Since 1975
  • facebook
  • twitter

Does Israel’s behavior make an arms ban inevitable?

Israeli soldiers work on their tanks in an army camp near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip (AFP)
Israeli soldiers work on their tanks in an army camp near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip (AFP)
Short Url:
10 Apr 2024 01:04:33 GMT9
10 Apr 2024 01:04:33 GMT9

Six months into the war in Gaza, a number of countries, including the Netherlands, Japan, Spain and Belgium, have become so exasperated with the manner in which Israel is conducting its campaign that they have taken the unusual step of suspending their arms sales to Tel Aviv.

In the UK and increasingly in the US, this option is also being seriously considered and, in the case of the latter, it could be a game-changer that stops the indiscriminate use of these lethal armaments against civilians — weapons that have already inflicted an outrageous toll of death and destruction on the Palestinians of Gaza.

Future historians will struggle to explain one of the most colossal collapses in international support and sympathy for a country, and in such a short time, after it suffered a horrendous attack that left more than 1,200 of its people dead and many hundreds taken hostage. Back on Oct. 7, there was genuine horror, pain and concern for Israel. But six months into Israel’s war of “destroying Hamas,” international support has evaporated due to the outrageously disproportionate and indiscriminate response by Israel. The International Court of Justice even found plausible risk that Israel’s acts could amount to genocide. As a result, further arms supply embargoes seem inevitable.

Last week, it was the tragic death of seven World Central Kitchen aid workers in Deir Al-Balah — who were killed by Israeli airstrikes on their convoy — that justifiably outraged the world, providing extra impetus for the UK to reevaluate its military relations with Israel and even for the US to suggest that such a development is possible.

Needless to say, the major forces with influence on Israel should have acted long before this horrific incident, and with more conviction, to bring about at least a humanitarian truce that could have saved many lives, both of Palestinians and probably of the hostages too.

The lack of urgency with which the international community has acted, particularly before eventually passing a UN Security Council resolution that last month called for an immediate ceasefire and an exchange of hostages, and now with making this resolution count, is a damning verdict on the current state of foreign affairs. The need for a truce is crucially, desperately urgent and not only for the obvious reason of sparing many lives and much further suffering. There is also the need to save Israel from itself and from its government, which is leading it toward becoming a pariah state and imperiling regional stability.

In the UK, the pressure was mounting on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government to suspend arms sales to Israel even before the killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers, of whom three were British. First, there was a letter signed by more than 130 parliamentarians to the foreign secretary, David Cameron, arguing that “business as usual” for UK arms exports to Israel was “totally unacceptable,” as UK-made arms are being used in Gaza and contributing to the continuation of the catastrophic situation there.

Moreover, it was reported that the government’s own lawyers stated that Israel had breached international humanitarian law in Gaza and, hence, the government should reconsider supplying it with arms if it does not want to be complicit in such illegal acts. That was supported this week by 600 lawyers, academics and retired senior judges, including three former supreme court justices, who warned the government that it is breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel, as it also is by suspending future aid to UNRWA.

The lack of urgency with which the international community has acted is a damning verdict on the state of foreign affairs

Yossi Mekelberg

It has to be said that, in the grand scheme of weapons supply to Israel, the UK’s contribution is somewhat minimal at about £42 million ($53 million) a year. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s arms transfers database, 68 percent of Israel’s weapons imports between 2013 and 2022 came from the US and 28 percent were supplied by Germany.

This means that, in practical terms, any suspension of arms supplies by any other country would have a minimal impact. But its symbolism could have a much greater impact and demonstrate the growing diplomatic rift between Israel and many of its friends and allies. Moreover, such moves also signal to the US that it is increasingly isolated in continuing to supply arms to Israel when it is in breach of international humanitarian law.

Last Thursday’s phone conversation between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the toughest between any two leaders in the history of these close allies. During the call, Biden effectively threatened to condition future US support for Israel, including military aid, on a change in its approach to dealing with civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Unsurprisingly, immediately after this tense phone call, the Israeli war Cabinet decided to take “immediate steps” to increase humanitarian assistance to the civilian population of the Gaza Strip. But this left most of us bemused: Why did this crucial conversation not take place weeks, if not months, ago?

One of the lessons from the war in Gaza is that rational decision-making cannot be taken for granted

Yossi Mekelberg

There can be no realistic suggestion of imposing a blanket arms embargo on Israel, as its allies would not want to leave it exposed to threats from its enemies, including Iran and its proxies. Moreover, when — hopefully not if — some sanity is restored to the political-social-security discourse in Israel, it can also still play an important role in ensuring regional stability.

However, one of the lessons from the war in Gaza is that rational decision-making cannot be taken for granted, so conditions must be set on the use of certain weapon systems and ammunition. An obvious example is the Mark 84 2000-pound bomb, which should never be allowed to be used in highly populated areas but is apparently being used by the Israeli air force in Gaza.

Until very recently, there was a huge discrepancy between what many of Israel’s friends and allies were saying and how they acted in practice to stop the terrible humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Now, words and deeds are gradually coming together, albeit at a very slow pace. And Israel is responding by showing the first signs of taking note of this, especially, as we might expect, when the most powerful message comes from Washington. This might just be a watershed moment in the process of stopping this horrific war.

• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg

Most Popular

return to top