Why is the British government arming Israel?

Since 1967, Israel has occupied, bombed and persecuted the people of Gaza, part of a broader colonisation of Palestinian lands. Throughout this time, with a few exceptions, Britain has sold Israel weapons and given it political backing. Between 2008 and 2012 arm sales amounted to £130 million, including drones and parts for Apache and F16 jet weapons that were pivotal to Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, called Operation Protective Edge.

This offensive began on 8th July and lasted for 50 days, killing over 2,100 people in Gaza, including 490 children. Palestinian health officials assert most were civilians; Israel claim 750 deaths were fighters. During the same period Hamas killed 64 soldiers, 6 civilians and 1 child. The imbalance of deaths reflects the situation of Gaza. Israel, the occupying force, is a nuclear armed state and one of the most militarised in the world. This fights against a non-state force with relatively rudimentary weapons, Hamas, and against civilians in one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

Israel’s recent attack on Gaza has caused global protests and outcry, including 300 Holocaust survivors and descendants who condemned Israeli for committing “genocide of Palestinian people”.

Historically, Israel has broken international law on multiple occasions; such as occupying land with settlements, ethnic cleansing Palestinians and with its nuclear weapon programme, which received implicit UK support. Supporting and arming Israel makes Britain actively complicit. Britain and other Western powers have even blocked attempts to charge Israel for war crimes, invited Israel to make an Israel Pavilion at the biannual London arms fair DSEi, and in May 14 gave Tzipi Livni, Israel’s justice minister, special immunity so she could visit the UK without being arrested for war crimes, all further showing its backing.

The reasons behind British arms sales and state complicity with Israel’s actions is both simple and complex. Crudely, the arms industry sells to whoever it can to make profits. David Cameron pushes weapons as a focus for the economy, building on a British tradition of arming despotic regimes like Gaddafi’s Libya and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe during Blair’s tenure and Hussein’s Iraq, Suharto’s Indonesia and Pinchot’s Chile during Thatcher’s governments.

The UK also has a track record of promoting internationally banned weapons.

Yet the longevity of British support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine makes it stand out.

From a British strategic perspective, the UK along with the US and Europe has supported Israel to enable the west to dominate the region for its oil. For instance, Israel this year bombed Syria. Israel also fired scud missiles during the Western invasion of Iraq (1991) and there is strong evidence it pushed for the latter Iraq invasion (2003).

The complexity of British support for Israel also ties to a legacy of over a century of socio-political history, beginning with the emergence of Zionism: calls for a Jewish state in the Middle East. After centuries of Jewish persecution in Europe culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, Israel was (and still is) supported as a safe haven for Jews. But this narrative erodes that this haven was already the land of Palestinian people.

One reason why Israel has been able to brutalise the people of Palestine for so long is that criticism of its actions is often labelled anti-Semitic. But it is important to recognise that criticising Zionism or the actions of the state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. Instead, any reporting based on negative stereotyping or persecuting Jewish people is anti-Semitic.

From its conception, those backing Zionism had a range of motives. Complicated and at times contradictory, an Israeli state was encouraged by some Europeans on anti-Semitic grounds: they wanted Jews to leave Europe. In an equally racist way, support for Israel is found from within racism against Arabs and Muslims. An additional layer of motivation is that some Christians, particularly neoconservatives, believe a Jewish Holy state will usher in a Second Coming.

Yet these diverse motivations, held by some, do not explain why Britain’s arms sales for 50 years have not caused an insurmountable public outcry. Additionally, it seems crucial to consider how have the arms companies and government been able to integrate so tightly into Israel’s military machine.

Mainstream media pro-Israel bias

In solidarity with the people of Gaza, around 150,000 people assembled at the BBC studios, Portland Place, during the Protective Edge offensive. The starting point’s message was BBC coverage is biased, in effect creating public sympathy towards Israel that could be considered to substantiate the arms sales. A given example is claims the state broadcaster downplayed UN official figures about the number of Palestinian civilian deaths, which substantiates the Israeli narrative that the Palestinians are aggressors.

