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British culpability and the shadow of Canary Wharf

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October 5, 2001

By Neil Sammonds

It was shortly after I had addressed several hundred demonstrators outside the DSEi international arms fair in London Docklands that a journalist informed me that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. "I thought I should let you know," he said, "as there are rumours that Palestinians are behind it and you might want to take off your sandwich boards." My front board carried a picture of a heavily armed Apache helicopter and the slogan "British parts being used in ethnic cleansing"; the board on my back had an x-ray of a young Palestinian’s skull with six bullets in it and the message "Israeli bullets – practiced on Palestinian children – bought by London’s Metropolitan police." It was fitting that the very same police officers who had heavy-handedly detained hundreds more demonstrators outside Canning Town tube station, who had snatched and snapped in half the Palestinian flag I was peacefully waving ("It could be a f--king weapon" the officer politely explained) buy their soft-round bullets from Israeli Military Industries (via Samson Distraco in Leicestershire) who, incidentally, were showcasing their equipment a mile behind the police lines inside the arms fair’s Israeli National Pavilion.

It is instructive that while the TUC conference was cancelled, for the DSEi arms fair it was business as usual. Similarly for British arms trade with Israel, despite 650 Palestinians having been killed in exactly a year of legitimate resistance to unrelenting military occupation, it is bloody business as usual. In the last few years Britain has supported the Israeli military complex by buying bullets, bomblets, grenades and jet-fighter training systems and is in the process of buying the Gill-Spike anti-tank missile. The categories of the ninety-one military export licenses granted for sales to Israel in the first eight months of this new intifada include: large calibre weapons; armoured or protective goods; ammunition for light arms and large calibre arms; bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles, mines; fire control and warning equipment; combat vessels; military use electronic equipment; high velocity kinetic energy weapons systems; military imaging equipment; castings for various weaponry; equipment and technology for production of military goods; software for simulation and evaluation; equipment for development or use of military goods; and armoured vehicles. Yet incongruously the Foreign and Commonwealth Office states that it "will not issue export licenses where there is a clearly identifiable risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression or adversely affect regional stability."

That it continues to sell arms and military components to an undeclared nuclear state in thirty-four year military occupation and colonization of neighbouring lands does not, presumably, constitute an identifiable risk. That this state is led by a brutal general who personally killed defenceless old men, women and children in Qibya in 1953 (as documented by the Israeli historian Benny Morris) and whom even the limited Knesset Kahane Commission labelled ‘personally responsible’ for the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 does not, presumably, constitute an identifiable risk. That we arm a state widely condemned for a policy of indiscriminate use of lethal force against civilians is again, presumably, not an identifiable risk. That of the hundreds killed and tens of thousands injured nine-tenths have been civilian, forty-five percent under eighteen, and sixty percent were in homes, schools or workplaces does not, we presume, constitute a risk. That the latest arms sales to Israel still include the category ML10 – despite specific protestations from Amnesty International - for "military aircraft including combat helicopters and military aircraft equipment" and widely presumed to be for Apache assault helicopter components is not, once again, an identifiable risk. Apaches – named by Washington after a people it ethnically cleansed – have fired missiles into civilian areas such as Nablus, where two young children and a journalist were killed in addition to the five Hamas members assassinated against international law. Spokesmen for Jane’s Defence and Campaign Against the Arms Trade concur that it is highly likely that British components are to be found in any Israeli weapons systems (such as Apaches, Hueys, Armoured Personnel Carriers and Merkava tanks) and communications systems. Further, a senior IDF official told the BBC that British Land Rovers transport the occupying Israeli soldiers through the West Bank and Gaza, and British transponders coordinate helicopter attacks.

