Opinion: Pressing Clegg on an arms embargo to Israel

In the wake of Baroness Warsi’s resignation Nick Clegg has reportedly said that he will be pushing for an embargo on arms sales to Israel. I hope this actually happens rather than what I suspect will more likely be a more diluted ‘review’. Without a robust response, and without outside pressure being put on it, it’s likely that Israel will continue to act disproportionately in its conflict with Hamas in Gaza. If the government goes for a review, then it will have no more effect than a modest ticking off.

Doubtless there will be Liberal Democrats who will apportion blame jointly to both sides. They will criticise an embargo and claim that Israel has the right to defend itself from the missiles being fired from the territory. They will no doubt claim that civilian deaths is an unfortunate side effect associated with that action.

On the Palestinian side they will condemn Hamas for using civilians as human shields, by firing missiles next to schools, hospitals and residences. They will demand that Hamas stop the rocket fire and, along with the rest of the Palestinian population, adopt a policy of non-violence instead. The assumption is that being ‘reasonable’ will encourage Israel to act similarly.

Let’s put this into context then.

First, Gaza is a highly urbanised area of two million people, crammed into a physical space of 139 square miles. It has withstood a siege by Israel (and Egypt – let’s not ignore their culpability) for the best part of nine years. As part of that siege Israel controls the land, air and sea around Gaza, including reserving the right to fire on anyone entering an arbitrary no-man’s land of between 1.5-3km along the land border and at Palestinian boats which venture beyond 6km from the coast. Israel also decides what humanitarian relief is allowed in.

Regardless of one’s views on military force, it’s hard to see what open space there is in such a confined territory that is far enough away from civilian areas for Hamas to place and use its missiles. Also, why would they place them where they could be easily picked out by Israel? Where is the sense of giving that advantage to the enemy?

Second, Israel’s so-called ‘self-defence’ is excessive and immoral. Over the last month it has killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians, around 80 per cent of them civilian, including women and children. And Israeli deaths? 64, all but two of whom were soldiers who were directed to take part in the conflict. And the impact of Hamas’s missiles? In contrast to Israel’s hi-tech weaponry it has threatened little. According to the IDF’s own figures, over 1000 have been fired during the current round of fighting, of which a fifth were intercepted by Israel’s hi-tech Iron Dome anti-missile defence. In addition, how does Israel’s ‘self-defence’ square with bombing at least three schools where civilians have been sheltering as well as Gaza’s power plant?

Third, non-violence resistance is already part of the Palestinian resistance. It’s advocated by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and is used at countless demonstrations throughout the West Bank, including at the weekly Friday protests in the villages of Bi’lin and Nabi Saleh against the wall. I was going to write ‘well known protests’ because after nearly a decade of non-violent protest few people outside of the Palestinian solidarity movement are aware of them – and the wall continues to stand.

Moreover, there is no ‘reasonable’ Israeli side with whom non-violent Palestinians might engage. Israel scuppered US Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month negotiations in April and rejected the Palestinian unity government brokered between the rival factions, Fatah and Hamas. Meanwhile, polls indicate that around 90 per cent of Israelis support its government’s actions in Gaza and right-wing thugs have attacked the few (and small) Israeli anti-war protests while police have stood by.

In short, it’s a fallacy to assume that there is a moral equivalence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally and currently in Gaza today. It is an asymmetrical conflict in which Israel is the stronger party. Words alone will not make a difference. Action will. And if banning the sale of arms is the way to make Israel halt and take stock of its behaviour, it will be action well done. We have to press the Liberal Democrat leadership on this point. Moreover, it’s an area where Liberal Democrats can have a direct influence, since it falls within the purview of trade and industry department, run by the party’s own Vince Cable.

Editor’s note: As ever when the topic involves the Middle East, all comments will be pre-moderated before they appear.

* Guy Burton is Assistant Professor in the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. Between 2010 and 2012 he was a researcher at Birzeit University in the West Bank. Previously he was a researcher for the Liberal Democrats in Parliament and was a GLA candidate for the party in 2004.

