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

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. 

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia