The international arms trade is impenetrable at best. Deals between different companies and governments are rarely widely reported outside the specialised business press, and the details of such deals are often arcane. Everyone involved has an interest in this lack of scrutiny; the sale and development of arms is an unpalatable – but highly profitable – business.
This week, the charity and campaigning organisation War on Want launched a report looking into collaboration between the British Ministry of Defence and an Israeli defence firm. The deal in question regards the development of a new drone, Watchkeeper. The MoD has awarded a succession of contracts for the Watchkeeper project, which, after several delays relating to technical problems, is now worth nearly £1bn. The contracts are for a joint venture between the Israeli firm Elbit Systems – one of the world's leading manufacturers of unmanned aircraft – and Thales UK. The joint venture, UAV Tactical Systems will oversee the Watchkeeper programme, with the work subcontracted to several other British companies. The plan is to build 54 drones, which will be used for surveillance. The Watchkeeper drone itself will be based on Elbit's Hermes 450 model, which Israel has used extensively over Gaza. British forces have also used Hermes drones – unarmed ones – in Afghanistan.
So far, so technical. The problem, according to War on Want, comes from the way in which those drones were used in Gaza. The report – Killer Drones – claims that armed Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) killed Palestinians in Gaza. The report says that around 800 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli drone strikes between 2006 and 2011, citing reports from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. It is not known whether the strikes were by Elbit drones or by other Israeli UAVs.
In a press release, War on Want says that "the British government is, in effect, buying technology that has been 'field-tested' on Palestinians." It calls for an embargo by the European Union on all arms trade with Israel, adding: "By continuing to license arms exports to and imports from Israel, the British government is giving material support to Israel's aggression against the Palestinian people, and sending a clear message of approval for its actions."
The Guardian, reporting on the deal, quotes an MoD spokesperson stressing that the Watchkeeper drones will be "unarmed" and that "there is no intention to arm" them. Elbit Systems declined to comment.
For War on Want and other campaigning organisations, this is not just a question of one specific deal, but of general support for Israel's arms trade given the country's poor human rights record. After Israel's strike on Gaza in 2008, the UN concluded that there was evidence of "war crimes;" yet Britain and the rest of the EU continue to trade arms with the country. There are currently 381 British arms licences to Israel, collectively worth £7.8bn.
Earlier this week, the UK government issued guidance to British companies, warning against doing business with Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Yet such prohibitions remain strictly limited to settlements, which are outside of international law. The argument of War on Want and other campaigning groups (Rafeef Ziadah of War on Want also serves on the committee of Palestine's boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) is that violations of international law and human rights conventions are not limited to the Occupied Territories.
But the demand of an EU embargo on arms deals with Israel seems very far off. A glance at the list of countries currently subject to arms embargoes by the EU illustrates that there is generally a political element to this. Iran, Iraq and Syria are subject to arms embargoes, but Saudi Arabia and Egypt – allies of Britain and the US – are not. Israel's UAVs may have been the cause of civilian deaths, but its drone manufacturers are also market leaders. There is no reason to think that Britain, or the EU, will halt dealings with these manufacturers any time soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.