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TANKS, helicopters, warships and all manner of war machines are rolling through the streets of east London.
Their destination: the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, taking place at the ExCel Centre, Docklands.
Behind the security fences and heavy police presence, the world’s largest arms fair — with 1,600 exhibitors from around the world, including human-rights-abusing regimes — will be marketing their latest technology and doing secret deals away from public scrutiny and public protest.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Colombia, Turkey and Israel — a literal who’s who of regimes responsible for some of the most horrific human rights abuses — will be given the red carpet treatment.
These are countries that the British Foreign Office itself considers to be “human rights priority countries,” or “countries of concern.”
These countries will not only have their record of torture and the killing of civilians, journalists, medics and political opponents swept under the carpet.
They are actively supported by the Westminster government through its Defence and Security Organisation (DIT DSO), the Department of International Trade’s weapons export promotion arm.
Israel not only has its own “national pavilion” at DSEI, at which arms companies boast of their weapons being “battle-tested” and “combat-proven” — ie used in live combat situations, to devastate and destroy Palestinian lives and communities.
This year, Israel has been upgraded to an official invitee by the taxpayer-funded arms fair. It’s no secret that the Israeli arms industry benefits from the violence: Israeli forces order arms from Israeli companies, and feed back so that the technology can be “fine-tuned.”
Arms company officials have been open about the fact that their customers “appreciate that the products are battle-tested.”
Behind the euphemism of “battle-tested” is the reality of war crimes and violence against the Palestinian people on a daily basis.
For over 70 years, the Palestinian people have been subject to a brutal occupation that violates international human rights and humanitarian law.
Palestinians have been targeted with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. Palestinian homes have been demolished with armoured bulldozers; Palestinian people have been subject to mass arrests, the arbitrary detention of political prisoners and restrictions on their movement with militarised checkpoints and the illegal apartheid wall.
In March 2018, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began a “Great March of Return,” marching in their tens of thousands to demand that Israel end its illegal siege; and that their rights are respected, including their right of return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948.
Israel used military force to crack down on the unarmed protests, killing over 250 people, including children, paramedics, disabled people and journalists, and injuring over 30,000 more.
In one horrible day in May 2018, Israeli forces shot and killed some 60 Palestinians within a few hours.
In response, the International Criminal Court issued an unprecedented statement of warning, and the UN human rights council established a commission of inquiry to investigate the use of violent force in repressing the protests.
In March 2019, the commission of inquiry reported that it had found evidence of Israeli security forces having committed “war crimes or crimes against humanity” in the repression of the protests.
Yet the British government continues to not only arm Israel, but on Thursday rolled out the red carpet for Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Downing Street, further normalising the rise of far-right politicians who are intent on rolling back international human rights and propagating a racist discourse of ethno-nationalism, a mantra of walls and fences.
Just this week the UN stated that Britain, along with the United States and France, may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen by arming and providing intelligence and logistics support to a Saudi-led coalition that has deliberately starved civilians as a war tactic.
This has led to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 3.3 million internally displaced people in Yemen, and 24 million people requiring humanitarian assistance, of which 14 million, half of Yemen’s population, are facing “pre-famine conditions.”
It is currently estimated that over 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the start of 2016. In November 2018, Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children may have died from extreme hunger or disease since April 2015.
The UN has verified that 325 attacks have targeted hospitals, schools, food warehouses and supply lines, and destroyed essential infrastructure. Most of these have been air strikes with British-made planes by the British-backed Saudi-led coalition.
But despite the widespread repulsion, Saudi Arabia continues to be Britain’s biggest arms customer with its repression at home and abroad, not only in Yemen but also in Bahrain, supported by Britain.
However, these arms sales are just one aspect of a long and bloody history of British imperialism in the region.
From the colonial carving up of the Middle East with the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, to supporting brutal dictatorships and engineering coups against democratically elected governments, such as in Iran in 1953, to military interventions in Iraq and Libya, the peoples of the Middle East have long suffered the reality of Britain’s prioritisation of its own economic and strategic interests over human rights.
The British government has backed regimes, no matter how brutal, as long as they guarantee access to a third of the world’s oil and gas reserves, and protect the economic interests of fossil fuel multinationals.
Until human rights and the lives of people in the Middle East are valued more than oil, Britain will continue to arm brutal regimes and turn a blind eye to international human rights law.
But hope lies with the countless numbers actively engaged in protest against the DSEI arms fair: the broad civil society coalition that involves groups such as War on Want, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, faith groups and community groups representing those most affected.
They not only shine a spotlight on the merchants of war. They continue to show, in the tradition of anti-apartheid protesters opposed to arms sales to South Africa, and the Scottish workers who refused to allow weapons to be sent to the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile, that the only answer is an internationalism of working people and a genuinely ethical foreign policy that promotes peace and justice.
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