On 26 October more than 150 trade unionists and Palestinian solidarity activists blockaded the main entrances to a factory site in Sandwich, Kent. The factory is operated by Instro Precision – a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest privately owned weapons company – and produces military surveillance and targeting devices. The picketers were responding to a call from Palestinian trade unions for their sister organisations to halt the supply of arms to Israel. Their banners read ‘Workers for a Free Palestine’ and ‘UK funds genocide.’
The picketing and temporary closure of the factory complemented recent mass demonstrations in London, which have brought around half a million people onto the streets. The demonstrators were expressing their outrage at Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians in Gaza; their support for a ceasefire, shared by three-quarters of Britons, has been smeared in the press as tacitly pro-Hamas or the product of Iranian manipulation. The picketers in Kent chose a more confrontational approach. Actions against Elbit have increased in recent weeks, but protests at its sites in the UK began well over a decade ago, running through Operation Cast Lead, Operation Protective Edge and the 2018 massacre of protesters at the Gaza border. Palestine Action, a network of activists founded in 2020, claims to have already forced the closure and sale of an Elbit building in Oldham.
Direct action protests set out to circumvent the political process. They try to stop malfeasance at its source by making it too risky, too expensive or just too inconvenient to continue. Most other protests, unless they have very wide participation, are primarily a goad to legislative action. But successful campaigns may also provoke legislative repression, even beyond the recent draconian restrictions on physical protest. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a deliberate echo of the peaceful campaign against apartheid South Africa, is explicitly targeted by the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill currently before the Commons.
According to research by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK has licensed more than £472 million in arms exports to Israel since 2015. This includes tank components, armour-piercing ammunition and small arms, but, in keeping with the structure of the British weapons industry, aerospace components for fighters and drones predominate. It’s difficult to get clear numbers from the arms industry. The headline figure is taken from the value of standard licences, but the UK also operates a system of open licences that permit transfers of unlimited – and unspecified – quantities of particular military goods. Since 2015, 57 such licences have been granted for export to Israel, ten of those in 2022. They include British components for the American-designed F-35 aircraft, which campaigners estimate have been worth £336 million to the companies (primarily BAE Systems) producing them. Because the quantities of goods issued under open licences are not made public, groups such as CAAT have to back-engineer their value. In recent years the government has become increasingly hostile to Freedom of Information requests on arms, but there is enough publicly available data to be certain that the planes currently flattening apartment blocks and refugee camps in Gaza rely on components engineered and manufactured in Britain.
There is little appetite in Westminster for reform of the domestic arms industry. For one thing, it is a rare economic success story. The UK is the second largest exporter of defence items in the world and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Initiative, the sixth largest exporter of major conventional weapons (which means everything short of weapons of mass destruction), primarily aircraft. The total value of standard licences issued in 2021 was £10.7 billion, and the industry depends on its aerospace sector, which accounts for 72 per cent of export business. More than half of all British defence exports go to the Middle East – but to Saudi Arabia rather than Israel. Human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, accuse BAE Systems of being party to Saudi war crimes in Yemen, where BAE-supplied (and serviced) fighters have bombed schools and hospitals.
America is Israel’s main supplier. Each year, the US government provides more than $3.3 billion in military funding to Israel – Congress has agreed another $14 billion in emergency ‘military aid’ – most of which is designated for spending on US-made weapons, often featuring British components. In the early 2000s, the UK occasionally imposed end-use conditions on some of its exported technology, but after officials noticed British-made vehicles in use in the Occupied Territories they stopped imposing conditions – why expose the government to embarrassment at their inevitable flouting? Though national military spending dipped last year, Israel’s private-sector military and security companies are flourishing. Policing and surveillance technologies are a specialty: Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, has been used against dissidents, journalists and human rights defenders from El Salvador to India.
Despite being a second-tier supplier, Britain’s aerospace expertise makes it an attractive destination for companies such as Elbit. The largest single licence granted by the UK in recent years was for unmanned aerial vehicles. Such exports are sometimes defended on the grounds that UAVs are a surveillance technology, though Elbit’s Hermes drones can easily be fitted with missiles (Israel carried out a drone strike against Iranian military installations in Isfahan in January). The growing international appetite for Israeli military tech prompts campaigners to call for two-way embargos rather than simple export bans. Saar Koursh, a former Elbit executive who runs a company building illegal walls in the West Bank, touted his expertise in the early Trump years, hoping to cash in on the promised Mexican border wall. Gaza, he said, ‘has become a showroom for the company’s “smart fences”’. Customers ‘appreciate that the products are battle-tested’.
