The UK’s dirty secrets: Palestine and the arms trade

April 23, 2013

“Israel’s largest comparative advantage is in military products, because these demand advanced technology on one hand and military experience on the other…no country in the world is as dependent on arms sales as Israel. The Jaffa orange is fast being edged out of the public consciousness by the Uzi submachine gun as Israel’s major export. Israel is the largest per capita arms exporter in the world”

– Moshe Arens, former Israeli Defence Minister [1] (since this was published, Sweden has overtaken Israel as largest per-capita arms exporter) [2]

Picture of Israeli Pavilion 2009.
Israel plans a very large presence at the arms fair, with a national pavilion to exhibit its ‘battle-tested’ weaponry.

Since the ethnic cleansing started in 1948, when 800,000 Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homes, Israel has been at war with its indigenous population. The war continues today, with the bombing of Gaza, destroying of Bedouin villages and detaining of thousands of Palestinians without trial. In September, Israeli arms companies will be coming to London to turn their repression into profits.


Israel today would struggle to survive without the arms trade. Arms companies bring in $3.5 billion [Targeting Israeli Apartheid, p138] and help finance Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights (e.g. Nistec in the Katzrin settlement, Elbit Systems in the Bnei Yehuda settlement).

Israel uses the Occupied Territories as a testing lab for new weaponry. Israeli arms companies benefit from the occupation by achieving credibility for their products. Every military operation acts as an advertisement for the weapons used.

One growing link is in the area of unmanned aerial vehicles, which Israel uses to patrol and attack the  besieged Gaza Strip. Israel is the world’s largest exporter of drones and drone technology [4]. Both Harfang (used by France) and Watchkeeper (used by the US and soon the UK) drones are based on Israeli prototypes used in Gaza (Harfang is based on the Heron drone manufactured by Israeli Aerospace Industries, and Watchkeeper is based on the Elbit Hermes 450.)

For Israel, arms trading is on the up: exports rose 20% in 2012 despite the economic crisis, and they are looking to increase exports to $10 billion annually in the next few years. [5]


When it comes to words, the UK is often happy to denounce Israeli aggression, but when it comes to action it falls down. Despite Israel’s numerous violations of UN resolutions, the UK has been happy to sell components for the Apache attack helicopters and F16s used to bomb Gaza, as well as Israel’s tanks [6]. In 2010, the UK government granted licences to sell £23.7 million worth of arms to Israel – and this figure doesn’t include a lot that’s routed through the USA (which sold $7.5 billion of weapons to Israel in 2011). [Federation of American Scientists] CAAT’s map of the arms trade shows which companies have supplied weapons to Israel.

On top of this, the UK spends millions of pounds each year on Israeli weapons. Israeli arms company Elbit has been awarded a £44.5 million contract to supply drones for UK use in Afghanistan [8].

Israeli arms are promoted worldwide by the Israeli government department SIBAT, notably at the biannual DSEI arms fair in London.


Israel’s links with the DSEI arms fair go way back. Israel Military Industries Ltd was caught selling cluster bombs in 2003 at the fair, even after organisers banned their sale [9].

A sick truth is that Israel uses its constant ethnic cleansing as a sales tactic. Israeli companies that sell weapons at DSEI use phrases like “battle-tested” to symbolise their use against Palestinian civilians [e.g. F-16s used in Gaza, December 2008].


Resistance to Israeli militarism comes from all sides: conscientious objectors in Israel, hunger strikers in Palestine fighting for dignity, unions across the world offering solidarity with the Palestinian struggle…  and you can do your part from the UK.

At an arms fair in France in 2012, Israel’s two largest arms companies Elbit and IAI pulled out following protests outside the arms fair. [11]

The DSEI arms fair is happening again in the ExCeL centre (Docklands in London) in September 2013. The arms fair allows buyers and sellers to come together, network and make deals. Many of the biggest Israeli arms companies – Elbit Systems, IAI and Rafael – are likely to be there, selling weapons and profiting from the oppression of thousands of Palestinians.

With your help, we could stop it. Direct action gets the goods – it stopped Australia’s arms fair in 2008, and made the National Gallery divest from arms companies in 2012. Together, we can make it happen.

Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest private security and arms company, and ranks #35 in the world [12]. Elbit Systems manufactures a range of equipment used in the occupation. Its Hermes 450 surveillance drones are used in Gaza, and the company is also involved in providing surveillance and electronics systems along the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank and surrounding areas.

Elbit is one of two companies in an international consortium producing Watchkeeper drones, along with French company Thales.

At the moment the UK uses Hermes drones leased from an Anglo-Israeli company, but the MOD has invested heavily in the Watchkeeper programme, and plans to purchase a fleet of 54 drones at a cost to UK taxpayers of around £850 million to date, and the cost of leasing the Hermes drones is another several hundred million [13].

This means that in recent years the UK government has spent over £1bn on drones that are based on Elbit’s prototypes used in Gaza.

Israel is one of the most militarised states in the world. Israeli military expenditure stood at 7% of GDP in 2008.[14] This figure is huge, compared to 4.3% total military expenditure in the USA or 2.5% in the UK – the largest arms exports per capita in the world [Targeting Israeli Apartheid, p139]

The ‘defence’ sector is crucial to the Israeli state’s ability to maintain its militarist policies. The domestic military sector provides a large proportion of the weapons and equipment used by the Israeli military against Palestinians, as well as high-tech repression and surveillance technologies used in the apartheid wall and checkpoints to ‘police’ the occupation.

Israel is in violation of over 60 UN resolutions, while its Occupation policies violate several articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a range of international human rights and humanitarian laws.

For more info about what the UK sells to Israel, see Aren’t UK companies mainly selling components of military hardware to Israel? How dangerous can a widget be?

Israel’s arms companies are deeply intertwined with its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. For an in-depth look at Israel’s links with the UK and Europe, see Targeting Israeli Apartheid.

The Boycott National Committee In July 2011 the BNC issued a new call, endorsed by a broad coalition of Palestinian groups, for an arms embargo against Israel. The call demands that governments:

  • Cease forthwith any provision to Israel of arms and related material of all types, including the sale or transfer of weapons and ammunitions, military vehicles and equipment, para-military police equipment, including dual-use equipment, and spare parts for the aforementioned, and cease as well the provision of all types of equipment and supplies and grants of licensing arrangements for the manufacture of aforementioned or maintenance of the aforementioned;
  • Stop all military and dual-use imports (equipment, assistance and munitions) from Israel;
  • Stop the transfer of military products to and from Israel through national ports, territory and airspace;
  • Stop cooperation with the Israeli army, military companies, and military-related R&D projects, including joint ventures (whether bilateral or multilateral);
  • Halt all military-related training and consultancies involving the Israeli army, military companies and academic research institutions;
  • End all military aid to Israel;
  • Refrain from any cooperation with Israel in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons and mobilize for a nuclear-free Middle East.

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