In a powerful broadcast upon returning from Gaza, Channel 4’s Jon Snow said ‘We have to know that in some way we share responsibility for those deaths because for us it is no priority whatsoever to stop it. Our United Nations, our government, our world is not that interested.’
Unfortunately he is right. The scenes from Gaza have been horrific, but UK government’s response has been a combination of reiterating its support for Israel and indifference to its own role in the conflict. David Cameron has described his support for Israel as “unbreakable” and the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has put the blame for the bombardment firmly on the shoulders of Hamas while refusing to even accept that the Israeli response has been disproportionate.
This political relationship has been underpinned by a very strong military one. A number of UK arms companies work closely with Israeli ones. For example, Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit Systems, is working with UK arms company, Thales UK, on a Ministry of Defence contract worth nearly £1 billion for the development of Watchkeeper WK450 drones. The aim is for these to be developed and exported from 2015 onwards.
Similarly, in July 2002, the UK government approved the export of components for F-16 fighters being made by the US company Lockheed Martin and sold to Israel. Then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw justified the sales by saying ‘The Government has judged that the UK’s security and defence relationship with the US is fundamental to the UK’s national security. Defence collaboration with the US is also key to maintaining a strong defence industrial capacity.’ He went on ‘Any interruption to the supply of these components would have serious implications for the UK’s defence relations with the United States.’ In other words, the commercial relationship between BAE Systems and US companies such as Lockheed Martin was judged more important than the human rights of Palestinians.
The current policy is merely a continuation of this pattern. This was highlighted in February 2011 when the Foreign Office Minister, Alistair Burt, wrote ‘UK policy on the export of controlled goods and equipment to Israel has not changed since the Coalition Government took office. All export licence applications to Israel are considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Export Licensing Criteria.’ However, this says nothing – the real issue is how the criteria are interpreted.
Despite the UN having consistently stated that Israel ‘violates humanitarian law’, and even though the criteria are supposed to assess the impact on regional peace, security and stability and the human rights record of the recipient, the sales continue.
Only this month a number of the biggest Israeli arms companies were in the UK for the Farnborough International Airshow. The event, opened by David Cameron, was a chance for companies like Elbit to sell their ‘battle tested’ weapons to an international audience.
The ongoing military collaboration and the sale of weapons are not apolitical moves. Arms deals don’t just give Israel military support, they also bolster the Israeli government by sending out a strong message of political support that can have deadly consequences.
In 2009, David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary confirmed that Israeli equipment that had been used in Gaza in the 2008-9 conflict ‘almost certainly’ contained UK-supplied components. Since then successive UK has governments have licensed a further £50 million worth of arms to Israel.
Last week, when Katy Clarke MP asked the government to investigate whether or not any UK weapons had been used in Gaza she was given the usual platitudes about the robustness of UK arms and exports and told there are no plans to even look into it.
Thankfully not everyone has been fooled.
The recent demonstrations across the UK have shown a deep well of support and solidarity for the people of Gaza. These have been supported by a number of direct actions, such as the recent occupation of the Treasury and the blockade of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills by London Action Palestine.
There have also been statements of support from high profile activists and artists, such as the letter to The Guardian that was written by a number of Nobel laureates, celebrities and campaigners, who joined a growing number of people calling for the UK to stop arming Israel.
If we act together we can show our support for those being bombed in Gaza, as well as making it clear that the government’s silence about what is happening in Gaza is not in our name. The UK’s relationship with Israel has silenced government ministers and lined the pockets of arms companies, but has had a devastating impact on Palestinians.
When governments, such as the UK, sell weapons into war zones they can’t simply turn away when those weapons are used. Nor can we.
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade. You can follow him on Twitter at @wwwcaatorguk.
A list of some of the UK companies that have applied for export licences to arms Israel is available here.
If you want the UK to stop arming Israel, take action at http://act.caat.org.uk/lobby/stoparmingisrael