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Halting UK arms sales to Israel would be more than symbolic - and it is right

Opponents decry any potential embargo as mere 'gesture politics' but such a move could save Palestinian lives and bolster UK standing in the world
People walk past the Ministry of Defence, London, after protesters had spayed red paint onto it to demand UK political parties impose an arms embargo on Israel, 10 April 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)
People walk past the Ministry of Defence, London, after protesters had sprayed red paint onto it to demand UK political parties impose an arms embargo on Israel, 10 April 2024 (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

Iran’s response to Israel’s attack on its consulate in Damascus has prompted talk of the Middle East being "on the brink".

The fevered policy and media discussions about what happens next risk pushing Gaza out of the frame, yet Palestinians have already been pushed over the brink by Israel’s genocidal assault since October and the question of the UK’s role remains live.

Earlier this month, I had the rather surreal experience of appearing on the BBC's Newsnight programme to discuss UK arms exports to Israel amid growing calls for an arms embargo.

Invited to be the "presenter’s friend", I appeared alongside Lord Kim Darroch, former UK ambassador to the US, and Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight.

Darroch made the case for it being time to move beyond rhetoric to action and to stop supplying arms to Israel, given its reckless military strategy and the level of civilian harm in Gaza. Seely dismissed this as shallow gesture politics given what he called the "meaninglessly small" level of UK arms exports to Israel, calling instead for the UK to "double down on our relationship with Israel".

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Why is an arms embargo on the table at this point? The killing of three white British men, former military personnel working as security providers for aid agencies, by Israel in its air strikes on World Central Kitchen vehicles was the prompt, followed by the publication of a letter by over 600 retired judges, lawyers and legal academics telling the government that it was obliged under international law to suspend the provision of weapons and weapons systems to the government of Israel.

Yet more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel since October - and that is just the number of casualties that can be counted.

Their deaths at the hands of the Israeli state have not generated such a demand for action. Yet the UK’s rules are clear: the government will not allow arms exports where there is a clear risk they might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s platitudes aside, the UK government should already have halted arms sales under the terms of its own law and policy.

'I'm not a lawyer'

One of the things often missed in the desperation of the current situation is that there have been calls for embargoes repeatedly in the past, for example in 2009, 2014, 2018 and 2021 after previous rounds of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Indeed, the call for an embargo is a key demand of Palestinian trade unions. Yet Palestinian voices and demands have been rendered invisible in most British public debate. 

The UK’s arms export rules have rarely survived contact with reality. It is regular, repeated protests, increased direct action against arms companies, and the tenacity of a handful of determined MPs that have got the UK to the point where there is now public discussion of a halt to arms supplies to Israel and significant pressure on the government.

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The effects of this pressure are evident in the flailing responses to criticism. One set of justifications revolves around the selective mobilisation of international law.

Even the mildest criticism of Israel from establishment circles is prefaced with the commitment to Israel’s right to self-defence - even though the jus ad bellum legal intricacies of the resort to force in a context of occupation muddies the waters significantly, and the international humanitarian law thresholds around behaviour in war have been routinely trashed by Israel in its assault and siege on Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and hold placards as they protest in Parliament Square in London on February 21, 2024,
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators wave Palestinian flags and hold placards as they protest in Parliament Square in London on 21 February, 2024 (AFP)

Cameron was at pains to tell the Foreign Affairs Committee that “I’m not a lawyer” - four times in half an hour of oral evidence - when Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office lawyers had been clear with him that their assessment was that military support for Israel posed significant policy risks. They reminded him that the judgment of whether Israel was committed to complying with international humanitarian law was a political judgment that was his responsibility. 

Symbolic politics

Another set of justifications revolves around the financial value of arms exports. On Newsnight, Seely gave a figure of 0.02 percent to describe the UK’s contribution to Israel’s arms imports, describing it as a "meaninglessly small figure", making any halt to arms supplies an example of shallow gesture politics.

The 0.02 percent of Israeli arms import figure seems to relate to 2022, when UK standard arms export licences to Israel stood at £42m.

But this figure only accounted for the arms export licences for which the government collects data on financial values. There are also "open" licences, which allow companies to export unlimited amounts of equipment for particular projects and contracts.

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For example, UK companies provide 15 percent of every F35 fighter jet made, including those for Israel. The UK government has issued an open licence for the F35 project that covers 79 UK-based companies.

We can’t put a financial value on the exports from those companies for the F35 programme because the government does not collect that data. So the sale of UK arms sales to Israel is more significant than defenders of UK policy make out.

Nonetheless, it is true that the UK is a relatively small supplier to Israel compared to the US, which provides the lion’s share of Israel’s military and security assistance. So what difference would a halt to arms sales mean?

Seely dismissed it as a completely irrelevant and shallow gesture. Yet Darroch made the opposite argument, based on the symbolic politics of such a move: a halt would serve as a symbol of "what we think about things", signal UK disapproval of Israeli conduct, and bring the UK into line with other secondary arms suppliers such as Canada, Belgium and Spain.

He pointed out that even the Americans were talking about potential restrictions given the extent of civilian harm, especially in any ground invasion of Rafah and now, in light of Iran’s response to Israel’s attack on its consulate in Syria.

Strategic opportunity

There is a strong case to be made in favour of gesture politics: one of the currencies of the arms trade is symbolic power. After all, the government wants to play the symbolism of arms exports both ways: arms supplies to Saudi Arabia are so massive that we apparently can’t countenance cutting them because of the threat to UK jobs and Saudi provision of intelligence; while arms supplies to Israel are so small that we can’t countenance cutting them because of the risks to the intelligence relationship.

Which is it? Where does the much-vaunted "leverage" of arms sales come in? At a certain point, questions of principle must matter, even for the most hard-headed realist.

The UK government could start from the principle that it is unwilling to risk facilitating genocide and work backwards from that

The UK government could start from the principle (and legal obligation as a state party to the Genocide Convention) that it is unwilling to risk facilitating genocide and work backwards from that.

And beyond questions of principle, the UK government has a strategic opportunity at the current conjuncture. 

The UK is the supplier of niche parts of the F35 that are crucial to the production but also the maintenance of the fighter planes. Take them out of the equation and there is a gap in the supply chain.

So the effect of a halt would be both material and symbolic. If there are no spare parts from the UK, Israel would lose the use of their F35s.

The US Department of Defense has been paying close attention to Israel’s ability to maintain and replenish its F35s in light of the five-fold increase in their deployment since October - maintenance and sustainment that has been reliant on spare parts deliveries from F35 partner nations, which includes the UK.

Stopping the supply of F35 parts would cause friction in the UK’s relationship with the US. But with the US now apparently wavering on military support (at least publicly), now could be the perfect time for the UK government to tell the US and the Israelis that they can’t support genocide any more.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Anna Stavrianakis is professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, UK, and Director of Research and Strategy at Shadow World Investigations. Her research focuses on UK arms export policy, the international arms trade and arms transfer control, militarism and security.
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