Protest Protest in England, Summer 2014

Campaigners are targeting UK arms companies as a new report exposes their role in supporting the infrastructure of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine reports Elliot Murphy

War on Want, in collaboration with the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Campaign Against Arms Trade, published a special report this week on the complicity of the UK arms trade in Israel’s persistent human rights violations against Palestinians. It calls on Whitehall to refuse export licences to Israel (either directly or via a third country), to revoke existing licences and to ban UK-Israeli corporate collaboration where UK firms are supporting the infrastructure of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine.

The report reviews Israel’s major attacks over the last decade on Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, demonstrating persistent UK military assistance. To take the most recent case, throughout the 2014 Israeli attacks on Gaza, which claimed the lives of 2,205 Palestinians, the UK approached Israel’s violations of international law as merely ‘an inconvenient detail’ when discussing arms trade controls, the report claims.

Last year, military export licenses to Israel amounted to a value of £11,615,840, almost £7 million of which was granted in the sixth months prior to the summer attacks. Exported items included drone components, anti-armour ammunition and night sights. In the final quarter of 2014, military goods valued at £3.3 million were approved for export, including licenses for military aero-engines.

Yet if the government’s own export license criteria were applied, instead of being cautiously side-lined, then the UK would at once prevent the sale of weapons for use in human rights abuses and ‘internal repression’. If the UK continues to license such exports, while providing crucial diplomatic support for Netanyahu, then Israel has zero incentive to abandon one of its core objectives: putting the Palestinians on a ‘diet’, as Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its stymying of the flow of medical and food supplies is often referred to. As the attacks in the winters of 2007-2008 and 2012 demonstrated, this is increasingly becoming a diet of shrapnel and Apache chopper fire.

Britain remains complicit in Israeli crimes in numerous other ways. Despite the International Criminal Court’s 2004 call for Israel to abandon its illegal construction of the West Bank wall, the UK hasn’t lifted a finger to prevent firms like G4S providing security equipment for security forces patrolling the wall.

The official claim that the UK’s arms export controls are amongst the most stringent in the world is also far removed from the reality of business as usual. Shortly after the government admitted that 12 of its licenses may ultimately be used to commit human rights abuses, on August 19th 2014 Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stated that ‘in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities, and on the basis of information currently available to us, there could be a risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law’.

The secretary of state responsible for the license revocation, Vince Cable, was unable to define ‘significant hostilities’, and the day after Hammond’s statement Israel resumed its task of ‘mowing the lawn’ in Gaza, the common Israeli euphemism for the recurrent massacring Palestinians. This seemingly did not qualify as ‘significant’ enough, and so no licenses were revoked. George Osborne has also fulfilled his promises to the business world by inaugurating in 2011 the UK-Israel Tech Hub at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, which serves to encourage collaboration between the two nation’s technology firms.

The British public disagree with much of the official bias towards Israel. According to a 2013 BBC World Service Poll, only 14% of British people view Israel’s influence positively, with 72% believing the opposite. But substantial parts of the media remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel, with the friendly face of BBC Newsnight Evan Davis recently asking Shimon Peres simply whether Israel had made any ‘mistakes’. The framework of assumptions is clear: Israel can occasionally meander from its promised path, but its sights remain fixated on justice.

As Frankie Boyle recently put it,

‘We live in a country where posting: “Let’s riot or something bruv!” on Facebook will get you a couple of years in prison, while writing a column saying we should bomb Syria is practically an entrance exam for public intellectuals.’ 

The way out of this impasse is not obscure: the organisations who published the report require continued support, financial aid, promotion and related forms of assistance. Student, union, NGO and other organisations can pressurise the government to impose embargos and revoke licences while targeting local arms firms – a task becoming increasingly urgent given Michael Fallon’s recent decision to opt for a new parliamentary vote on attacking Syria.

The importance of lobbying MPs and organising meetings and hustings on the issues of the arms trade and Syria should not be underestimated. Only through coordinated popular activism can the government be steered from its current path towards joint Palestinian-Syrian devastation.

The situation bears comparison to conflicts in the late 1930s when the Spanish fascists bombed Guernica, eliciting outrage in Whitehall of a kind similar to that seen in response to Vladimir Putin’s (rhetorical) targeting of ex-Soviet states. At the same time as the bombing in Spain, British aircraft bombed Palestinian villages to the silence of the establishment. John Newsinger records in his People’s History of the British Empire that in 1938:

‘one RAF squadron alone dropped 768 20lb and 29 112lb bombs and fired over 62,000 rounds in operations against rebel targets. Thousands of Palestinians were interned without trial, harsh collective punishments were imposed on whole communities, routine use was made of Arab hostages as human shields’.

The historical irony of the shielding tactic, now used by Israel to fabricate claims of Palestinian human rights abuses, is not lost on Newsinger. As War on Want and countless other organisations have shown through extensive documentation, the Palestinians remain what George Orwell would describe as ‘unpeople’, their cries silenced by the sharp crackle of British-made gunfire.

Elliot Murphy

Elliot Murphy is a postgraduate neurolinguistics student at UCL. He has written for Ceasefire, New Left Project, ZNet, The Linguistic Review, and he holds a first-class English degree from the University of Nottingham. His book Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature has been published by Zero Books.