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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Arms Sales To Israel Must Stop

Amnesty International today published an open letter from Irene Khan, Amnesty's Secretary General, to EU Heads of State and governments asking them to immediately halt sales or transfers of arms to all parties in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Israel, naturally, reacted negatively to the proposal. Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that an arms embargo "would leave every man woman and child in this country to face a multitude of hostile challenges that there are here. It ignores the real threats faced by the Jewish state and gives comfort to those who say Israel should be wiped off the map."
"Israel is a democracy where there is rule of law which puts the issue of human rights at the centre of civic life," Regev added. The reality is that Israel systematically and deliberately abuses the human rights of its perceived enemies. As Irene Khan has put it, "Most civilian deaths have been the result of deliberate and reckless shooting and artillery shelling or air strikes by Israeli forces carried out in densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip". A Human Rights Watch report on the Lebanon war earlier this year, entitled 'Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Against Civilians In Lebanon', describes how Israeli forces,
'consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost. In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.'
The report concludes that 'a systematic failure by the IDF to distinguish between combatants and civilians' was the primary cause of the massive civilian suffering caused by the war.
An Amnesty International investigation into the same war, entitled 'Deliberate Destruction or "Collateral Damage"? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure' reached similar conclusions:
'The evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy, rather than "collateral damage" - incidental damage to civilians or civilian property resulting from targeting military objectives.'
That report also noted that under international law, it is 'forbidden to use starvation as a method of warfare, or to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.' Israel has been using starvation as a method of controlling the Palestinian population ever since they elected the wrong people to power in January. After Hamas was elected to government, the Israeli government convened a meeting to decide how it should respond. Present were Dov Weisglass (advisor to the Prime Minister), the chief of staff of the IDF, the head of Shin Bet, a host of senior generals and officials and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livny. All concluded that an economic siege on the Palestinians was the way forward. Or, as Dov Weisglass expressed it, "It's like an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians will get a lot thinner, but won't die".
Since January 2006, the Palestinian people have been subject to economic sanctions - the first time, as UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories John Dugard has noted, that an occupied people has been so treated. Since Hamas' electoral victory, Israel has withheld some $500 million in tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. The U.S. and the EU have also restricted aid to the Palestinians in a shocking display of contempt for democracy and human rights. Meanwhile Israel has continued its policy of cutting the West Bank into dozens of mini-cantons by increasing the number of military roadblocks by 40% in a year. David Shearer, head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), described the effect these roadblocks have on the residents of the West Bank:
"Since [the height of the intifada] it's become much more systematic, much more sophisticated in terms of monitoring Palestinian movement and closing Palestinian movement...The West Bank, for example, is effectively being chopped up into three big areas... and there are pockets within those areas where people also can't move."
John Dugard, who was also a prominent anti-apartheid lawyer, writes that Israel system of roadblocks resembles, but in severity goes well beyond, apartheid South Africa's "pass system" and that, in general, ' Many aspects of Israel's occupation surpass those of the apartheid regime. Israel's large-scale destruction of Palestinian homes, leveling of agricultural lands, military incursions and targeted assassinations of Palestinians far exceed any similar practices in apartheid South Africa.'
Meanwhile, the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have suffered a brutal and relentless siege since June 25, when an Israeli soldier was captured by Palestinian militants. The Israeli government used the capture as an excuse to completely seal the Strip off from the outside world, arbitrarily closing borders vital to Palestinian trade for extended periods of time. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt - ostensibly under EU control but in reality subject to Israel's wishes - has been closed more than it has been open. In November, the crossing was open for just 36 hours spread out over four days. In July, thousands of Palestinians were left stranded in the Sinai desert after Israel refused to open the border crossing to allow them to return to their homes in the Gaza Strip. Several people were reported to have died from heat exhaustion. The closure of the Rafah crossing truly is devastating to the Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestine Hospital in Cairo is an essential part of Gaza's health infrastructure, and many Palestinians who need to travel there for treatment are either not allowed to leave the Strip or are prevented from returning once they do.