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  • Trevor Stables 7th Aug '14 - 11:19am

    Very interesting and thoughtful article. The reality is that unless we can really change matters on Gaza, particularly on Arms Sales and access to the International Criminal Court then it feels to me there is not a lot of point being staying in this coalition. On Iraq we took a principled stand we need to do the same again now.

  • Simon McGrath 7th Aug '14 - 12:29pm

    Surely if there is no place in Gaza from where Hamas can fire missiles apart from urban areas, that is a reason for them not to fire missiles , knowing that they will endanger their own people?

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 8th Aug '14 - 4:08pm

    I cannot support any country which fires indiscriminately at another but several come to mind. Can you imagine a scenario in which UK will not supply armaments to Israel but Russia will fill the gap? It will be interesting to see how, in that scenario, Russians could pose as the good guys. Didn’t we fight on the same side for making lasting peace – and for the principle of resolving aggression by diplomacy – in the World Wars. Isn’t it a fact that Russian and Israeli governments still act along similar aggressive lines of the old ways, with little thought for those who are defending their territory? There are similarities between Palestine and Ukraine on one side and Russia and Israel on the other.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Aug '14 - 4:53pm

    Dear Guy,

    During WW2 the UK bombed German residential areas and it looked like we did the same in Iraq. I think calls for more restraint are good, but we shouldn’t sound as though we think we are superior.


  • Jeremy Woolf 11th Aug '14 - 12:28pm

    Obviously the civilian casualties in Gaza are unfortunate. However, there is a very interesting article on the BBC which suggests that the 80% figure quoted is likely to be inaccurate: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-28688179. Some of the casualties are no doubt caused by error. Israel is certainly not that only army which makes errors. A look at the Iraq on Wikapedia shows that there were 30,000 Iraqi death over 7000 of which were civilian. So if that is the line of reasoning to be adopted are we also going to have embargos against the USA? The article also overlooks the fact that Israel frequently offered ceasefires which were rejected by Hamas.
    If we look at the points made:
    1 Points 1-2 are effectively trying to say that Israel just has to accept rocket fire from Gaza. While its Iron Dome defence may reduce the threat it does not eliminate it. People are therefore forced into shelters. I doubt any country would accept such a threat on an on-going basis. As noted above, the level of civilian casualties has probably been exaggerated and in many cases caused by the fact that Hamas has fired rockets from built areas as a ,matter of policy, I also note that there are open areas in Gaza
    2 Point 3 and “peaceful” demonstrations are all directed at the West Bank so it is difficult to see how this can be directly relevant to Israel’s actions in Gaza which it has left. I might add that the security controls Israel imposes on Gaza (which also has a border with Egypt) have only been imposed because of the security threat that Hamas and other militants who refuse to recognise its right of existence cause.
    3 I would also suggest that the embargo would be bad for two reasons:
    (I) In so far as it prevents Israel from using high tech armaments it is likely to result in the use of armaments that are more likely to result in civilian injuries
    (ii) It also sends a very bad message for the peace process. Many including myself would support the creation of a Palestinian State if it is prepared to live at peace with Israel (and Hamas currently refuses to recognise its right to exist). But Israel is very narrow, and it is not going to agree to withdraw if it cannot effectively defend its population centres (most of which are very close to the West Bank) from attack. By supporting an Embargo you are effectively saying to Israelis that you are on you own when it comes to matters of defence. I do not think such a message is likely to encourage the peace process.

  • Armed groups can come with laws of war and move their launchers to the 60%+ of Gaza territory not populated, just look at the satellite maps, plenty of open space. What use is there in challenging the law of war and giving militants a rhetorical tool to justify their wrongs simply on the grounds of giving advantage to the enemy? Surely all laws of war restrict freedom of action as a civilising measure, and it doesn’t help to undermine proper conduct even of ‘resistance”. By the same argument the author could be justifying Israeli action on the grounds that laws of war give advantage to Hamas . Morally indefensible to challenge law of war on grounds of advantage to the enemy.

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