The Israeli air force has been removed from the list of armed forces now taking part in multinational military training exercises on the Italian island of Sardinia following a campaign by anti-war activists.
During Israel’s deadly 51-day bombing campaign on Gaza in July and August, anti-militarization and Palestine solidarity groups mobilized against the military drills in general, and Israel’s participation in particular.
Palestinians in Gaza, standing in the rubble of destroyed homes, posted photographs appealing directly to Italy not to “train the pilots who bombs us.”
The prospect of Israeli F-16s using the island to train for bombing missions, combined with the ill-timed delivery to Israel of two Italian trainer jets just after the attacks on Gaza began, created public outrage in Italy, with multiple calls for an embargo on weapons cooperation with Israel.
On 31 July, the Italian defense ministry published a note in an attempt to calm the waters. Without mentioning Israel, the ministry note stated that the planning stages for the drills had not yet been completed and only upon completion would the participating countries be confirmed.
The drills started last month and are scheduled to run until December.
As speculation on the possible exclusion of Israel continued, so did the mobilizations. A demonstration on 13 September at the Capo Frasca firing range, where Israel was to train, saw large-scale participation.
More than 350 people broke into the military area in an act of civil disobedience.
On 25 September, Gioacchino Alfano, Italy’s deputy defense minister, responded to a parliamentary question by claiming that military drills with the Israeli air force were never in the plans and therefore could not have been suspended.
That statement contradicted a March 2014 document from the Capo Frasca firing range, which clearly indicated that Israel was to take part in drills during the second half of 2014.
Furthermore, Israel has participated in similar drills undertaken in Sardinia in recent years, as photographs posted by the Israeli military prove.
A source at the Italian defense ministry told The Electronic Intifada that “no Israeli military personnel will be involved in the exercises.”
“We can consider this a small victory. It demonstrates that grassroots pressure can affect government decision-making,” commented Fawzi Ismail, president of the Sardinia-Palestine Friendship Association. “Public opinion had its say and apparently the Italian government and NATO felt it inopportune to have Israel participate after the attacks on Gaza.”
Ismail noted that the mobilizations against the training exercises will continue. The Italian, German and US militaries are all participating in the drills.
During the exercises, bombs, missiles and artillery rounds are being fired across the island from tanks, helicopters, combat jets and warships.
Power of action
Further demonstrations are planned over the next few weeks.
Sardinians have made it clear that they intend to continue campaigning against the takeover of their land by military forces.
A number of private firms are also involved in the exercises. Among them are Alenia Aermacchi, part of the Finmeccanica group, Italy’s top weapons manufacturer. Alenia will be testing its M-346 trainer jet.
Two of those jets were delivered to Israel in July. They were part of a consignment of thirty jets that Israel has ordered from the company as part of a $1 billion deal, which gives Italy the dubious honor of being Europe’s top weapons provider to Israel.
It would be naive to see the exclusion of Israel as a change in direction for the Italian government, considering the strong ties between the two countries. But it is a testament to the power of grassroots action.
Stephanie Westbrook is a US citizen based in Rome, Italy. Her articles have been published by Common Dreams, Counterpunch, The Electronic Intifada, In These Times and Z Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @stephinrome.