Challenged on arms sales, British politicians tend to exhibit a combination of economic realism and dubious moralism. Someone’s going to sell them the bloody things anyway, so it might as well be us. And they point out that Britain has one of the most robust and transparent export regimes in the world, with stringent human rights criteria and equal treatment of components and finished weapons. It’s true that the UK has been a leading proponent of the UN Arms Trade Treaty – especially for its application to other nations – and that Britain’s ‘consolidated criteria’ oblige the Export Control Joint Unit to consider whether arms will be used in breach of international humanitarian law, to repress dissidents or to prompt crimes of aggression. Decisions can be examined by the Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), though only after the licences have been granted.
The consolidated criteria, revised in 2021, allow ministers to permit exports to countries with dodgy human rights records as long as they believe the risk of the recipient contravening the criteria to be ‘purely theoretical’. The criteria are often weakly and selectively applied, usually to countries that buy few British weapons. Anna Stavrianakis, professor of international relations at Sussex and an expert on international arms transfers, has argued that the UK’s control regime and treaty advocacy should in fact be understood as a way of structuring and legitimating arms exports. Nowhere has this been more evident in recent years than in Yemen: in 2019, the court of appeal found that ministers had ignored obvious breaches of international humanitarian law in continuing to grant arms licences to Saudi Arabia and ordered their immediate cessation. (Liz Truss, then international trade secretary, was forced to apologise to the Commons after the government continued to grant licences anyway.) The court’s judgment revealed some of the innovative ways in which humanitarian law obligations are managed across government: the Ministry of Defence simply deleted a column titled ‘IHL breach?’ from its conflict tracker for Yemen.
The concept of ‘risk’ is also narrowly constructed, focusing on ongoing conflicts or abuses and discounting past behaviour. Israel is repeatedly listed as a ‘country of concern’ by the Foreign Office, but licence refusals have been few and short-lived. Since Operation Cast Lead in 2009, governments of different complexions have offered assurances that licensing decisions would take into account the latest atrocities, yet each time the pledges evaporate. Stavrianakis suggests that, instead, each new round of violence is seen as a ‘blank slate’. This rationale extends to other preferred partners as well: arms sales to Saudi Arabia resumed in 2020. The Labour MP Bill Rammell summarised the see-no-evil approach to CAEC in 2009: ‘If you went back through history, bluntly, we would not sell arms to anybody.’
Arms manufacturing blurs the line between state and private endeavour. The British state retains a ‘golden share’ in companies including BAE and Rolls-Royce; industry staff work inside government units in the MoD and the dedicated UK Defence and Security Exports Unit. BAE in particular operates like a semi-official arm of the state. Conversely, CAEC, the body charged with scrutiny, is functionally useless. Composed of members from four select committees with interests in arms control (Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Trade, International Affairs), it has limited powers and frustrating quoracy rules. Secretaries of state disdain appearing before it. Members say openly that it is broken.
The CAEC chair, Mark Garnier, recently wrote to the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, to ask that it be made a separate, standalone committee, with appropriate staff and powers to compel attendance. Mordaunt rejected the request. Reports of global rearmament earlier this year were described in the press as a ‘shot in the arm’ for the British economy, but increasing sales have not prompted increased scrutiny. In 2008, the IDF general Gadi Eizenkot outlined the Dahiya doctrine, named for the neighbourhood of Beirut where Hizbullah was based during the 2006 Lebanon War and which was flattened by the IDF. ‘What happened in the Dahiya quarter … will happen in every village,’ Eizenkot told an Israeli newspaper. ‘We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel … From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases … This is not a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorised.’ Eizenkot became head of the IDF in 2015; he now sits in the Knesset and joined the war cabinet following the 7 October attacks. It shouldn’t take the images coming daily from Gaza to prove that the risk is more than ‘purely theoretical’.
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