In November 2012, Israel launched a similar attack on Gaza called “Pillar of Defense.” Reviewing the coverage, again the BBC pushed the line that Israel is the ‘reasonable victim’. “Israel trying to avoid Gaza civilian casualties, says PM Netanyahu,” reads a BBC headline.

Uncritically this article repeats Israel’s claim that Hamas is committing “’Double war crime’ of firing at Israeli civilians and hiding behind Gaza civilians.” In many senses, the article reads like an Israeli press release. At the bottom of the piece, a map gives the impression that many Israelis are in grave danger. But this neglects how Palestinians are in far worse danger.

By the end of Israel’s offensive, 4 Israeli civilians and 2 soldiers were killed, compared to Gaza, with 62 fighters killed, 7 extra-judicial killings and 87 civilians. 11 Palestinians who died roles as civilians or fighter were undetermined.

Accurate reporting would give the impression that civilians in Gaza die more frequently than in Israel, as was again the case in Cast Lead, an Israeli offensive in 2008.

During the 2012 offensive the BBC reported how it started with the assassination Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari, but failed to explore claims that al-Jabari was on the verge of brokering a peace deal.

The whole mainstream media’s broad neglect to explain the situation was highlighted by a comprehensive academic report in 2004. It asserted that the ‘20 second sound-bites’ format of news without contextualisation often left viewers confused. Additionally, it stated how the mainstream media often gave a pro-Israeli perspective, portraying the Israelis as victims and the Palestinians as aggressors.

A decade on, a study of media coverage shows how Israeli voices vastly outnumber Palestinians. It points to how the occupation causes massive suffering for Palestinians, even when in the period when there is no offensive that is rarely mentioned in news coverage. Examples include the admission by Israeli officials that a food blockade was aimed to keep Gaza “on the brink of collapse while avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” Eminent academic Noam Chomsky has described Gaza as the “world’s largest open air prison.”

It is conceivable that if the mainstream media focused more on the reality of the lives of the people of Gaza, there would be even more outrage at the UK government continuing to arm Israel.

But this creates another question: what is the driving force behind this pro-Israeli narrative?

The power of the Israeli media machine

Akin to its military supremacy, Israel dominates the media battle. In great part this fermented by organisations such as BICOM and the Zionist Federation. BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) members on occasion write the news directly. In the New Statesman their senior Research Fellow Alan Johnson attempts to justify the recent annihilation of Gaza on the basis that Hamas leaders have called for the annihilation of all Jews; this ignores that fact that Israeli politicians have made equally genocidal anti-Palestinian calls.

Another manner of shaping a pro-Israel bias is to pressure any journalists to think twice about writing critical pieces. This is what happened to a historical piece about the 1967 war by Jeremy Bowen. Jonathan Turner from the Zionist Federation complained to the BBC trust that it was anti-Israel, which led to a lengthy investigation. The complaints of bias were rejected, yet the message was sent out ‘don’t criticise or even contextualise Israel.’

The Israeli state also takes it upon itself to directly intervene. Its actions include calling critical journalists anti-Semitic, and black-listing critical journalists from entering Israel and the occupied territories.

On occasions the Israeli state combines with the pro-Israel media organisations. In 2006, the Guardian published a piece comparing Israel to Apartheid South Africa.

A detailed investigation by Peter Oborne and James Jones explains this resulted in a meeting held at the Israeli embassy. After this, Henry Grunwald from BICOM with Gerald Ronson went to berate the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger. Ronson is chairman of the Community Security Trust, another pro-Israel think tank. Rusbridger suggests this tactic of pressuring journalists and editors often silences criticism of Israel.

The pro-Israel media lobby also works to push their narrative on journalists, funding trips aimed both at mainstream journalists and bloggers.

In the political sphere the pro-Israel political lobby employs similar tactics, taking MPs on all expense trips to Israel. These are often orchestrated by Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), and similar Labour and Liberal Democrats groups.

The pro-Israeli political lobby machine

“I am proud not just to be a Conservative, but a Conservative Friend of Israel; and I am proud of the key role CFI plays within our Party,” David Cameron has said, quoted on the group’s website.

