Italy has offered more concrete support for Israel’s latest attack on Gaza than perhaps any other European Union country. As the massacres began earlier this month, two Italian-made M-346 jet trainer aircraft were delivered to Hatzerim, an Israeli Air Force base in the Naqab (Negev).
These warplanes — the most “advanced” of their type, according to their manufacturers — will be used to train pilots for similar operations to the one now being carried out against Gaza’s 1.8 million people.
The Rome authorities cannot seriously claim that the timing of the 9 July delivery — two days after the assault on Gaza began — is a pure coincidence. Israel has undertaken offensives against Gaza and Lebanon, and committed countless human rights violations over the past decade. And yet Italy has deepened its military cooperation with Israel.
The two aircraft are the first in a batch of thirty M-346 trainers that Israel bought in 2012 from Alenia Aermacchi, a firm in the Finmeccanica Group, Italy’s top weapons manufacturer. They are part of a $1 billion “reciprocal” procurement package that largely favored Israel.
The remaining 28 aircraft are to be delivered by 2016.
Roberta Pinotti, defense minister in the Rome government, stated last week that “Italy does not provide Israel with weapons of an offensive nature.” She also said that Italy complies with the EU’s code of conduct on arms exports, which has been legally-binding since 2008.
Both claims were dishonest. As the M-346 are military aircraft and their end-user — Israel — is occupying the land of another people, they are offensive by definition.
The EU’s code of conduct, meanwhile, forbids weapons sales if the weapons in question are likely to facilitate the abuse of human rights or international law. There is ample evidence that Israel uses weapons to violate the rights of Palestinians and international law.
Filippo Bianchetti, a spokesperson for the No M-346 to Israel Committee, explained that the planes are weaponized in the Alenia Aermacchi plant near Turin before being delivered to Israel. The aircraft are “ready for use in offensive actions,” he said. Because they are smaller than other planes in Israel’s arsenal, they are deemed easier to handle by military strategists and more “suitable” for offensives such as the one against Gaza, he added.
The Italian elite has been courting Israel for some time. In 2005, a government headed by Silvio Berlusconi signed an agreement with Israel, committing the two sides to cooperate on developing new arms, exchanging weapons-related technology and on military training.
Lately, there have been some calls for the agreement to be revoked and an arms embargo slapped on Israel. Giulio Marcon, a member of the Italian parliament, has asked, for example, if the purpose of this cooperation is “to massacre civilians and occupy the Gaza Strip.”
To its shame, Italy appears determined to maintain close relations with the Israeli military.
Last week, the United Nations stated that one Palestinian child had been killed by Israel every hour over the previous two days. On the same day that heartrending statistic was published (23 July), it was announced that Sardinia intends to host a multinational military exercise this coming September. The Israeli Air Force — now bombing women and children in Gaza — is scheduled to participate.
Known to tourists for its beautiful beaches, Sardinia is also home to over 60 percent of Italian military ranges, including three of Europe’s largest. When drills take place, no-go zones on land and at sea cover an area larger than the island itself.
What goes on in the firing ranges is classified, though one thing is certain. Years of bombing and the use of experimental weapons have led to grave environmental and health problems. The soil, air, water and food chain are contaminated with heavy metals; a 2010 study conducted found that 65 percent of sheep farmers within a 2.7 kilometer radius of one site for weapons testing were suffering from leukemia or lymphoma.
There have also been birth defects in children and deformities in animals, including the birth of two-headed lambs. The prevalence of such problems is so acute that it has become known locally as the “Quirra syndrome” after the name of one of the military bases.
Focus on boycott
Roughly 40 percent of the activity at the firing ranges is undertaken by private arms-makers who rent the facilities from the Italian defense ministry in order to test experimental weapons and showcase weapons systems to potential buyers.
The Israeli military has no compunction about testing weapons on civilians. Doctors working in Gaza’s hospitals have reported unusual injuries that they believe are caused by the firing of DIME (dense inert metal explosives) and other experimental weapons.
Rosalba Meloni of the Cagliari Social Forum, a group opposing the military bases in Sardinia, said that “two Hollywood-style towns for war games, one European and the other Middle Eastern” are being built on the island as part of the expansion of the Teulada firing range. That is a clear indication of where future wars are being planned.
A national campaign is being organized against Israel’s participation in the Sardinian exercises. “We will also be focusing on boycott campaigns against Israel,” said Meloni.
Italy is the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. Its flagrant disregard for the EU’s law against weapons sales to human rights abusers is, therefore, a most serious matter.
Sadly, though, there seems to be little prospect of fellow EU governments holding Italy to account. The EU has effectively supported Israel’s attack on Gaza by claiming — without evidence — that it is in retaliation for Hamas’ rocket fire.
It is encouraging that anti-war campaigners here are supporting the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. With EU governments and institutions so happy to repeat Israeli propaganda, it is essential that the ordinary people of Italy and other parts of Europe take 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.