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Dutch Court Case Looks To Cut Off Military Supplies To Israel

A Dutch court will decide this week whether the provision of F-35 spare parts to Israel violates Dutch arms export regulations.

As well as Dutch obligations under international law.

Strolling down the street or along a green pathway in the southern Netherlands, it’s not uncommon to see F-35 stealth bombers roaring overhead.

They could be heading up to the Netherlands’ largest F-35 base in northern Leeuwarden, or to another airfield in the southeast.

Or, perhaps, returning from an F-35 maintenance base in the southwest, near the small town of Woensdrecht.

Woensdrecht Air Base, at the top of the Scheldt estuary, is one of three European ‘logistics hubs’ for Lockheed Martin’s “lethal,” “survivable” and “connected” F-35 Lightning II stealth bomber. F-35 users from across Europe (and Israel) go there to pick up spare parts, under a general license applying to all members of the “international F-35 program.”

Days after Hamas’ October 7 surprise attack, an Israeli military transport plane reportedly landed at Woensdrecht to pick up spare parts for its own fleet of forty F-35I Adirs.

It did so in spite of warnings from Dutch Customs and Foreign Affairs staff that, by dropping massive amounts of ordnance on tiny, densely populated Gaza (akin to Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne, UK historian Robert Pape writes), Israel was committing “serious violations of humanitarian law” – violations the Netherlands would prudently distance itself from.

Later this week, the District Court of the Hague may heed these warnings. On December 4, lawyers for four rights groups (Oxfam Novib, Amnesty International, Pax Christi, and the Rights Forum) told the court that the provision of F-35 spare parts to Israel violates Dutch arms export regulations, along with Dutch obligations under international law, and asked it to halt further exports.

“Images, testimonies, reports as well as Israel’s own statements show that Israel disregards the fundamental principles of the law of war, such as a distinction between military and civilian targets and the principle of proportionality,” lawyers told the court.

“In addition, United Nations officials warn that a genocide is in the making in Gaza. There is no reason to assume that Israel will stop excessive violence against the civilian population in Gaza in the foreseeable future.”

Specifically, attorney Liesbeth Zegveld argued F-35 sales to Israel violate Dutch obligations under Article 1 of the four Geneva Conventions, requiring state parties to “respect and to ensure respect” for the conventions in “all circumstances.”

Zegveld also argued that Dutch export of F-35 parts to Israel violates the ‘Common Position’ of the European Union.

The 2008 EU Common Position states that export licenses “shall be denied if approval would be inconsistent with … the international obligations of Member States,” or if “there is a clear risk that the military technology or equipment to be exported might be used for internal repression,” or to commit “serious violations of international humanitarian law,” or that “the intended recipient would use the military technology or equipment … aggressively against another country or to assert by force a territorial claim,” or for purposes “other than for the legitimate national security interests and defence of the recipient.”

Blocking F-35 parts exports would be nothing new. According to the NL Times, between 2004 and 2020, the Netherlands government refused to issue permits for the export of military equipment to Israel on 29 occasions.

Still, on December 4, government lawyers told the District Court that F-35 parts exports to Israel should continue.

Israel’s fleet of F-35I Adirs was central to its “regional security strategy,” they claimed.

Furthermore, government lawyers argued, by halting F-35 parts exports, the Netherlands would be reneging on agreements to reliably supply these from its Woensdrecht hub, undermining the “expectations of all F-35 partners” and imposing administrative costs on all members of the international F-35 program.

Even if it did cut off parts exports, Israel would turn to other sources, government lawyers told the court. “The Netherlands has no say in this.”

Getting down to the bottom line, Dutch government lawyers argued that suspending F-35 parts exports to Israel would be bad for business – especially with Israel and the U.S.

Business indeed. F-35 parts exports from the Netherlands’ Regional European Warehouse in Woensdrecht are both lucrative and prestigious. Last spring, during a trip to Woensdrecht Air Base, the Pentagon’s F-35 program director signed an agreement confirming the role of the base as a supply and logistics hub for the international F-35 program.

This “improves the position of the Dutch industry that carries out maintenance on the devices,” a Netherlands Defense Ministry release declared at the time.

Hi-tech devices the Netherlands would love to help build, maintain and even procure.

As it happens, Israel is the only F-35 owner with the right to modify the killing machine’s onboard systems. Everyone else – including countries like the Netherlands that invested in F-35 production — have to get permission to do so in U.S. government-run or Lockheed facilities.

According to a 2020 industry report, “Israel has essentially been allowed to create an “app” that operates on top of Lockheed’s [command, control, communications and computing] architecture,” the report goes on. “One of the weapons systems Israel uses with the F-35 platform is their Spice family of guidance kits. The Spice kit is essentially a guidance kit that can be equipped to a variety of munitions to improve their accuracy through electro-optics, GPS, or through a “man-in-the-loop” system in which an onboard Weapons Officer can guide bombs to a target using the bomb’s nose camera and a secure television link for very high accuracy.”

Having been allowed to supercharge F-35 systems, Israel is in a position to test them out under ‘real-life’ conditions and to commodify its technology. From the Middle East’s longest runway at Nevatim airbase, east of Be’er Sheva, an Israeli F-35I Adir fighter pilot can fly to Gaza, drop a 2,000 lb GBU-31 JDAM bomb on a residential building, then race up the coast to Lebanon, take head shots of people walking down the street in Beirut, then zoom over to Syria, demolish an airport runway with an AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and head back home in time for lunch – with images and data to show off to allies and potential business partners.

According to Lebanese researcher Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Israeli fighter jets violate Lebanese airspace all the time, testing out systems other F-35 users would love to try out and help build.

“I see that as simply the fact that Israel has the most real-world opportunity to test and develop these weapon systems on behalf of all the countries who invested this 400 billion dollars into it,” Abu-Hamdan told this writer, in a 2022 conversation.

“If you’re in the Netherlands, one of the other investors, you don’t really have much airspace to try out and do these things; certainly not hostile airspace in which you can fly low and do whatever you want and terrorize people. But Israel does.”

Gazing at Dutch F-35 jets roaring over the peaceful green pastures of North Brabant — perhaps returning to their home base from a maintenance trip to Woensdrecht — it’s easy to imagine the Dutch military wanting a piece of Israel’s action, and stressing out over the fallout a court-ordered halt in F-35 parts exports would bring.

Back in 2014, in a letter released to the Rights Forum under Access to Information, a Dutch foreign affairs staffer warned that their trade attaché in Tel Aviv could “pack his bags and come home” if the Netherlands’ ‘discouragement’ policy on Israel’s West Bank settlements were extended to the entire settlement enterprise – i.e., to the entire Israeli economy.

Imagine the position Netherlands trade staff in Tel Aviv and the Dutch arms industry would be in if the District Court of the Hague rules, this week, that Israel can no longer pick up F-35 spare parts in Woensdrecht, because this would violate Dutch commitments under international law and the EU’s Common Position on international trade.

The court is expected to rule by this Friday. It’s unlikely to cut off F-35 parts exports, observers say.

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