Gaza’s hospitals, already at breaking point, are running out of basic supplies, barely able to cope with the influx of casualties from Israel’s latest attacks. For the second Friday in a row, tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered for their great return march. And for a second Friday in a row, Israeli forces cracked down with overwhelming lethal force, bringing the total casualty count to at least 30 dead, with nearly 3,000 injuries.
United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for an independent investigation. The call was echoed on Friday by UN human rights experts, who noted that Israel’s heavily armed soldiers showed “no regard to the lives of Palestinian protestors”, and reminding Israel that “wilful killing or serious injury of the protected population amounts to grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” In other words, these are war crimes.
The concern was taken further on Sunday in an unprecedented statement by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, warning that Israel’s armed violence against civilians in Gaza may be investigated as part of the court’s ongoing preliminary investigation into war crimes, with criminal liability for Israel’s top officials.
Israeli officials unashamedly shrugged off calls for an investigation, and doubled down on their incitement to more violence, with Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying that “there are no innocents in Gaza” and that Israeli soldiers involved deserve medals.
Given the level of criminality at stake, and the brazenness with which Israel has refused to engage, it’s not surprising that UK MPs from across the political spectrum, including opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, have called for a review of UK arms sales to Israel that could be used in violation of international law.
In the past two years alone, the UK government has approved export of over £230m worth of arms and military technology to Israel. This includes components for large items such as F-35 jets, used in bombing campaigns over Gaza, and naval gunboats used in regular attacks on Palestinian fisher-folk.
It has also approved the export of smaller items, such as parts for armed drones, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers. It is exactly these types of weapon that Israel has used to attack unarmed protesters over the past weeks.
The UK frequently boasts about having “the most robust export controls in the world”. Arms export licence applications are considered on a case-by-case basis against a list of criteria, setting out that they should be refused if there is even a risk that the equipment would be used for “internal repression”, “to assert by force a territorial claim”, or in violations of international law.
These criteria provide a textbook description of core elements of Israel’s occupation and militarised repression of Palestinians. If these criteria were actually applied, it would result in a de facto arms embargo on Israel.
The continued licensing of arms export to Israel then, and failure to review them, means that the UK government is acting against its own policies, and knowingly providing what may be material support for war crimes.
The UK government statement on the latest attacks sets out that it must “ensure that there is no repeat of what happened, with all sides committing to peaceful protest, restraint and international law.” But the UK cannot pretend to be a neutral arbiter, watching from a distance and hoping for peace, when it is actively arming the perpetrator of violence and criminality.
With more Palestinian protests due in the coming weeks, the UK government’s choice is clear: either suspend arms sales to Israel, or prepare to defend its complicity in the violence and war crimes surely to come.
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