Under the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) brokered by the United States a year ago, Israel agreed to leave the Rafah crossing open continuously regardless of threats to security unrelated to the crossing itself. Despite this, after the capture of Cpl. Shalit on June 25 Israel closed the border indefinitely. A recent UN report accuses Israel of violating every single one of its border crossing agreements, explaining that the Rafah crossing has been open for only 21 days since June 24. At the Karni crossing, which has been open only intermittently, an average of 12 lorries are allowed through each day, despite Israel's promise to raise that number to 400 by the end of this year. According to the report,
"The ability of Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip to access either the West Bank or the outside world remains extremely limited and the flow of commercial trade is negligible"
and, as a result, unemployment in the Strip has risen from 33.1% to 41.8% this year. A military document leaked to Ha'aretz confirmed that the closure of the Rafah crossing is intended to "apply pressure" to the Palestinian people - as journalist Amira Hass puts it, 'The experiment was a success: The Palestinians are killing each other.'
So, in summary, Regev is talking crap. Israel has no respect for Palestinian human rights, and Amnesty International is right to call for a ban on arms sales and transfers to it.
The request comes at a time when the Iraq Study Group report calls on the U.S. and the UK to settle the Israel/Palestine conflict to stabilise the wider region, specifically Iraq. The U.S. is the primary source of Israel's superior arsenal, and U.S. aid counts for 20% of Israel's defence budget. During the Bush administration, from 2001-2005, Israel received $10.5 billion in U.S. military aid and $6.3 billion in U.S. arms deliveries. This military dependency gives the U.S. considerable leverage over Israel, leverage that could be used to force a peace settlement. Sadly, the U.S. has chosen to be a force for violence rather than peace in the region. For example, in the summer the U.S. delivered shipments of 'bunker-busting' bombs to Israel before the Lebanon war was even over. This arming of the aggressor was accompanied by the unanimous Senate adoption of a resolution praising Israel's military campaign, neglecting even to include the obligatory reminders to avoid targeting civilians. Sadly, both the Democrats and the Republicans are on record as supporting Israeli war crimes.
In Britain there is a similar story. Despite Tony Blair's announcement in September that he will devote the last six months of his premiership to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict, he is unlikely to abide by Amnesty's call to stop providing Israel with the tools it uses to oppress and to kill. The trouble, as I wrote at the time, is that,
'when Tony Blair talks about being "fair", "just", what he really means is conspiring with the US to block a resolution calling for an "immediate" ceasefire early on in the Lebanon conflict. When Blair talks about imparting "values" with an "even hand", what he really means is allowing US planes carrying bombs and missiles to Israel to re-fuel at British airports. That's right; Blair helped arm the aggressor before the war was even over, and he now has the nerve to talk about and bringing "peace" to the Middle East with an "even hand".'
In 2005 British arms sales to Israel doubled to £22.5 million. It is official British government policy that "no licence will be granted for arms exports if there is a clearly identifiable risk that the weapons could be used aggressively against another country or to assert, by force, a territorial claim". Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell was therefore right to call for an immediate cessation of arms sales to Israel in the light of 'disproportionate military action by Israel in Lebanon and Gaza'. After all, there can be no doubt that Israel uses combat helicopters and air-to-surface missiles - components for which are supplied by the UK - to commit war crimes against the Palestinians (and, this year, against the Lebanese). In 2002, Blair's government cleared the way to allow BAE Systems to sell components for F-16 jets supplied to Israel by the United States. Israel uses F-16s to carry out targeted assassinations - a policy declared by the UK Foreign Office to be "illegal under international law". For example, in July 2002 an Israeli F-16 dropped a one-tonne bomb on a crowded Gaza City apartment block with the official aim of assassinating the militant Salah Shehada. As well as Shehada, seven adults and nine children were killed in the attack, and 70 people were injured. There is ample proof that Israel cannot be trusted to use arms lawfully, so why does Britain continue to sell weapons to Israel, in violation of its own arms trade policies? For the answer, we can turn to ex-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw who, in 2002, justified his government's decision to license the export of components used in F-16 jets destined for Israel thus:
"Any interruption to the supply of these components would have serious implications for the UK's defence relations with the United States."
Or, in other words, 'the commercial relationship between BAE Systems and US companies such as Lockheed Martin was judged more important than the lives of Palestinians.' The British government, like its American counterpart, is almost completely subservient to the military-industrial complex. So, despite Mr. Blair's professions of good intent towards the Palestinians, his unblemished record of supporting the occupation and facilitating Israeli war crimes is not going to be broken now. It's a pity, because the idea of giving aid instead of weapons and of facilitating diplomacy and peace as opposed to arms races and war is definitely one whose time has come.


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