British objections to the use of British-supplied weapons in Israel's latest military push against the Palestinians have focused new attention on the United States' reluctance to restrain Israel's use of the multi-billion-dollar, high-tech arms it sells to the Jewish state each year.
The US is embarrassed by the high profile given to some of its machinery in the occupied territories - particularly its F-16 fighter jets, in missile strikes against police stations and other public buildings, and its Apache attack helicopters, in Israel's controversial campaign to assassinate Palestinian militants.
But the Administration has refused to go public with its growing unease over the use of US weaponry, in what the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, now calls an "all-out conventional war" on Palestinian civilians.
But last week Britain revealed that in 2000 it had extracted a written assurance from Israel that no military equipment originating from Britain would be used in the occupied territories. The revelation was sparked when a British diplomat stationed in the Middle East recognised an Israeli armoured personnel carrier as a modified Centurion tank, which Britain had supplied to Israel up until 1970.
Now Britain is demanding an explanation from the Israelis. Last year an unnamed US State Department spokesman told The Independent in London that at some point Washington would have to make a call on whether the Israelis were in breach of a stipulation in the Arms Export Control Act that weapons sold could be used only for "legitimate self-defence" - but yesterday a department spokeswoman would not tell the Herald if the issue had advanced.
Israel is one of the biggest buyers of US arms, and much of the trade is financed with the $US2 billion a year it gets from Washington in military aid. Its arsenal includes dozens of US helicopters (AH 64As, AH 1Fs, AH 1Gs); hundreds of tanks (M-60s) and armoured personnel carriers; and the biggest fleet of American fighter aircraft outside the US (F-15s, F-16s, F-4s and A-4s).
A US-based lobby group, the Palestinian Monitor, says the US should act against Israel because of its "consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognised human rights" and, in particular, killings carried out by its airborne assassination squads.
However, the argument that the US was refusing to put pressure on Israel over its treatment of Palestinians was laughed at by one of the US's top authorities on the Israeli military, Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Told by the Herald about the assurance won from Israel by the British, he said: "Someone has to be joking. This kind of contract clause is a joke in the weapons trade. If you think you can tightly control weapons after you have sold them, then you're living in fantasy land ...
"People in this trade make a lot of promises for face-saving purposes. There are provisions in international law on not using weapons on civilians, but defining civilians in a low-level war like this one can be an academic exercise."
But on the ground, the Israeli choice of US weapons does make a difference. After the Israelis launched a US-built TOW missile in a helicopter attack on a Gaza police station last year, a staff member who survived confronted an American visitor. "This is what your country is doing," he said, holding up a part of the missile carrying the words "made in the USA".
He reportedly went on: "We hate the Israelis for this ... but we hate America more."
Copyright © 2002. The Sydney Morning Herald