The only time that UK government policy appears to have diverged even slightly from that of George Bush over Israel’s attack on Lebanon was when Margaret Beckett got exercised over US arms being shipped through Prestwick airport in Scotland. The incident in late July, which involved US flights carrying precision bombs on their way to Israel refuelling at the airport, got the new foreign secretary in a rage: it seemed the correct procedures hadn’t been followed.
It was left to anti-war protesters to point out, through demonstrations at Prestwick and a ‘citizen’s weapons inspection’ by Trident Ploughshares, that the real issue is that UK airports continue to be used to transport weapons to Israel at all. Yet if Beckett had followed the Irish government, who refused the aeroplanes permission to use Shannon airport, she would have found herself in a rather odd situation. After all, the US may be a major supplier of weaponry to Israel, but it is by no means the only one.
In 2005, the UK government licensed the export of arms to Israel worth £22.5 million, more than double the figure for 2004. Over the last few years UK companies have supplied bombs, rockets, torpedoes, machine guns, missiles, mines and components for tanks and combat aircraft to the Israeli Defence Forces.
The framework that the government says it uses to judge whether arms export licences should be granted is its ‘Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria’, adopted in 2000. The eight criteria include the buyer country’s respect for international law, its respect for human rights and the preservation of regional peace and stability. Even before the current crisis, Israel was in serious breach of international law, routinely violated the human rights of Palestinians through extra-judicial killings, collective punishments and torture, and through these actions negated any chance of peace.
In fact, if the criteria do not apply in the case of Israel, it is difficult to know when they would apply. Yet rather than simply banning arms sales to Israel as the gravity of the situation should require, the government judges each case individually, saying it turns down licences where the equipment ‘could be deployed aggressively in the occupied territories’.
F-16 fighter planes and Apache combat helicopters have both been used aggressively in the occupied territories to devastating effect, and of course have now been used to bomb southern Lebanon. Given that Israel has taken delivery of both these aircraft, which include significant UK components, since the government’s current policy has been in place, it was no surprise that the parliamentary committee that oversees arms export licensing said in its 3 August report, ‘We do not understand what the policy means.’
Meanwhile, Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza and Lebanon have spurred activists to revitalise the campaign for an arms embargo. Stop Arming Israel, a new coalition supported by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and War on Want, is campaigning to halt all arms sales to and from the country.
Israel actually has its own significant arms industry, which in the past has been prepared to sell arms to regimes such as apartheid South Africa when others would not. Now it markets its products as ‘battle-tested’ in the occupied territories, and Israel has become one of the top ten arms-exporting nations. An arms embargo only makes sense, therefore, if it works both ways, and even then its main impact would not be directly to disarm Israel.
Nevertheless, the new coalition believes that the campaign is both important and winnable. As Beccie D’Cunha from CAAT points out, ‘Not only is it important that the UK is not materially complicit in Israel’s abuses, but continuing to sell arms sends a message of approval to the Israeli government which is entirely inappropriate. With so many people watching in horror as the Israeli army destroys southern Lebanon and Gaza, now is the time raise public support to end the arms trade with Israel.’
If the campaign takes off as the coalition hopes, the government may not be the only one to feel the pressure. A whole range of British-based companies make components for F-16s and Apaches, including big firms such as BAE Systems, Smiths Industries and Meggitt Avionics, and a host of smaller engineering companies. They could all become the target for local protests as anti-war activists seek new ways to get their message across.