Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Arms dealer Airbus adapts Israeli drone for refugee boat surveillance

The weapons-maker Airbus is promoting an Israeli-designed drone as suitable for tracking boats used by refugees.


A new brochure from Airbus Defence and Space lists "border surveillance" and "anti-smuggling" as potential applications for the Harfang. That drone was developed jointly by Israel Aerospace Industries and the Franco-German arms giant EADS, now owned by Airbus.


The possibility that such warplanes could be used in attacks that result in refugees being killed is far from academic. WikiLeaks has just published a classified EU plan for military action against boats in Libya which transport refugees to Europe.


According to the plan, this action should draw on the "full range" of surveillance equipment and knowhow available to EU governments.


The Harfang is among such equipment as it has been deployed by France while bombing Mali and Libya over the past few years and as part of the French contribution to NATO's war in Afghanistan.


Gaza "debut"


Not only has the Harfang been developed in tandem with IAI, it is modeled on an Israeli drone known as the Heron TP. DefenseNews, a publication popular with arms dealers, has noted that the Heron TP received its "operational debut" during Israel's three-week bombardment of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during that offensive.


Last week I took part in a debate with Chris Henny, a representative of Airbus, at the Institute for European Studies in Brussels.


I am forbidden from disclosing what Henny said on that occasion. The debate was subject to the "Chatham House rule", protocol drawn up by a British think tank which prevents those who attend its discussions from attributing comments to the person who made them.


However, I subsequently asked Henny to comment on the record about why Airbus was suggesting that a drone tested in Gaza would be helpful in tracking refugees trying to reach Europe. He sent me a snide reply by email: "The topic for discussion during the debate at the Institute of European Studies was 'securing Europe’s border.' Israel and Palestine are not part of Europe as far as I am aware. "


"Airbus is working with many legally constituted and sovereign states and state enterprises around the world to help them control their borders through the use of technology, some of which we help to develop ourselves, and other technologies which we buy in, or license to others." he added. "What those technology partners choose to do with their own developments, in their own countries, is, of course, their business."


Cavalier


That attempt to put some distance between his firm and Israel should not go unchallenged. While Henny insinuates that Israel has nothing to do with him, his Airbus colleagues use their Israel connections as a selling point. Last year, Airbus issued a statement celebrating how the Harfang was based on an Israeli drone which was "combat proven."


That terminology is identical to that of Israel's arms industry. "Combat-proven" is a polite way of saying that the weapons have been tested out on Palestinians.


Henny's cavalier attitude is in keeping with the dodgy history of Airbus and EADS. Their record betrays a willingness to engage in pretty much any activity that will turn a profit.


EADS was part of a consortium known as MBDA which helped arm Muammar Gadaffi's regime in Libya. The very same consortium later benefited from NATO's 2011 assault on Libya, an "intervention" with ruinous consequences for ordinary people across several countries.


Airbus' border management activities have, to put it mildly, proven controversial. The firm is under investigation in both the UK and Germany for allegedly paying bribes to the Saudi dictatorship. The probes relate to Airbus' role in building a fence along Saudi Arabia's borders.


With its start-of-the-art surveillance equipment, the fence has been presented as necessary to defend Saudi Arabia against ISIS. Yet because the fence was planned before ISIS emerged as a serious threat, it would appear that its real purpose is to keep Iraqi refugees out of Saudi Arabia.


Another thing I noticed is that Airbus' brochure points to the Harfang's use in "regular national homeland security missions on French territory since the end of 2008." I can't imagine that everyone in France would be happy to know their law enforcement authorities are undertaking surveillance with Israeli-designed drones.


But I'm sure Airbus representatives have a ready-made response for any complaints: what clients do is, of course, their business.


•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 2 June 2015.

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