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How the UK arms the occupation and genocidal war in Gaza

Opaque deals and policy loopholes are facilitating weapons sales to Israel. While government dodges accountability, the people must demand action says Anna Stavrianakis

5 to 7 minute read

Protesters outside a factory building hold a banner that reads: 'Workers for a free Palestine' and placards reading 'UK funds genocide'

The current Israeli assault on Gaza is distinct only for its ferocity and the clarity of genocidal intent from its orchestrators. As a practice, it is anything but new. IDF ‘operations’ against Palestinians include Defensive Shield in 2002, which killed nearly 500; Cast Lead in 2008-9, killing approximately 1400; Pillar of Defence in 2012, killing 167; Protective Edge in 2014, killing 2251; and more than 200 killed on the Great March of Return in 2018. 

As of 5 November, Israel’s response to the Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 has killed at least 9,770 Palestinians, of which 3,900 are children. These figures do not include those injured, missing, displaced, or otherwise traumatised. 

Statistics do not capture the daily realities of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, since 1967, or of the blockade of Gaza since 2007. Israeli military and security forces routinely commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against Palestinians, and violate international law through settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory and the apartheid wall. 

It is this context of occupation, annexation, and apartheid that frames the Hamas operation and the Israeli response to it. Both Hamas and the Israeli state are subject to international law and the laws of war – at least in theory. 

Deadly supplies

Peace and justice campaigners have long sought to highlight the role the UK plays in Israel’s occupation and apartheid practices against the Palestinians. The UK is a long-standing arms supplier to Israel – alongside France, Germany and its main supplier, the USA – as well as a diplomatic supporter of its right to kill and maim under the guise of the right to self-defence. 

Humanitarian bodies frequently call for restrictions or embargoes on arms transfers to Israel, including in 200920142018 and 2020. Palestinian trade unions and activists have also called for an end to international arms sales and military funding and research, to end complicity with Israel’s crimes. 

We must ask: how can we understand the UK arms exports to Israel and the way they facilitate the occupation and the current genocidal assault? And what can people do about it? 

Campaigners have highlighted the role the UK plays in Israel’s occupation and apartheid practices

The UK provides components and technology for military hardware including aircraft, drones, and bombs to Israel. For example, UK-based companies provide 15 per cent of the components in the F35 stealth combat aircraft, which Israel is using in the current assault. 

The rear part of the plane is made by BAE Systems in Samlesbury, Lancashire; the piloting system by BAE in Rochester, Kent. The UK-Israel arms relationship is increasingly two-way, with Israeli companies such as Elbit operating in Britain and providing equipment to the British military. 

Much of the UK’s arms supply is opaque and near impossible to trace or estimate because it is conducted under so-called ‘open’ licenses that allow for unlimited exports of certain weaponry. Much of the trade is international: a lot of UK components go to the USA under an open licence for incorporation into F35s, later transferred to Israel. 

Nonetheless, UK policy is clear: UK export controls state that ‘the Government will not grant a licence if it determines there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law.’ So how can the UK government claim with a straight face to have a ‘rigorous and robust’ export control policy? 

Dodging accountability

Two things stand out: the first is that UK export controls treat each round of violence as a blank slate. That is to say, assessment of whether there is a ‘clear risk’ of the use of UK-supplied weapons in violations of international law takes each cycle of violence as disconnected from previous rounds. 

For example: F-16 fighter jets using UK-supplied head-up display units – which provide flight and targeting information to cockpits – were among the weapons that the UK later admitted were ‘almost certainly’ used by the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. As a result, Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated that ‘all future applications will be assessed taking into account the recent conflict.’ 

Four years later, in response to Operation Pillar of Defence, FCO minister Alistair Burt however said: ‘We have no assessment to date of whether any UK weapons or components were used during the recent conflict by the IDF.’ 

Characterising the next round of Israeli assault on Palestinians as a ‘recent conflict’, as if it is disconnected from the ongoing occupation, allowed the UK government to sidestep the fact that it did, in fact, possess a clear assessment of the previous misuse of UK-supplied weapons. This is how the UK government can claim it has a rigorous control regime while materially facilitating the occupation.

Second, while the UK has never meaningfully restricted arms exports to Israel, it previously at least paid lip service to Palestinian harm and Israeli wrongdoing. In 2002, for example, the UK government said it would no longer take Israeli assurances about where and how they will use UK-supplied weapons into account as they ‘have proved to be unsound’. 

Much of the UK’s arms supply is opaque and near impossible to trace or estimate

When Israeli attacks become headline news, the UK government has also in the past undertaken reviews of licensing policy. It has occasionally revoked licenses, which means no new deliveries can be made but does not require the return of weapons already exported. 

A precautionary suspension mechanism put in place in 2014/15 was revoked once a ceasefire was agreed on the grounds there was no longer a clear risk weapons might be misused. But since 2021, no such review has taken place, and government rhetoric has become more hawkish, emphasising Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’ as a blanket justification. 

Framing Israel’s current assault as ‘actions for its legitimate self-defence’, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said it was not his role to assess whether Israel was abiding by international law during ‘events that are unfolding as we speak’. That is however precisely what a supposedly ‘rigorous and robust’ export control regime should do. 

Taking action

The UK government has showing itself unwilling to use the supposed leverage that comes from arms sales to rein in Israeli practice. In Parliament, the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which is responsible for scrutinising government policy and practice, has not met this year. At the time of writing, it had no plans to launch an inquiry into Israel-Palestine. 

If government and Parliament are unwilling to take action, who will? Ordinary people will – and are already doing so. Hundreds of thousands of people have marched in London and cities across the UK calling for a ceasefire. 

On 26 October, over 150 activists and trade unionists instigated a blockade of Instro Precision Ltd – a subsidiary of Israeli arms company Elbit – in Kent. Trade Unionists for Palestine have issued a call to the UK labour movement to help and equip grassroots members to take solidarity action. 

Join them; support them: people power can stop this deadly trade.

Anna Stavrianakis is Director of Research and Strategy at Shadow World Investigations

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