Israel & Palestine

France under pressure to suspend military sales to Israel as war in Gaza grinds on

Author: Editors Desk Source: France 24
February 22, 2024 at 10:16
This satellite image shows the southern Gaza town of Rafah on January 14, 2024. © Planet Labs PBC via AP
This satellite image shows the southern Gaza town of Rafah on January 14, 2024. © Planet Labs PBC via AP
NGOs and leftist members of the opposition have increased the pressure on France's government to reconsider arms sales to Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza and follow in the footsteps of other European nations that made moves to suspend military exports over concerns about the humanitarian situation on the ground. 

It was Ramadan, and another war was raging in Gaza.

In July 2014, 8-year-old Afnan Shuheibar, her 16-year-old brother Oday, and her three cousins Basel, Jihad and Wassim – ages 8 to 11 – went up to the roof of the Shuheibar home in Gaza City to feed the pigeons when they were struck by a missile.

It was fired by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), but what helped guide it to the Shuheibars’ home was a small black position sensor around 2 centimetres long lodged deep inside the missile. On it were three words, with some letters partially erased: “EUROFARAD PARIS FRANCE”.  

Wassim and Jihad were killed instantly, and Afnan died in her father’s arms on the way to the hospital.

In 2016, the Shuheibar family filed a legal suit against Eurofarad. The company has since been bought by Exxelia Technologies, which is now facing charges of complicity in war crimes in France. (Exxelia itself was recently bought by the US group HEICO but is still headquartered in Paris.)

The first complaint was dismissed, but the family lodged another in 2018. A specialised department looking at crimes against humanity opened an investigation on suspicion of "complicity with war crimes" at a Paris court, and last summer several members of the Shuheibar family were heard.

The court will hear Exxelia’s side next, the family’s lawyer, Joseph Breham, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

His law firm is in touch with the Shuheibar family on a near-weekly basis. Several of them – in addition to investigators working on the case – have been wounded since the Israel-Hamas war started in early October, “to the extent that we wondered at one point whether or not the [Israeli] army was targeting them specifically”, Breham told FRANCE 24. 

The Shuheibar case is not unique. Other French defence companies – including Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – are facing charges of “complicity in war crimes” over weapons sales reportedly made to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which has spearheaded a regional coalition to fight the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

But in the context of the current war in Gaza, and following the provisional measures issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) last month and the pending ruling – which could have profound repercussions for international jurisprudence – the Shuheibar case raises some lingering questions. 

Grilling in parliament

It remains unclear whether French companies continue to export weapons or any “dual-use” equipment to Israel that can be used in a military context, or whether French companies have reviewed any export licenses that were authorised before the latest war began.

The head of Amnesty International in France, Jean-Claude Samouiller, published an open letter this week addressed to French President Emmanuel Macron, urging the suspension of all weapons sales and military equipment to Israel.

MPs from the far-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise or LFI) party have repeatedly grilled members of the government over continuing French military exports to Israel.

These calls have intensified over the past week. Mathilde Panot, the president of the LFI parliamentary group, asked Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné during a February 15 session in parliament whether France was arming Israel and called for a suspension of any such sales. “Has France continued providing weapons to [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu? Mister minister, can you say with certainty that no French military component is being used in Gaza in any war crime that is being committed? When will you declare an arms embargo?” she asked, adding: “[Charles] de Gaulle did it [in 1967]. Emmanuel Macron must do it.”

She also urged him to provide a list of weapons and other equipment provided to Israel. “Concerning weapons, I will revert back to you to give you a number, because I don’t have it here,” Séjourné replied.

It was then French Defence Minister Sébastien Lecornu’s turn to be questioned. In a written response to a question submitted by LFI MP Aurélien Saintoul, Lecornu said that France does not export “weapons, strictly speaking, but rather elementary components”.

Saintoul sits on the parliamentary defence commission. He repeatedly asked to question Lecornu, to no avail, prior to submitting his questions in writing.

