Unsurprisingly, all major arms-producing nations sell arms to active war zones. The UK’s role in arming and sustaining Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is one of the most glaring examples but the UK also plays a smaller, though still significant, role in arming Israel in its continuous war and repression against the Palestinian people.
Israel’s illegal military occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has now gone on for 55 years. Israel has unleashed four major bombing campaigns since 2007, killing thousands of civilians, while its overall system of control and discrimination against Palestinians within the occupied territories has been described as ‘apartheid’ by Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs, Harvard Law School, a UN special rapporteur, and even former Israeli diplomats. Despite this, Israel receives strong international support from the west, including arms supplies.
A large proportion of Israel’s arms supplies come from its own highly advanced domestic arms industry, which is a world-leader in unmanned aerial vehicles (more commonly known as drones) and missiles and produces the Iron Dome missile defence system alongside tanks, light combat aircraft and much more. At the same time, Israel is a significant arms importer, with the USA by far its biggest external supplier. These transactions are mostly funded through US military aid to the tune of $3.8 billion a year.
The US has supplied large numbers of F-16 and F-35 combat aircraft, as well as huge quantities of missiles and guided bombs for these planes. Other significant supplies in recent years include transport aircraft and armoured vehicles. Germany also periodically sells Israel submarines and warships, with associated weapons systems.
Most recently, Israel received two Dolphin-class submarines from Germany in 2014-15 for €1 billion, and as well as ordering another in 2012 for €405 million and four MEKO-class frigates in 2015 for €430 million.
Another €3 billion deal, for three Dakar-class submarines, was in the works at the end of 2021. This is despite the fact that a previous submarine deal, originally signed in 2016, was cancelled amid corruption allegations, which are the subject of ongoing legal proceedings. Germany typically pays for around a quarter to a third of the cost of arms sales to Israel itself.
While the UK is a relatively minor player in the arms trade with Israel, it still sells significant quantities of equipment to the Israeli military. These are mostly components of larger systems, which can play a critical role in sustaining Israel’s military machine.
The extent of the UK’s involvement is hard to gauge due to the lack of transparency in UK arms exports generally. The single largest licence, in 2017, was for ‘technology for military radars’, worth £182 million. The precise nature of this technology remains unclear. However, this figure does not include exports conducted using different types of ‘open’ licence, which allow for potentially unlimited exports of specified equipment for the duration of the licence.
Of exports conducted under open licences, perhaps the most significant is the UK’s contribution to the US F-35 fighter programme. Various UK companies, particularly BAE Systems, have a major role, with around 15 per cent of the value of each F-35 produced in the UK. This includes 50 planes ordered by Israel (paid for by US military aid), of which 33 have so far been delivered.
With the unit cost of the F-35 running at around $80 million a plane, this would imply a UK share of roughly $600 million for those ordered, although again the precise figure is not publicly available.
During the most recent military assault on Gaza, in May 2021, Israeli forces confirmed they had used F-35s for the first time. But this is far from the first time UK equipment has been used in Israel’s war against the Palestinians.
In 2002, the UK provided head-up displays for US F-16s to be supplied to Israel, despite knowing these planes were likely to be used against the Palestinians. In 2009, following Israel’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza, the Brown government stated that UK equipment had ‘almost certainly’ been used in the attack, including components for combat aircraft, warships and attack helicopters.
At the time, the government said that this would be taken into account in future licencing decisions for arms sales to Israel. However, there is no evidence that the scale of exports diminished in subsequent years, including for items such as ‘components for combat aircraft’. After Israel’s most deadly assault on Gaza, ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014, a further inquiry in August 2014 identified a number of export licences where the government could not be sure they would not be used against Gaza.
However, since there was a ceasefire at this point, they declined to suspend these licences. There is no evidence that the UK government reflected on the role of exports in the deadly May 2021 assault at all. The UK’s position, essentially, was one of full support for Israel’s actions.
A two-way embargo
At least as important as UK arms sales to Israel are Israeli arms sales to the UK. Israel’s largest arms company, Elbit Systems, provided the design for the UK military’s Watchkeeper UAV, based on its own Hermes drone. And in 2021 the UK awarded a contract to Israel Aerospace Industries for four unmanned Jaguar remote patrol vehicles (RPVs), as part of an experimental programme for unmanned land systems.
Partly on the back of its contracts with the UK Ministry of Defence, Elbit has established several subsidiaries in the UK, producing arms for both the UK military and export, including to Israel. Elbit’s factories in the UK have been the subject of numerous direct action protests in recent years, leading to several court cases against activists, though so far only one minor conviction.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Israel was the eighth-biggest exporter of major conventional weapons during 2017- 2021, just behind the UK. Israel’s arms industry benefits hugely from marketing its weapons worldwide as ‘battle-tested’, predominantly on Palestinians. Major, high-tech arms production is an expensive, capital-intensive business, and with its small domestic market, the Israeli arms industry would likely struggle to survive.
Thus, when countries buy arms from Israel, they help sustain Israel’s military repression of the Palestinian people, just as when they sell them. This is why the Campaign Against Arms Trade calls for a two-way arms embargo against Israel.