Cameron’s words embody the idea that the CFI is regarded as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Westminster. It boasts that 80% of Conservative MPs are members. Like the Conservatives, Labour friends of Israel is also an influential group, both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were members.

Political donations from all CFI members and their business were calculated to exceed over £10 million between 2001-08, according to the Channel 4 documentary Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby.

Robert Halfon MP is a frequent flyer on CFI sponsored trips. He has also accepted donations from David Meller, co-Director CFI Ltd and Tory peer Stanley Kalms - one of the party’s leading donors. Earlier this year Meller became George Osborne’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, he also hosted the launch of the Friends of Israel Initiative.

The political leverage of these donations was highlighted in the Channel 4 documentary. In 2006 CFI member William Hague criticised Israeli bombing in Lebanon as ‘disproportionate’. The programme reports, Hague was then threatened to have his funding removed by CFI donors, in reaction Cameron promised such critical language would not be repeated against Israel.

Political donations also link the Conservatives to the media lobby. For instance, David Cameron personally accepted a reported £15,000 donation from BICOM Chairman Poju Zabludowicz. This was via his company Tamares Real Estate Investments.

There are also close ties between CFI and BICOM. For instance BICOM’s Public Affairs Manager, Stefan Kerner, worked in senior roles for CFI and the Zionist Federation.

A Spinwatch research document about BICOM cites how “according to Peter Oborne there is ‘a huge amount of co-ordination’ between BICOM and Conservative Friends of Israel: ‘Many of BICOM’s key figures also play roles in the CFI: Trevor Pears, Michael Lewis and Poju Zabludowicz are driving forces behind both lobbies.’”

The power and influence of the media and political lobbies go a long way to explaining why Britain has armed Israel. But pivotal players, both inside and outside these organisations, should be held with particular responsibility.

Why is Britain arming Israel?

In 2012, the retired chair of weapons maker Elbit, General Richard Applegate was secretly recorded stating that they could use CFI to ‘gain access to particular decision-makers.’

Elbit is an Israeli company that manufactures drones in Shropshire, UK. These drones have been called the ‘workhorse’ of Israeli offensives against Gaza.

A core link between Elbit and the Conservative government is Stuart Pollock. Pollock is director of Conservative Friends for Israel, a major Conservative donor and founding partner of the Westminster Connection, a political lobby group that includes Elbit amongst its clients.

In the secret recording, the former-Elbit chairman added how the Westminster connection allowed him discreetly influence government policy, from the ‘Prime Minister down.’

Ran along the same lines as CFI, investigative reporter David Cronin explains how Pollock was a key instigator in the European Friends of Israel, a group made up of Brussels MEPs. Cronin asserts how at the groups launch included Geoffrey Van Orden MEP, who sits on European Committees with oversight over security, defence and foreign affairs. Cronin suggests that Van Orden has close ties to the arms industry, and has admitted meeting with Bill Giles, whom he describes as “Brussels point-man for BAE Systems”, another arms company.

Cronin notes how CFI and European Friends of Israel are both secretive about where there funding comes from. Of the €400,000 donated to it in 2010, the only named contributor was billionaire mining baron Alexander Machkevitch.

Machkevitch is important as an example, as it is not the case that the Israeli lobby is solely bankrolled by arms companies. In a similar vein, arms dealers make direct political donations, completely disconnected to the Israeli lobbying organisation.

Tory donor and JCB Chairman Lord Bamford is one example, JCB equipment was used to build the wall that encloses Palestinians and violates international law, and to destroy Palestinian homes.

Another example is BAE, who make the head-up displays for F-16 jets and military equipment the UK sells the world over.

To answer why is Britain arming Israel, a core part remains to make profit. As Israeli paper Haaretz reported about Pillar of Defence this offensive has revived the “economic security of those who feed off of the ‘war and peace’ enterprise.”

There are vast complexities towards a peaceful future for the people of Palestine. But surely their situation is made worse with a media and political landscape shaped, in part, by people that stand to profit from the ongoing death and destruction.

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