately, the situation is all too familiar. In 2009 the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, told parliament that it was “almost certain” UK weapons had been used in Gaza. He then 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 then the UK has licensed almost £50m of weapons, including targeting equipment, gun sightings and components for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones).

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 saying ‘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 continued, ‘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 to be of greater importance than the human rights of people in Gaza.

The current 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.’

This is meaningless. On paper, the UK has a strong arms control policy. The reality on the ground shows it is anything but.

The relationship is very integrated. Israel has a very advanced arms industry. There are over 200 arms companies in Israel and its government spent over $18 billion on weapons in the last 12 months. It also exports a lot of weapons to a range of countries, including the UK, with $7.5 billion worth of exports in 2012 alone.

A number of UK arms companies also work very 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 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has put the blame for the bombardment firmly on the shoulders of Hamas while refusing to accept that the Israeli response has been disproportionate. This position led Sayeeda Warsi – hardly a radical – to resign from cabinet, branding the government’s position ‘morally indefensible‘.

In many ways the issue goes way 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 against pro-democracy campaigners in a number of countries, such as Bahrin, Libya and Egypt. The UK’s largest arms buyer is Saudi Arabia, which bought £1.6 billion-worth of arms in 2013 alone. Needless to say, the Saudi Arabian government is one of the most repressive in the world.

Earlier this month, Philip Hammond, the UK foreign secretary, said of Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine: They have been supplying them, they have been supporting them… They cannot deny their responsibility for the acts that these people are carrying out.

He is right, but the same must be said of the UK’s support of Israel. The immediate revoking of all current licences and an embargo on all arms sales to Israel would mean that UK arms companies would no longer profit from the misery of the Palestinians, and that the arms that the UK buys have not been “tested” on the 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.

You can follow the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) at @wwwcaatorguk.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @CAATuk

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