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Given Israel’s repeated violations of international law, there are serious questions over the legality of UK trade with Israel. In particular, the UK’s trade relationship with Israel includes both defence (including arms sales) and trade with illegal Israeli settlements. Whilst arms are not included within this proposed new Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the FTA is one aspect of a UK-Israel trade relationship in which defence co-operation is marked as a priority. These significant areas of concern must not be ignored in discussions of UK-Israel trade relations.
Israel’s violations of international law include:
- Building and expanding illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. These settlements are illegal under international law -- a fact reiterated by the UK in its Overseas Business Risk guidelines. Furthermore, population transfer to occupied territory is considered a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
- Demolishing Palestinian homes and other structures in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), as well as inside Israel. The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the oPt (UN OCHA) reports that in the first three months of 2022, Israel demolished 164 Palestinian homes and structures. Palestinians at risk include residents in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of the al-Naqab desert region in Israel, who all face forced displacement to make way for Israeli settlement expansion.
- The unlawful use of lethal force against unarmed Palestinians engaged in non-violent protest or working as journalists or medics covering protests. Between 10 May and 21 May 2021, 260 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attacks on Gaza, over a quarter of them children; thousands more have been injured, and 113,000 people were displaced. In the West Bank, Israeli military forces cracked down on protests using live fire, rubber-coated steel bullets, and copious amounts of tear gas. Elsewhere, Israeli armed police used excessive force against Palestinian citizens of Israel who took to the streets to protest the attacks. Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Israel’s use of force may constitute wilful killing, a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
UK-Israel arms trade
The UK government regularly approves military technology and arms exports to Israel, including for weapons of the type used in clear violations of international law. This means that the UK is providing material support for Israel’s illegal use of force, and an infrastructure to sustain that force through the ongoing trade in arms.
Between 2016–2021, the UK government has approved almost £400 million worth of military technology and arms exports to Israel (or £689 million if including items licensed as ‘dual-use’). The actual value of exports will be significantly higher, given that there are 40 open licences in this period, mainly for aircraft, which allow for unlimited quantity and value of exports.
The Consolidated EU & National Arms Export Licensing Criteria sets out guidelines for the government to assess arms exports on a case-by-case basis, but the government has responded to recent queries saying that it does not track items once they have been exported. This is despite findings that UK-made weapons and components were used in Israel’s previous attacks on Palestinians in 2009, in 2014, and in 2021, when thousands of Palestinians were killed in Israel’s bombardments of the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s use of excessive and indiscriminate force has been repeatedly condemned by the United Nations and has been deemed unlawful by human rights experts. The UK must end its material support for Israel’s militarised repression of Palestinians and violations of international law.
Illegal settlement trade
Whilst products from Israel’s illegal settlements are excluded from preferential tariffs, goods from illegal Israeli settlements continue to be sold in the UK. Israeli companies have also been known to mislabel settlement products as originating in Israel, thereby violating international law. Moreover, at present, three UK companies are listed on the UN database of companies involved in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise. Through their business relationships in the oPt, corporations play a substantial role in profiting from, enabling, funding, and facilitating Israel’s occupation and the illegal forcible transfer of Palestinians that this entails. This remains a clear violation of international frameworks that oblige corporations to act in line with international law.
The UK government has on many occasions stated the illegality of Israeli settlements, and has introduced non-binding guidance on the labelling of settlement goods. However, unless it bans the sale of settlement goods and the export of UK goods and services to Israeli settlements, it is continuing to economically support illegal settlements and Israel’s occupation of the oPt. The UK government should be taking action to end UK businesses’ involvement in illegal Israeli settlements, not bolstering business ties with Israel.
UK-Israel tech trade
The UK government has earmarked Israeli tech and cyber industries as priority trade areas. Israel’s tech industry is deeply intertwined with the Israeli military: there is a strong two-way flow of knowledge, capital, people and resources between the Israeli military and tech sectors.
Israel is a leading exporter of surveillance technologies; it is home to the highest number of surveillance companies in the world per capita. These companies have close links with the Israeli military, in particular veterans of intelligence Units 8200 and 9900 -- the wings of the Israeli military responsible for the mass surveillance of Palestinians. Surveillance products are marketed as ‘field tested’ on the occupied Palestinian population and exported to repressive regimes around the world. Most recently, NSO Group has been found to have sold its Pegasus smartphone surveillance software to be used in transnational repression; to monitor human rights activists and political dissidents – including in the UK.
Technology used and developed by Israel for the mass surveillance of Palestinians is also used in a broad range of civilian industries. For example, Israel is a leader in computer vision technology, which has applications in a diverse range of industries. This is a result of Israel’s mass surveillance of the oPt, with military veterans formerly responsible for this surveillance transferring this technology from its military to civilian applications. The conveyor belt between Israel’s military and its tech industry means that the Israeli tech sector profits from the commercialisation of military knowledge originating in Israel’s occupation and apartheid regime.
Any deepening of collaboration between the UK and Israel’s tech sectors is a deepening of UK complicity in repressive technologies, and an endorsement of Israel’s routine violations of international law that allow the development of these technologies.
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