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Why the UK must end its military support for Israel

Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against Arms Trade argues that those who oppose Israel's actions in Gaza must acknowledge that Britain is implicitly supporting them through its military trade. 

Israeli soldiers at the border with Gaza today
Israeli soldiers at the border with Gaza today. Photo: Getty

Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, pronounced last week on Russia's support for separatists in Ukraine: “They have been supplying them, they have been supporting them . . . They cannot deny their responsibility for the acts that these people are carrying out." He is right, but the same could be said of the UK's support for Israel in the current bombardment of Gaza.

It's almost impossible not to be moved by the bloody and horrific images that are coming out of Gaza. The intensifying conflict has become a humanitarian catastrophe, with much of Gaza's infrastructure being destroyed and the violence claiming the lives of over 600 Palestinians and 30 Israelis.

There have been international calls for a ceasefire, but they are having little impact. Gilad Erdan, communications minister and a member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner security cabinet, said: “This is not the time to talk of a ceasefire. We must complete the mission.”

The UK government's call for “peace” is hollow when it reiterates its support for Israel; David Cameron has described his support as “unbreakable” and Hammond has refused to declare the Israeli response disproportionate.

The UK's political support is underpinned by its strong military relationship with Israel. In terms of exports, the UK has awarded almost £50m in military licences to Israel in the last five years, including £10m last year.

It seems likely that UK arms exports have played a direct role in the conflict. 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.

The relationship works in both directions. The Israeli arms industry is one of the most advanced in the world, with more than 200 arms companies and a government spend of $18.2 billion in the last year alone.

Last week, as bombs were being dropped on Gaza, a number of major Israeli arms companies were in the UK for the Farnborough International Airshow, which, despite its family-friendly image, is little more than a glorified arms fair.

Among the companies promoting “battle-tested” weapons was Elbit Systems, which 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 exported from 2015 onwards.

As long as these kinds of deals are central to UK-Israeli relations, it is unlikely that there will be any change in the current levels of political and military support.

The violence in Gaza did not start two weeks ago. It has been going on for decades. In that time Israel has used excessive and disproportionate force and carried out house demolitions, targeted assassinations, detention of minors, detention without trial, attacks on water supplies, violation of the right to food and attacks on medical personnel and equipment.

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.

Arms sales and military collaboration fuel the cycle of war. When a government sells weapons it can not absolve itself of responsibility for what happens when they are used.  That's why an immediate end to military co-operation and an embargo of all arms sales to and from Israel is essential.

An embargo would mean that UK arms companies would no longer profit from the misery of the Palestinians, and that the arms which the UK buys have not been “tested” on the Palestinians living under Occupation. Just as importantly, it would set a crucial and long overdue precedent by sending a strong message that people in the UK do not support the actions of the Israeli government and the collective punishment of Gaza. 

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade and tweets at @caatorguk.