UK campaigners score victory towards arms embargo

The UK government recently revealed that components supplied by Britain were “almost certainly” used by Israel in its recent assault on Gaza. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

It came as no surprise to campaigners in the United Kingdom to hear the British Foreign Minister David Miliband reveal this week that components supplied by Britain were “almost certainly” used by Israel in its recent military assault on Gaza. Despite Israel’s continued human rights abuses, the UK government has licensed millions of pounds’ worth of military equipment to Israel over the last few years including components for tanks and combat aircraft, in direct conflict with its own arms policy.

The British government’s announcement that it will be reviewing arms sales to Israel in light of the atrocities committed in Gaza earlier this year was, however, surprising. The move represents a real victory for the Stop Arming Israel coalition, which began its campaign for a two-way arms embargo against Israel during its invasion of Lebanon in July 2006 and serves as a potent example of public pressure forcing governments to review their policies towards Israel.

The Stop Arming Israel campaign revealed a detailed analysis of export licenses approved from Britain to Israel, including components for: combat aircraft, electronic warfare equipment, helmet mounted display equipment, military aero-engines, naval radars, surface-to-air missiles and equipment for the use of weapon sights and military communication. A significant number of UK components are also used for missile triggering systems for American-made Apache helicopters and “head-up displays” for the similarly US-made F-16s. Israel has repeatedly used F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache combat helicopters to bomb Lebanese and Palestinian towns and villages. In recent years, the UK has licensed arms exports to Israel worth between 10 million and 25 million pounds a year. However, figures available for the first nine months of 2008 show that military equipment worth more than 27 million pounds had been approved.

The campaign in the UK highlighted on exposing how how the licensing of military equipment to Israel contradicts the UK government’s very own arms export policy. Since October 2000, the UK government has used the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria to judge whether arms export licenses should be granted. These set out a series of considerations, including whether the country of destination is in breach of international law or is involved in armed conflicts and respects human rights. On each of these counts Israel is seriously wanting, yet the number of arms licenses applications which have been denied has actually decreased (from 84 in 2002 to 17 in 2007) as the number of Palestinian deaths continue to increase.

In 2006, Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells reaffirmed that it was British government policy not to allow the export of equipment or components which could be “deployed aggressively” in occupied Palestinian territory. Speaking before the UK’s Parliamentary Quadripartite Committee, Howells also acknowledged that “almost any piece of equipment, I suppose, could be used aggressively.” Thus, Howells confirmed the campaigners’s long-standing argument that given that aircraft and tanks for which UK companies make components are regularly used against Palestinians, the government’s practice has made its own export standards meaningless.

Israel has its own arms industry which is well integrated into the global arms trade, so an effective and credible arms embargo needs to operate in both directions. Israeli companies such as Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel Military Industries, Rafael and Elbit Systems built their businesses selling arms to regimes which other countries refused to supply, such as apartheid-era South Africa and Burma today. Military exports are a key part of Israel’s economy and Israel Aircraft Industries is the country’s biggest private employer. Europe is now also an important market for Israeli companies, and the UK is no exception.

During Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza, UN special rapporteur Richard Falk challenged “those countries that have been and remain complicit, either directly or indirectly, in Israel’s violations of international law. That complicity includes those countries knowingly providing the military equipment including warplanes and missiles used in these illegal attacks.” By selling arms to Israel, the UK is giving direct material support for Israel’s aggression and sending a clear message of approval for its actions.

The bombing and invasion of Gaza intensified calls for an arms embargo. Members of parliament from across the political spectrum signed an Early Day Motion (a type of parliamentary petition) condemning British arms sales to Israel. In addition, The Liberal Democrats, the third biggest political party in the UK and Amnesty International joined the call for an arms embargo. Furthermore, Amnesty International produced a damning report on the assault on Gaza and called for an arms embargo. And the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq launched legal proceedings with Public Interest Lawyers in the UK to judicially review British policy of engaging in “business as usual” with Israel.

Meanwhile governments all over the world have actively supported the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people by providing Israel with the military means to enforce and entrench its increasingly brutal occupation. With many countries including human rights clauses in their arms exports policies, campaigning on arms exports to Israel is a highly effective tool with which to expose expose the hypocrisy of governments in implementing their own ethical standards.

As the global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions grows, an
arms embargo strategy is a key element of the wider sanctions call. Refusing to trade weapons with Israel sends a powerful message of disapproval for its actions, and the current review being undertaken by the British government demonstrates how grassroots campaigning can make a real difference in forcing governments to justify their actions. In the UK we will now be putting pressure on the government to ensure this review leads to concrete action and a binding decision to stop arming Israel. This should be stepped up globally and all governments that reward Israeli aggression with military support should be exposed.

Yasmin Khan is the Senior Global Justice campaigner at War on Want, a UK-based charity that fights global poverty and a co-coordinator of the Stop Arming Israel coalition.