When weapons are authorised for export, Lecornu said, they “are intended purely for defensive purposes”, citing the example of a type of missile used by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system.

Lecornu went on to say that the respect for human rights and international humanitarian law exhibited by the destination country “are fully taken into account” when reviewing arms exports. Current assessments “have not led to a full suspension of the flow of military exports since 7 October 2023”, referring to the launch of the Israeli army response to the Hamas attack in southern Israel.

In an emailed response to FRANCE 24, the defence ministry stressed that all requests for military equipment exports were subjected to “robust checks”. The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for specific comment on military exports to Israel.

Thomas Portes, another MP from LFI, last week launched a petition calling for transparency on the issue and urging the authorities to stop exporting military equipment to Israel. The government’s responses are “never precise, they never include any numbers … and so there is a kind of omerta surrounding this arms issue”, Portes said in a telephone interview on Monday.

“At the very least, I want there to be a public debate in France on whether today we accept, yes or no – as MPs, but beyond this, do citizens accept that France delivers weapons to the Israeli state in light of what the Israeli army is committing in the Gaza Strip?”

“I wouldn’t want us to be the last European country to commit itself to not supplying arms to Israel,” he said. France, Germany and the UK continue to supply Israel whereas Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium have moved to suspend arms sales.


But obtaining transparency and establishing whether or not French companies are still exporting any weapons or dual-use equipment to the state of Israel is not an easy question to resolve.

Any export of military equipment by a French or France-based company must be vetted by the Inter-ministerial commission for war materials exports (CIEEMG).

Exxelia said in emailed responses sent on Wednesday that the “passive electronic components” it produces usually constitute a tiny part of far larger products, and can, for instance, be used to manufacture a "(Magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a 5G antenna or a radar”.

“Exxelia complies strictly with the laws in all the countries where it operates. Sales of dual-use equipment are subjected to strict regulations that the company applies scrupulously,” it added.

But as the Shuheibars’ lawyer Breham pointed out, decisions issued by the CIEEMG are protected by what is known as the “défense secret ” – meaning they are confidential – and, by law, the CIEEMG is not required to provide any explanation for its decisions.

Every year, the government must under French law release a report to the parliament detailing any such exports. The French authorities must also report annually to the secretary-general of the international Arms Trade Treaty.

But Breham dismissed these reports as “a load of hogwash … intended to play to the gallery”.

“The categories are extremely lax … for example, if you say you exported a specific kind of artillery shell, it is not the same thing if these shells end up in a CAESAR cannon, which is extremely precise, or if they end up in ordinary cannons,” he said. Moreover, since the parliamentary report does not specify the destination country for each piece of equipment, Brehem dismissed it as “absolutely useless”.

In the latest report submitted to the French parliament, one number does, however, stand out: €207.6 million in equipment sold to Israel over the past 10 years.

Breham dismissed the idea of declaring an arms embargo, advocated by LFI, arguing that it is the remit of the United Nations Security Council. But there is still room for the French authorities to take action, he argues.

“At the very least, I think it would be a good thing if France were to strongly declare that, number one, it is in favour of a total freeze on weapons exports to Israel and number two, that it is in favour of very tight restrictions on exports to Israel of double-use equipment, taking into consideration the fact that it is very easy to circumvent [these restrictions].”

As often, though, the devil is in the details. Military equipment export contracts take years to be put into place, he said. If in that time, concerns arise about international humanitarian law violations, then under article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty, the exporting country must review its export authorisations.

“But that’s the theory,” he said.

Whether or not the Shuheibar family could ever win their case is uncertain. According to international law expert Pierre-Emmanuel Dupont, there is no such legal precedent in France.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, he evoked the case against Dassault, Thalès and MBDA – which is still pending.

He also cited the case against French cement company Lafarge, which is facing charges of complicity in crimes against humanity over alleged payoffs made to the Islamic State group and other jihadists to keep its factory running during the Syrian civil war.

Bringing the Lafarge case set a kind of precedent, Dupont said, although that case is also still awaiting a verdict.

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