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Britain’s complicity in ‘beyond description’ bombing of Gaza

Bomb damage in Gaza

gloucester2gaza under a Creative Commons Licence

Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza killed over 2,200 people and destroyed much of its economy and infrastructure. The bombing, condemned as ‘beyond description’ by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was met with widespread global opposition.

In Britain, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned from the government in opposition to its uncritical support of Israel, while the Scottish government called for an embargo on all arms sales. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of campaigners and activists took part in protests and actions to show their support and solidarity with those under fire. Local groups organized events and actions across the country, including London Palestine Action, which successfully shut down and occupied a factory owned by Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms company.

It is against this backdrop that parliament voted on 13 October to recognize a Palestinian state. The vote was non-binding, but gave symbolic support and strengthens the case for the government to go one step further by joining the 134 other states that already recognize Palestine.

However, far more important than any symbolic support that Britain may have given is the damage it has done through its strong political and military relationship with the Israeli government and Israeli arms companies.

This August a report from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that the UK had approved 12 export licences to Israel for weapons that were likely to have been used in attacks on Gaza. As a result, Vince Cable concluded that the licences should be suspended, but with the unacceptable caveat that this should only be in the event of any ‘resumption of significant hostilities’. In effect, the government’s policy was that more people would need to die before anything would be done.

Within a week the temporary ceasefire had fallen apart, and given way to another week of bombing. The destruction continued, and the death toll increased, but Cable failed to keep his word.

It wasn’t the first time that British-manufactured arms have been used against Gaza. In 2009 the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said that it was ‘almost certain’ UK arms had been used in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead attacks. This only underlines why these licences should never have been signed in the first place.

UK arms export controls are meant to work on the basis of a risk assessment. Licences should be not be awarded if there is deemed to be a ‘clear risk’ that equipment ‘might’ be used in violation of international humanitarian law or for internal repression. By any reasonable interpretation this should prohibit any future arms sales to Israel.

That is why Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has instructed its law firm, Leigh Day, to begin legal action against BIS to challenge its refusal to even suspend licences to Israel.

CAAT’s case may focus on Israel but the implications are far wider. Only this month it was revealed that UK teargas has been used against pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and yet the response from Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was to insist that it was ‘immaterial’ if the teargas had come from Britain, because Hong Kong could just have got it from somewhere else. This not only implies a lack of understanding of his own role in regulating arms sales, it also suggests a deliberate weakening of arms export policy.

The government’s responsibility doesn’t stop at simply administering and signing off on arms sales, it also actively promotes them. In fact, UKTI DSO is a government department with 160 civil servants employed specifically to promote arms sales. Earlier this year we even saw Prince Charles visiting Saudi Arabia at the behest of BAE Systems when it needed to finalize an arms sale.

Next year, civil servants will be at the heart of organizing DSEI, one of the biggest arms fairs in the world. The event, which is taking place in London, will see politicians joining senior civil servants in welcoming hundreds of major arms companies and representatives of some of the most brutal dictatorships. Yet, despite this CAAT was still shocked that the government refused to revoke or even suspend the licences to Israel. It suggests a system that already serves to benefit arms companies is being weakened even further.

These arms sales do not just give military support to the buyer; they give political support and a fig-leaf of legitimacy. They send out a message of support and make Britain complicit in their abuses. Changing this will need more than the cancellation of a few licences; it will need a complete overhaul of the system and an end to a foreign policy that all too often sees the government prioritizing arms sales over human rights.

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

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