Junior Minister with responsibility for the Middle East Ben Bradshaw says that there are embassy staff monitoring the use of British equipment by Israel, and (somewhat contradictorily) that he has "taken on trust" Israeli assurances that British arms and components are not being used against Palestinian civilians. But monitoring end-use of arms and components is notoriously weak, "a system seemingly wide-open for abuse" according to a joint report by Oxfam and Amnesty International. Junior Minister Derek Fatchett admitted as much in 1999: "No formal mechanisms exist at present for systematically monitoring the use of British defence equipment once it has been exported" he said. Similarly former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told the Defence Committee last year, "I have to be candid with the Committee and say, that having licensed equipment there is a limit to the extent to which we can verify where it is or on what plane or where it is flying. We seek to but I cannot pretend to say that I have as good a system (of monitoring) once it has left these shores." Taking all of this into consideration, is there really no identifiable risk?

There remains the slightly awkward topic of Ben Bradshaw’s and others’ "trust" in Israel.

Personnel within the British government are closer to their counterparts in Israel to an unprecedented degree. 57 Labour MPs have made visits to Israel since 1997, the largest number from any British government to date. Four of the previous five Ministers with Responsibility for the Middle East have been active members of Labour Friends of Israel. And Lord Levy, Tony Blair’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, the former chair of the Jewish Israel Appeal, former board member of the Jewish Agency, has both a business and house in Israel and had a son working for the Israeli Justice Minister. Should a rational British citizen have any faith in such a government’s taking ‘on trust’ Israel’s assurances that it is not using British weapons? I rang the FCO to ask whether the government recognized Israel’s nuclear capability. "Britain continues to encourage Israel to sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state," the spokeswoman said. This is an untenable position not held by any expert on defence, nuclear or Middle Eastern issues and highlights the geopolitical stance of Britain today. If they can’t see 200 to 300 nuclear warheads, would they really see a component in a helicopter?

Despite recent, welcome condemnations of Israeli policies by the new Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Palestinians need action more than words; an arms embargo on Israel would be in line with the mentioned national criteria. Further, a full economic embargo would be in line with article 2 of the EU-Israeli Association Agreement which states trade can be stopped in deference to a country’s poor human rights record.

Sadly Westminster continues to follow Washington’s lead in the Middle East and beyond. It turns a blind eye to the vast array of international laws violated by Israel, to the doubling of settlement-colonies since Oslo, and to Israel’s nuclear capability. While the six thousand American deaths on September 11 were horrific, they eerily mirror the amount of Iraqi child deaths each month (figures accepted by the previous UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq Dennis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck and the former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark) as a direct result of British-backed sanctions of mass destruction. If the "use or threat to use violence against civilians for political ends" constitutes widely overused and misunderstood "terrorism" (as defined by the ICT), then how does one interpret Madeline Albright’s infamous May 1996 comment on the Jim Lehrer show that the then half-a-million child fatalities from sanctions were ‘a price worth paying’ to keep Saddam "in his box"? How should we feel when called upon to back "Operation Infinite Justice" when fifteen thousand RAF and USAF raids have been conducted on Iraq since the second Gulf War, despite no mandate from the UN and despite Britain’s Defence Committee having stated that the legal basis of the "no fly zones" is "dubious"? The no-doubt well-meaning journalist who approached me on that fateful day was suggesting it was a time for Palestinians and solidarity groups in the west to keep quiet. But with more non-Arab and non-Muslim westerners asking why people in the Middle East hate the US, it is also a time for renewed debate over not just American but also British responsibility for injustice in the Middle East, especially in Palestine and Iraq. Activists are finding more opportunities to explain the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement and al-Naqba, thirty-four years of military occupation and colonization, the inherent weaknesses of the Oslo process, and, what remains under-reported today, Britain’s ongoing military trade with Israel.

At the end of the afternoon of September 11th we packed up our placards and journeyed home, away from the now haunting Canary Wharf tower. Almost in its shadow, Israeli arms companies’ had another three days to exhibit their products tried and tested on a hostaged civilian population. Following the devastation in America that day, Canary Wharf may symbolise now British hypocrisy in the Middle East, and look vulnerable until policies are fundamentally reviewed.

Neil Sammonds is an executive member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign ( ) and monitors freedom of expression in the Middle East for Index on Censorship. He used to work for the Mariam Appeal and the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit.