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Josep Borrell criticised the US for supplying arms to Israel. But he should look closer to home

Borrell has told the US to ‘provide less arms’ to Israel if it was concerned about the death toll in Gaza, conveniently ignoring the truth about European complicity

On February 12th, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell commented on the contradiction between the US administration’s concern at the rising death toll in Gaza and its continued military support for Israel, stating that “if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms”.

Without a doubt, the US is the most significant international supporter of Israel on every level, supplying Israel with $3 billion in military aid (€2.8 billion). Earlier in February the US Senate approved a Bill committing $14 billion to support Israel’s war on Gaza. Overall, between 2013 and 2022, some 68 per cent of Israel’s weapons imports came from the US, which has sent more than $120 billion in military aid to the country since 1960.

However, while Borrell’s remarks appear to have been directed at the US, they have clear resonance for a number of European states and, some would say, for the EU itself. In other remarks on February 12th, Borrell stated that “the European Union isn’t supplying arms to Israel. Others do.”

Although strictly speaking true, concerns about Israel’s privileged relationship with the EU are growing. On February 14th, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, called for an “urgent review” of the Association Agreement between the EU and Israel, which governs trade between the two – out of concern that Israel may be in breach of the human rights clauses that are a central element of the agreement. Hundreds of academics across Europe have called on the EU to stop funding research that may “directly or indirectly” violate human rights and international law.


The US is not the only country which has a significant relationship with Israel in relation to the supply of military equipment and technology - a number of European states also do.

According to the Palestinian human rights organisation, Al-Haq, between 2013 and 2017, €777 million worth of armaments was supplied by EU states to Israel. More recently, Germany has become one of Israel’s most substantial suppliers. Following the outbreak of the current conflict, there has been a tenfold increase in sales of German arms to Israel, from €32 million in 2022 to over €300 million since last November.

Immediately following the Hamas attack on southern Israel, German chancellor Olaf Scholz stated that “there is only one place for Germany ... at Israel’s side”, referring to Germany’s responsibility to Israel arising from the Holocaust.

Between 2013 and 2022 Germany sent more than 1,000 tank engines used in Israeli tanks as well as submarines and Corvettes for the Israeli navy, some of which have been used to shell targets in Gaza, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). The UK also been a key arms supplier to Israel. Between 2008 and 2022, the UK government approved single export licences to Israel to the value of £146 million (€170 million).

However, according to the pressure group Campaign Against the Arms Trade, this is almost certainly a minority of arms sales since it excludes equipment supplied under what are known as “open licences”, which have no limits on either the quantity or value of exports. Nor does the figure include the UK arms industry’s contribution to the US F-35 stealth fighter jet programme. According to Sipri, Israel has ordered 50 of these, of which 36 had been delivered by the end of 2022. The Israeli military has confirmed their use in the bombing of Gaza. The UK produced around 15 per cent of the value of each F-35. Thus, its share of Israel’s 50 aircraft would represent some £475 million.

According to SIPRI, Italy has also supplied Israel with weapons and military equipment being used in Gaza, having sold €120 million worth of armaments between 2013 and 2022, while Spain and the Netherlands have also provided military support.

And, albeit on a lower level, Ireland also has an arms trading relationship with Israel. According to an exchange in the Dáil in November 2021 between John Brady of Sinn Féin and Simon Coveney, Ireland imported €14.7 million worth of “defensive” equipment from Israel and Israeli arms companies.

A number of European states have imported military technology from Israel, thus bolstering its defence industries. In September 2023 Germany signed a deal to acquire the Israeli-made Arrow 3 hypersonic missile systems that will become part of Europe’s defence against air attack. The deal is worth €3.3 billion – the biggest ever for Israel’s military industry. Its purchase was funded from the €100 billion fund established by Scholz to bolster German defences following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The missile system is part of an integrated European air defence system – the European Sky Shield – proposed by Germany, and in which 19 European states now participate. France has expressed reservations about the initiative because of its reliance on non-European technology and equipment.

Now, the supply of military equipment and arms by European states to Israel is coming under increasing scrutiny. In January, both the Italian and Spanish foreign ministers stated that their countries had stopped supplying arms to Israel since the war in Gaza began – but a Spanish media outlet subsequently reported that Spain had exported just under €1 million worth of ammunition to Israel in November 2023.

Earlier this month, a court in the Netherlands told the Dutch government that it must stop exporting F-39 fighter jet parts to Israel, citing a “clear risk” that they were being used to commit serious violations of international law. In December 2023, Al-Haq and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network made an application for judicial review of the UK government’s export licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel. Existing UK arms export criteria state that, if there is a clear risk that a weapon might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law, then an export licence should not be issued. The case is due to be heard in the High Court in March.

Legal and other challenges to European military support for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza constitute acknowledgment of the possible legal consequences of continuing such support.

For EU member states, sending military equipment is potentially a contravention of rules adopted by the EU in December 2008 governing the export of military technology, which require “respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international human rights law”. Continued weapons sales may also constitute a breach of the interim ruling of the International Court of Justice in January of this year, which held that there was a plausible risk that Israel’s acts in Gaza could amount to genocide, leaving open the possibility that those who offered military support to those actions could in turn be deemed guilty of genocide in the future.

For European states, particularly Germany, such a possibility should be no less than unthinkable.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East politics in the UCD school of politics and international relations