Last weekend the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) was loudly campaigning in high streets and on social media, using the slogan “Stop Arming Israel”, for a UK arms embargo on Israel. They were joined in this action by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and War on Want. Although PSC is a fringe organisation, an arms embargo isn’t such a fringe demand, as it was included in Labour’s 2019 General Election manifesto.
What’s not to like? After all, no one likes weapons or warfare. This is lowest common denominator campaigning, not going after the Israel of humus and hi-tech and beach holidays and Eurovision, but going after the Israel of tanks and F-15s and drones, the one that makes centre-left people in the UK feel a bit queasy.
But if you are an Israeli civilian facing terrorist threats, or anyone who cares about Israel, an arms embargo isn’t something to welcome. It’s not the practical impact that would be so important.
Israel has shied away from reliance on the UK as a military supplier ever since Ted Heath placed an arms embargo on both sides in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This disproportionately affected Israel at a time when it was facing an existential threat because it prevented them getting spare parts for their Centurion tanks.
For major essential kit, Israel is now self-sufficient having built up its own defence industry, or buys from the USA.
UK arms exports to Israel totalled £364 million over the years between 2014 and 2018, which sounds like a lot but is actually nugatory in defence spending terms (the UK has total global defence exports of about £9 billion a year, US defence aid to Israel is nearly £3 billion a year, Israel’s annual defence budget is nearly £16 billion). These exports mainly consist of components rather than entire systems or platforms.
In fact, Israeli companies are now defence suppliers to the UK, with the main programme being the Watchkeeper UAV or drone for the Royal Artillery, produced in Leicester by a joint venture involving Elbit Systems. As the PSC protesters want a two-way embargo with no purchases from Israel as well as no sales to it, they would be denying the British armed forces kit they need.
The real question is moral rather than practical. Israel is our ally in the struggle against terrorist enemies that target the West, and the UK specifically, as well as Israel. It shares sensitive intelligence with us that saves British lives.
It is a democracy attempting to defend itself from specific terrorist threats that can and have killed and maimed its civilians, but also from a broader aspiration by Iran and its proxies to destroy the state of Israel, an ambition that is inherently genocidal.
The IDF confronts enemies who are heavily armed by Iran and have no compunction about deliberately targeting civilians or indiscriminately firing off munitions towards heavily populated areas.
Hamas has the capacity to rain mortar shells and missiles on the Israeli communities in the south and send families in Tel Aviv and other major cities running in terror to the shelters with longer range weapons.
Hezbollah has more sophisticated missiles, with a massive total arsenal of over 130,000 of them, and a standing army of over 20,000 men, combat hardened by their role in the butchery of the Syrian Civil War.
That’s before you get started on the jihadist groups in the Sinai or the potential threat of the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guard Corps. The call for a UK arms embargo on Israel is an expression of a desire to disarm Israel when it faces these horrors.
It is saying that British industry and technology have no legitimate part to play in defending civilians in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or Haifa, and no part to play in saving the lives of the IDF soldiers on the frontline against terrorism.
The protesters calling for the UK to “Stop Arming Israel” may believe they are on the side of moral justice, but their slogan needs to be called out as being morally reprehensible.