Israel/OPT: Interrogating Australia’s defence goods export policy in light of the Gaza crisis

For months, as people have taken to the streets, signed petitions, sent emails, and called politicians, the Australian government has strengthened their policies and positions concerning the outbreak of violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. They have called for a ceasefire, for the protection of civilians and respect for international law.

However, Australia’s opaque defence goods export policy has raised concerns that goods made in Australia could be being exported and used by the Israeli Defence Forces. A Senate hearing in October 2023 revealed Australia had approved 322 permits for defence goods to be exported to Israel since 2017. A Senate hearing in February revealed that two approvals have been made since 7 October.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) figures show $10 million in Australian arms and ammunition sales to Israel in the past five years.

Foreign Minister Wong and the Department of Defence have said that Australia hasn’t supplied weapons to Israel for at least the past five years. But if the government has approved hundreds of permits for defence goods in the past five years, how is that possible?

The lack of transparency in Australia’s defence export policy means we don’t know exactly what was approved for export. Read on to find out what the Australian government does tell the public about the defence goods they approve for export (it’s not a lot), what questions we still need answered, and what it might mean as Israel continues a campaign of death and destruction in Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza are at risk of genocide

Israeli authorities’ willingness to flout international humanitarian law and their chilling disregard for Palestinian lives have been demonstrated and documented by Amnesty through repeated cycles of violence.

But the scale of suffering and destruction Israeli authorities have inflicted on the people of Gaza in recent months is unprecedented. The cruelty of these attacks on homes, schools, hospitals and refugee camps defies belief.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has found that the people of Gaza are at real risk of genocide. The time to act, and stop approving defence exports to Israel, is now.

What has Australia supplied to Israel?

The government has repeatedly said that “Australia has not supplied weapons to Israel since the conflict began, and for at least the past five years.” But Australia’s unclear defence goods export approval process makes it impossible to verify that claim.

We know that Australia has approved hundreds of export permits for defence goods to Israel in the last five years. What we don’t have are any details about what those items were. That’s because Australia only releases information on the number of permits approved to each country, not what has been approved.

When a manufacturer wants to export an item on the defence strategic goods list, they apply for an export permit to the Department of Defence. The Department assesses the permits for “human rights risks and Australia’s compliance with its international obligations.”

The Department has said a permit would be refused if there was an “overriding risk that the goods … may be used contrary to the national interest or to violate human rights.”

The defence strategic goods list includes “military or dual-use equipment.” Dual-use equipment is an item that can be used both for civilian and military applications. That could mean “a radio, sporting equipment or vehicle parts.”

We know that Australia has approved permits for defence export goods, both military and dual-use equipment.

What’s being manufactured in Australia?

The prime contractor of F-35 fighter-jets is Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin’s website says “Australian businesses are supplying components for the entire F-35 fleet, not just Australian aircraft. Every F-35 built contains some Australian parts and components.”

On 12 February a Dutch court ordered the government to halt the export of F-35 parts used by Israel in its bombardment of Gaza as there is a “clear risk” that they are being used in “serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

At Senate Estimates in February, Department of Defence representatives didn’t confirm whether they considered F-35 parts manufactured in Australia to be considered weapons.

The question remains: what is Australia approving to be exported to Israel?

Exports aren’t tracked once they leave Australia

There’s another big problem with Australia’s defence goods export process. The government doesn’t track where exports end up or how they’re used after they leave Australian shores. That’s concerning given the way global supply chains work. It’s common that exports approved to one country end up being used in another country.

For example, a defence good part might be manufactured in Australia and approved for export to the UK. There it could be part of the manufacturing process, before being sent to another country to be assembled before being sent to what’s called the ‘end user’ of the arms.

That means defence goods manufactured in Australia approved for export to the UK could end up being used by the Israeli Defence Force.

The Australian government doesn’t name the end user of an export permit when they release the number of permits. And the goods aren’t monitored once they leave Australian shores, which means we don’t know if Australian-manufactured goods are being used to abuse human rights.

Our export process needs urgent reform

Penny Wong has criticised the conversation around Australia’s arms exports to Israel, characterising some online commentary as “misinformation”. Since the first days of this crisis, Amnesty has warned about the insidious influence of misinformation and disinformation. It’s crucial that any information is able to be verified and that unsubstantiated claims aren’t repeated as fact.

Unfortunately, the nature of Australia’s defence goods exports approval process makes it impossible to know what the government is approving to be exported. It’s the secrecy and lack of accountability in Australia’s export policy that’s created the confusion.

Under the Arms Trade Treaty, Australia has an obligation to assess if there’s a substantial risk that a proposed export will contribute to serious human rights abuses, and not to transfer arms when there’s a risk they could be used to commit war crimes or other violations of international law .

Australia is also a signatory to the Genocide Convention and has agreed to do everything in its power to prevent genocide.

We must reform our process so that details of the goods approved, and their end user, are publicly available, and so that there’s monitoring of arms once they leave Australian shores. If the government’s worried about misinformation, the best remedy is to ensure that the facts are readily available.

This already happens in a lot of countries. In the United Kingdom, information about requests for export permits, as well as the nature of the exports and even the dollar amount, is publicly available. Although the United States is the world’s largest exporter of arms and by far the major supplier of arms to Israel, they publicise all arms approved for export and conduct end-use monitoring.

Australia must stop approving exports of defence goods to Israel NOW

Australia can’t continue to approve defence goods to be sent to Israel where there’s a real risk of genocide.

Right now, approximately 1.5 million Palestinians are displaced in Rafah, an area of only 65km². Now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered the Israeli military to prepare to evacuate civilians amid reports of an imminent ground operation. The harrowing developments on the ground underscore the urgent need for the international community to back up their calls for a ceasefire with meaningful action.

As Israel continues its brutal campaign of death and destruction, the Australian government has released a statement calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and has voted to support a ceasefire in the UN General Assembly. This is the result of people all around Australia speaking out and taking to the streets, urging the government to take action.

We know that people power works. We must work together to reform Australia’s defence export process and ensure that nothing made in Australia is used to commit war crimes, by Israeli forces in Gaza, or by anyone, anywhere.

Tell the Australian Government to stop approving the export of defence goods to Israel now