Western arms enable Israel’s war crimes

22 April 2024
James Plested
An Israeli soldier near the coastal city of Ashkelon, 2012 PHOTO: Associated Press

Israel’s assault on Gaza is one of this century’s greatest atrocities. Given the volume of evidence—broadcast day by unrelenting day on social media as well as via more traditional media outlets such as Al Jazeera—all you really need to understand this is to have a basic level of humanity. But if you would prefer to rely on the judgement of those regarded as experts, those judgements are mounting by the week.

Human Rights Watch (HRW)—an NGO that has been monitoring human rights abuses around the world for more than 30 years—recently completed an investigation into what, in a crowded field, stands as one of Israel’s most barbaric single actions in its war to date. HRW describes the incident, drawing on accounts from witnesses, as follows:

“On October 31, 350 or more people were staying at the Engineers’ Building, just south of the Nuseirat refugee camp. At least 150 were seeking shelter after fleeing their homes elsewhere in Gaza. Without warming, at about 2:30pm, four aerial munitions struck the building within about 10 seconds. The building was completely demolished.”

At least 106 civilians, including 54 children, were killed in the attack. This included, according to HRW’s associate crisis and conflict director Gerry Simpson, “children playing football, residents charging phones in the ground-floor grocery store, and displaced families seeking safety”.

HRW’s investigation “found no evidence of a military target in the vicinity of the building at the time of the Israeli attack, making the strike unlawfully indiscriminate under the laws of war”. It notes, too, that “Israeli authorities have provided no justification for the attack”. To HRW, then, the conclusion is clear: Israel’s strike on the building was a war crime.

The report also makes clear this wasn’t an isolated incident. It refers to data from Airwars, an NGO that tracks the impact of conflicts on civilians, showing that since the beginning of its assault on Gaza, “195 likely attacks by the Israeli military killed from 1 to 9 civilians, 107 attacks killed between 10 and 59, and 4 killed between 60 and 139”.

The scale of the carnage that has been inflicted on the people of Gaza for more than six months is immense. And there’s no doubt further investigation will show what any reasonable observer already knows: it’s not a few incidents here or there that are crimes, but the entire Israeli war.

HRW’s message to Israel’s allies like Australia is simple. They should, it says, “suspend military assistance and arms sales to Israel ... Governments that continue to provide arms to the Israeli government risk complicity in war crimes”.

Western leaders like US President Joe Biden and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese love to pose as champions of human rights. So when a recognised authority on the subject like HRW makes a call like this, you might expect they would take heed.

If you were to judge purely on what they have been saying in recent weeks, then you might think they had. As Israel’s war has dragged on, its Western backers have been prepared to voice some criticisms. This has particularly been the case since its murder, on 1 April, of seven aid workers—including Australian woman Zomi Frankcom—from World Central Kitchen.

In a statement published the day after that incident, Biden said he was “outraged and heartbroken”. “This conflict”, he went on, “has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed” (no word, notably, of who they were killed by). Albanese, for his part, said in a press conference on 3 April that Israel’s killing of the aid workers was “completely unacceptable”.

Saying things are “outrageous” and “unacceptable” is one thing. Actually doing anything about it is quite another. Despite mounting pressure, including from Democratic Party representatives in the US Congress, the Biden administration has so far refused to put any conditions on future military aid to Israel.

At the time of the 1 April attacks on the World Central Kitchen aid convoy, Biden was pushing for Congress to approve the sale of up to 50 US-made F-15 fighter jets to Israel in a deal worth more than US$18 billion. Should the deal go ahead, it will come on top of the billions in military aid and more than a hundred individual arms sales the US has sent Israel’s way since 7 October. Without continuing US support, Israel’s capacity to carry out war crimes like the one investigated by HRW would be severely limited.

The Australian government doesn’t directly export weapons or provide military aid to Israel like the US does. It’s more than happy, though, for Australian companies to have a foot in the door of the genocide trade.

Between 2017 and 2023, the government issued 322 export permits for military or “dual use” goods headed for Israel, and figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show $13 million worth of arms and ammunition were exported to Israel by Australian companies in the past five years.

The Australian government also appears to have no qualms about dealing with Israeli corporations directly involved in the Gaza genocide. The missiles that struck the World Central Kitchen aid convoy were fired from a Hermes 450 drone manufactured by Elbit systems—the same Israeli company Australia recently committed to paying $917 million of taxpayer funds for the supply of components for the Australian Defence Force’s infantry fighting vehicles.

If you stumbled on the scene of a mass shooting, and instead of doing anything to stop it you pulled a gun from your own bag and handed it over to the shooter, you’d be regarded as an accessory to murder. Governments that—despite the mountain of evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza—don’t stop providing it with the planes, bombs, guns and ammunition it needs to continue its genocidal massacre should be seen in the same way: not just as risking complicity in war crimes, but as facilitators of them.

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