The UK government has finally said it will review arms sales to Israel. Unfortunately we have been here before. In 2009 the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, told parliament that it was “almost certain” UK weapons had been used in Gaza. “We are looking at all extant licences to see whether any of these need to be reconsidered in light of recent events in Gaza,” he said.
The arms sales continued and nothing changed. Since Miliband’s statement the UK has licensed £50m of weapons, including missile-targeting equipment, gun sightings and drone components.
If this latest review is to have any meaningful impact then it will need to be thorough and transparent, rather than merely provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for business as usual. Whereas Hamas is constrained by the continuing blockade and allegedly relies on neighbouring countries, such as Iran , for its arms, Israel has an advanced arms industry. There are more than 200 arms companies in Israel and it has no end of countries, such as the UK, willing to sell it weapons.
The UK doesn’t just sell weapons; it also provides components for weapons that are headed for Israel. In the past, Israel has used F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache combat helicopters to bomb Lebanese and Palestinian towns and villages in wars that have killed large numbers of civilians.
More recently, the UK government has approved applications for military licences from companies that have provided components for the Hermes drone, a deadly aerial weapon that has been used on Israel’s attacks on Gaza and is described as the backbone of targeting and reconnaissance missions by the Israeli air force.
The relationship is two-way, with the UK spending millions of pounds each year on arms from Israeli companies. Only last month a number of the biggest Israeli arms companies were in the UK for the Farnborough International Airshow, which despite its family-friendly image is a government-sponsored international arms fair.
There is a strong degree of military collaboration between the governments: for example, in 2005 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) awarded UAV Tactical Systems Ltd (U-TacS), a joint venture between the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems and Thales UK, a contract that would ultimately be worth nearly £1bn for the development of the Watchkeeper WK450 drones.
The issue goes beyond Israel. The UK has a long and inglorious history of selling arms into war zones. In the past few years UK weapons have been used to facilitate oppression in Bahrain , Egypt and Libya. The UK’s largest arms buyer is Saudi Arabia, which bought weapons worth £1.6bn in 2013 alone.
Unfortunately the UK almost always resorts to a policy of what campaigners call “arms control by embarrassment” – when it takes a humanitarian catastrophe to stop the UK selling weapons into war zones, or to regimes that abuse human rights.
The UK’s relationship with Israel may have been profitable for arms companies, but it has had a devastating impact on the people of Gaza. The government must declare an embargo on all weapons sales to Israel. The human cost of war is deplorable, and when governments sell weapons into war zones they cannot simply absolve themselves of responsibility for what happens when they are used.
The government’s review may lead to licences being revoked, but the arms should never have been sold in the first place. When the UK sells weapons it not only facilitates the attacks, including those that have been condemned by the UN, but it also signals approval for the Israeli government in its pursuit of what amounts to the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.
The UK should be a leading opponent of the destruction taking place, not helping arms companies to profit from it.
Courtesy The Guardian