Arms embargo vital as Gaza civilian toll mounts

As the civilian casualty mounts amid continuing Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip, Amnesty International is calling for an immediate arms embargo to prevent more foreign weaponry and other military equipment being used to fuel the fighting.

At least 900 Palestinians have so far been killed, more than a third of them civilians, including some 200 Palestinian children – as more US munitions are en route to the region.

“We know that the Wehr Elbe, a German-owned cargo ship left the USA on 20 December 2008 with a large consignment – 989 containers – of high explosives and other munitions destined for Israel,” said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“Hired and now legally controlled by the US Military Sealift Command, it was heading for the Israeli port of Ashdod and was due to transit via Greece, though its latest reported position indicates that the shipment’s route may have changed.”

Tenders for two other arms shipments totalling 325 containers of US munitions were approved by the Pentagon on 31 December, four days after the start of Israel’s current attacks on targets in Gaza.

These two consignments were due to be shipped to Ashdod from Askatos in Greece, but they have now been cancelled, according to information provided to Amnesty International by the US Military Sealift Command.

Tender documents show that these shipments contain white phosphorus, known for its potential to cause severe burns and an indiscriminate weapon when used as an airburst in densely-populated civilian areas as now alleged in Gaza.

The US Department of Defence says it is now looking at other means to deliver the munitions to a US stockpile in Israel. A US-Israel agreement has allowed US munitions stockpiled in Israel to be transferred to the Israeli Defence Force in “an emergency”.

“The US government should not proceed with these or any other arms shipments to Israel, and the Greek and other governments should not allow their ports or other facilities to be used to ferry arms to Israel or the other parties to this conflict,” said Malcolm Smart.

In the light of its research, Amnesty International has called on the UN Security Council to impose an immediate, comprehensive arms embargo on all parties to the conflict in Gaza. The call comes amid news of mounting civilian casualties and evidence of war crimes.

The organization says that an embargo could help ensure full accountability for war crimes and other serious violations of international law committed by the parties to the conflict.

It could also send a powerful signal to Israel and Hamas about the Council’s determination to ensure peace and security and to uphold international law.

“The plight of civilians in Gaza has become increasingly desperate in the six days since the Security Council’s near unanimous, but unheeded, call for a ceasefire,” said Malcolm Smart.

“Israeli forces continue to carry out unlawful attacks, including attacks which are disproportionate, and stand accused of using weapons such as white phosphorous which pose an unacceptable risk to civilians when deployed in densely-populated areas.

“Meanwhile, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups persist in firing indiscriminate rockets into civilian areas in Israel.”

Amnesty International has been gathering information from people living in Gaza. They report that nowhere is safe for civilians. Most people have fled their homes and are staying with relatives who live in areas considered less at risk or are sheltering in schools run by the UN relief agency, UNWRA.

Many have had no electricity and little or no access to clean water since the beginning of the crisis. There is little food available and people are living mostly on bread. Going out looking for food can be dangerous.

Said is a university lecturer with a PhD from a US university. He lives in Shaja’ya with his wife, six young children and elderly parents. He told Amnesty International, “We have not had any electricity for 17 days and we only have water from time to time. I have a small generator but we have no fuel so cannot use it.

“The children are terrified from the continuous bombing and there is little we can do to comfort them. So many children have been killed. There is so much destruction everywhere. I don’t know how long we can go on like this.”

Apart from the US, at least 17 states have supplied arms and related materials to Israel since 2001 – the US is by far the largest supplier but significant supplies have also been sent from Germany, France, the UK, Spain, the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, Canada, Slovenia, Australia, Romania, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Serbia-Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzogovina. The Netherlands and Greece have both been major transit countries to Israel, especially for US arms.

“Nothing less than an immediate, full arms embargo is now needed to help bring an end to the civilian suffering caused by this conflict, and the flagrantly abusive attacks mounted from each side,” said Malcolm Smart.

“The Security Council must declare and maintain an embargo, until effective mechanisms are in place to ensure that weapons, munitions and other military equipment are not used to attack civilians or commit other serious violations of international law.”