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WILPF calls on UK to end its role in Israel’s humanitarian law violations

Arms transfers from the United Kingdom to Israel are aiding the violation of international humanitarian law. While the UK government called for a ceasefire and urged Israel to exercise restraint during its most recent offensive in Gaza, the UK has refused to impose an arms embargo against Israel. This is despite Israel’s use of explosive weapons in populated areas, resulting in the deaths of scores of Palestinian civilians and destruction of schools, shelters, and critical infrastructure. The UK must condemn these practices and impose an arms embargo against Israel, not help weapons producers profit from the conflict.

Arms transfers to Israel

The UK has over 300 extant arms exports licences to Israel, worth about £7.8 billion. These contracts include bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, other explosive devices, charges, and related equipment and components. Other contracts include equipment for cryptographic software and military communications. Two licences are to companies supplying components for the Hermes drone and one is to a company selling components for Israel’s main battle tank. The UK also has spent millions of pounds each year purchasing weapons from Israeli companies. And British and Israeli companies sometimes undertake joint ventures, such as that between Elbit Systems and Thales UK under a £1 billion contract for the development of Watchkeeper WK450 drones.

Recently, the UK government has announced that it is going to review its arms transfers to Israel, in light of mounting pressure from the public and politicians. Many MPs have called for an embargo on UK arms exports to Israel, as has the Green party. Baroness Warsi resigned as senior foreign office minister in protest to the UK government’s policy on Gaza. But the government has said it will not impose an arms embargo on Israel, because the country has a “legitimate right to self-defence”. Indeed, when the UK government found that equipment used by the Israeli military for its offensive in Gaza in 2008 had almost certainly contained UK-made components, the arms sales continued.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas

According to a 5 August 2014 report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1814 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s latest offensive against Gaza, including at least 1312 civilians, of whom 408 are children. 9536 people have been injured, including 2877 children. 520,000 people may be displaced, staying in emergency shelters or with host families. 65,000 displaced people had their homes destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

The shelling and bombing of Gaza by Israel has been the major cause of direct and indirect civilian harm in this conflict. The bombardment has damaged or destroyed Gaza’s only power plant, houses, hospitals, schools, shelters, and other humanitarian sites. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the bombing of a UN school in Rafah “a moral outrage and a criminal act,” while a US State Department spokesperson condemned the act, stating, “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”

Beyond the immediate suffering caused by this bombardment, the long-term impact on civilians will be severe. According to the Palestinian ministry of public works, Israel’s offensive has caused over $5 billion of damage to houses and infrastructure in Gaza. In addition to destruction at the power plant, ten power lines that supply Gaza with power have been cut off and 70 percent of the water wells have been destroyed.

While the UK government agreed that the shelling of schools is a “moral outrage,” it has consistently failed to speak out more broadly against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The use of such weapons in populated areas gives rise to a predictable pattern of death, injury, displacement, and destruction of essential infrastructure. The UN Secretary-General and 40 states have raised concern about this, but the UK government has remained silent, despite being considered the lead on protection of civilians in the UN Security Council. The UK-based NGO Article 36 notes that in fact the UK has worked to block references to this issue in joint statements by the group of states in the Security Council that are supposed to see civilian protection as a priority.

Implementing the Arms Trade Treaty

Israel’s offensive in Gaza, including the use of explosive weapons, has violated international humanitarian law (IHL). Some of the weapons and military equipment it has used is likely associated with the £7.8 billion worth of licences granted by the UK government. But even in the unlikely situation that they are not, that is not an excuse to continue supplying weapons and military equipment to a country engaged in committing violations of IHL. As Andrew Smith from the Campaign Against Arms Trade has noted, “When the UK sells weapons it not only facilitates the attacks, including those that have been condemned by the UN, but it also signals approval for the Israeli government in its pursuit of what amounts to the collective punishment of the people of Gaza.”

By refusing to impose an arms embargo against Israel, the UK is undermining its own stated commitment to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which it ratified on 2 April 2014. The treaty hasn’t entered into force yet, but the UK government, as one of its strongest supporters, should be committed to upholding its letter and spirit. The ATT is about preventing the transfer of arms to countries that commit violations of IHL or human rights law. Israel’s use of weapons in Gaza is a clear test case for the ATT. Will its signatories and states parties help fulfill the treaty’s objectives by ceasing their supply of weapons to Israel in light of its actions in Gaza? Will they establish stricter controls over their export licencing procedures as mandated by the treaty, in order to prevent such transfers and thus such violations of IHL and human rights from being made in the future?

Actions for the UK government

As the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said, “It is a terrible failure for humanity not to act to avert yet another devastating crisis in Gaza—one that has now superseded, in casualties and duration, the Israeli military operations of 2008/2009. The need for investigation and accountability raised then, and after the 2012 military operation, have not been met. A lasting solution to this protracted conflict must be found.” A group of eminent lawyers have called on states to take urgent action hold accountable those responsible for violations of international law.

When the conclusions and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council are released next year, they must be put to use. In the meantime, the 2009 recommendation of the Fact-Finding Mission on Gaza that the International Criminal Court should address the situation is still relevant.

The UK government must also address its own accountability in this conflict. It must amend its policies towards Israel to ensure that it is not facilitating the violation of IHL. In this regard, WILPF calls on the UK government to:

  • Impose an arms embargo on Israel;
  • Review and overhaul its risk assessment and arms export licence procedure to prevent UK arms transfers to countries engaged in IHL and human rights violations;
  • Condemn Israel’s use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which has resulted in the deaths of over at least 1300 civilians including in attacks on schools and humanitarian shelters; and
  • Speak out strongly against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in all contexts and engage with other states to develop prohibitions and restrictions on such practices.