Technology for UK drones has been field tested by Israel in attacks on Gaza
A campaigning charity has criticised the UK's deal with an Israeli firm to develop a new drone, Watchkeeper, which the charity claims has been "field tested" in attacks on Gaza that left many Palestinians dead.
War on Want, an anti-poverty charity that also campaigns for justice for Palestine, called for an embargo by the European Union on arms trade with Israel, a move that would end collaboration between Thales UK and Israel's Elbit Systems, one of the world's leading manufacturers of unmanned aircraft.
The Ministry of Defence has awarded a succession of contracts for the long-delayed Watchkeeper project, now totalling nearly £1bn, to a joint venture between Elbit and Thales UK to build 54 drones. After a series of technical problems, Watchkeeper finally received its "statement of type design assurance" in October from the Military Aviation Authority, giving the MoD the green light for airworthiness and safety tests.
The joint venture, UAV Tactical Systems, will oversee the Watchkeeper programme with work subcontracted to a number of other British companies. The design and technology of Watchkeeper is based on Elbit's Hermes 450 model, which Israel has used extensively over Gaza. British forces have used unarmed Hermes drones in Afghanistan.
In a 23-page report (pdf) published on Wednesday, War on Want refers to reports of armed Israeli UAVs killing Palestinians in Gaza. About 800 Palestinians have been reported killed in Israeli raids by drones between 2006 and 2011, the charity claims, citing the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. However, it is not known whether the strikes were by Elbit drones or by other Israeli unmanned weapons systems or aircraft.
War on Want's senior campaigns officer Rafeef Ziadah said: "By supporting the arms trade with Israeli companies, the British government is sending a clear message of approval for Israel's aggression against the Palestinian people. The European Union is sending a similar message through its research funding for Israeli arms companies. It is high time both the UK and the EU ended their support for Israel's violations of international law."
The charity's report also says the previous Labour government rejected Israeli assurances that UK arms would not be deployed against civilians in Palestinian territory, but there were now 381 extant British arms licences to Israel, worth £7.8bn.
A MoD spokesperson told the Guardian: "Watchkeeper is an unarmed, remotely piloted air system that will provide ground troops with vital surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence that will help save military and civilian lives. There is no intention to arm Watchkeeper, which like all the UK's unmanned air systems will be operated by highly trained pilots."
Elbit Systems said it had no comment to make.
This week the Guardian reported that new guidance published by UK Trade and Investment, which promotes British businesses in foreign markets, stated there were "clear risks" related to economic and financial activities in West Bank settlements, and it did not encourage or offer support to such activity.
The guidance said: "Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel's territory."
Ziadah, who is on the national committee of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, seized on the guidance, saying: "The UK government has realised that its condemnations of illegal settlements are falling on deaf ears, and has started to address the huge amount of economic support that the illegal settlements receive from UK businesses."