Elbit Systems is Israel’s largest publicly listed arms company, and one of the world’s leading exporters of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) – drones. Elbit’s leading product is the Hermes 450 drone, “a mature and combat proven UAS with over 300,000 operational flight hours and a class-leading safety and reliability record.” Although the United States is the world’s foremost proponent of remote-controlled warfare – with its willingness to carry out drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan – Israel is the world’s true pioneer of drone technology.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) first employed unmanned aircraft as early as 1982, to track troop movements during Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Since then, drones have become a central component of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Drone-launched missiles killed at least twenty-nine Palestinian civilians during Israel’s twenty-two day assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. In February 2010, the Israel Defence Forces’ Advocate-General Avichai Mandelblit admitted in a secret meeting (exposed by WikiLeaks) that unmanned aircraft were used in “targeted killing operations” (that is, extrajudicial assassinations) against suspected Hamas militants. Again during “Operation Pillar of Defence” in November 2012 “Israeli drone attacks killed 36 Palestinians, of whom 24 were civilians (four of them children).” Elbit’s products have been trialled on human targets – “combat-proven.”
Israel’s latest and perhaps bloodiest attack on Gaza saw a nine-year-old boy and his grandmother killed by a drone strike when riding in a taxi in Khan Younis on July 17; two days after a seventeen-year-old boy was killed by a drone strike fired at his motorcycle. These tragedies do little to convey the broader psychological impact of living under the constant humming of robots capable of immense destruction at the pressing of a button. Surveillance, intimidation and lethal force have become the core functions of the unmanned aerial vehicle.
So far, “Operation Protective Edge” which began on July 8, has claimed at least 2,000 Palestinian lives, displaced over half a million civilians, and caused incalculable economic and psychological damage. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, while sixty-four Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians have been killed, 1,000 Palestinian children have sustained lifelong disabilities, 17,000 housing units have been destroyed, and numerous mosques, hospitals and UN schools flattened by Israeli air strikes and artillery shells.
But for Israeli arms manufacturers, the Gaza Strip has proved an excellent testing ground for their high-tech weaponry. Without any risk of censure for illegal or destructive use, the IAF has been able to turn Elbit’s deadly weapons into lucrative exports. Israel is now the world’s leading exporter of unmanned aircraft technology, and Elbit’s revenues have grown by 700 percent since 2000. Israeli drone technology has been used by at least twenty-four countries, and has even provided the blueprint for the infamous US “Predator” drone (for a full discussion of these facts, see this report from War on Want). With Britain’s arms exports to Israel coming under increasing scrutiny from the media and even (albeit very lightly) the government in the wake of “Operation Protective Edge”, it is imperative to also assess the British role in the highly sophisticated and profitable Israeli drone industry.
In early August, the headquarters of UAV Engines, based in Shenstone, Lichfield, was occupied by peaceful protesters from the London Palestine Action Group. A large banner was unfurled, reading “UK: STOP ARMING ISRAEL.” UAV, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, assists in the development of Israeli drone technology, and exemplifies the collaboration between the British and Israeli high-tech defence industries. Indeed, the UK government has presided over a 250 million pound joint venture between Elbit and British UAS manufacturer, Thales, which aims to build up to one hundred “Watchkeeper” drones – modelled, of course, on the Hermes 450. In 2010, Elbit pledged another 35 million pounds towards the “Watchkeeper” plan, the same day that the drone itself made its first test flight over Wales.
The government’s willingness to cater for Israeli arms companies reflects a wider issue: the intimate relationship between Westminster and the private defence industry. British arms companies are not unusually large in terms of their revenues, but they are exceptionally well-connected politically. This is achieved partly through a revolving door between Ministry of Defence (MoD) and military personnel and the private arms business. Indeed, a 2012 Guardian study revealed that “senior military officers and MoD officials had received approval for 3,572 jobs in arms companies since 1996.”
Arms companies are also massively overrepresented in government advisory bodies, whilst even the royal family shamelessly promotes the private interests of Britain’s military-industrial complex. Prince Charles recently performed a sword dance with the Saudi Arabian royal family – apparently unconcerned with how the House of Saud usually uses its swords – and a Saudi-British arms deal was announced the day after his departure. Arms export jobs comprise only 0.2 percent of UK’s total employment, but the industry receives 27 percent of the government’s total expenditure on research and development (Campaign Against Arms Trade provides an excellent overview of these issues).
Put simply, Westminster has made selling itself to arms companies a national tradition. War has, in many respects, been corporatised. Gaza is not just occupied territory or a “hostile entity”, as Israeli officials define it, but it is a laboratory where deadly equipment is tried and tested on a captive civilian population. The British government is complicit in this lethal profiteering, and must be held to account.