Forget warnings about scaling back arms supplies, governments must reject war completely

In the wake of the horrific killing of seven innocent aid workers in Gaza on Monday this week, it’s no surprise that global leaders are becoming increasingly nervous about the way in which this latest Middle East conflict is unravelling. Of course Monday’s tragedy is by no means the first instance of aid workers being killed in this pointless and futile war. According to the Aid Worker Security Database, at least 203 aid workers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict but this latest incident seems to have pushed the Gaza war narrative into an entirely different place.

The seven workers were employed by World Central Kitchen (WCK), a food relief nonprofit founded by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés. An Israel Defense Forces drone fired three missiles on their convoy, even though the cars’ roofs were clearly marked – and there’s now even suggestions that the workers survived the first strike, but were targeted and killed by a follow-up strike.

WCK chief executive Erin Gore said the team of volunteers were “travelling in a deconflicted zone in two armoured cars branded with the WCK logo and a soft skin vehicle” when it was hit. Despite coordinating movements with the IDF the convoy was hit as it was leaving a warehouse in the central Gazan town of Deir al Balah, the charity said.

Since this war of attrition began the media has been swamped with countless images taken amongst the tens of thousands of suffering, injured and dead Palestinian civilians. The killing of the WCK workers was nothing exceptional, but the harrowing images of their burnt-out vehicles still displaying their roof markings has unexpectedly galvanised world opinion and placed global leaders under renewed pressure to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Gaza.

In response to this week’s tragedy, U.S. President Joe Biden put out a statement saying he was “outraged and heartbroken,” that the aid workers were “brave and selfless,” and that “Israel has not done enough to protect aid workers trying to deliver desperately needed help to civilians.

“The United States has repeatedly urged Israel to deconflict their military operations against Hamas with humanitarian operations, in order to avoid civilian casualties,” said Biden.

A Downing Street spokesperson said that Rishi Sunak had phoned Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to voice his outrage.

“He said he was appalled by the killing of aid workers, including three British nationals, in an airstrike in Gaza … and demanded a thorough and transparent independent investigation into what happened,” said the spokesperson.

“The UK expects to see immediate action by Israel to end restrictions on humanitarian aid, deconflict with the UN and aid agencies, protect civilians and repair vital infrastructure like hospitals and water networks.

“The prime minister reiterated that Israel’s rightful aim of defeating Hamas would not be achieved by allowing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. The prime minister said far too many aid workers and ordinary civilians have lost their lives in Gaza and the situation is increasingly intolerable.”

On the other side of the world, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the aid workers deaths were “beyond any reasonable circumstances” and that Israel’s excuses were “not good enough.”

The growing unease was calmed by the response of Mr Netanyahu, who acknowledged that Israeli forces were responsible for the airstrike, saying there was a “tragic incident of an unintended strike of our forces on innocent people in the Gaza Strip”. But he added stoically and to much distain: “It happens in war.”

Indeed it does, but that hardly excuses the obligation for combatant nations to adhere to international humanitarian law obligations to protect civilians, and to protect humanitarian workers and medical workers. Given that Israel seems increasingly incapable of controlling a war that is spiralling into a humanitarian catastrophe, it is only reasonable that deeper questions are now being asked about the relationship western nations have with the current Israeli government.

Over the coming days and weeks pressure will undoubtedly increase for nations to halt the sale of arms to Israel, but that’s no easy demand. The highly secretive world of the arms trade is a complex, interwoven web of deal and contra-deal, crossing borders, political differences and all manner of conflicts. As it happens Israel is a major weapons exporter, but its military is heavily reliant on imported aircraft, guided bombs and missiles to conduct one of the most intense and destructive aerial campaigns in recent history.

Today (Friday 5th April), the UN Human Rights Council has backed a weapons ban, with 28 countries voting in favour, six against and 13 abstentions. Not surprising the US and the UK – who supply the majority of Israel’s arms – both voted against.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the US accounted for 69% of Israel’s arms imports between 2019 and 2023, and the US provides Israel with $3.8bn (£3bn) in annual military aid.

By comparison UK arms exports to Israel are relatively small, reckoned to be just £42m ($53m) in 2022. However, The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) says that since 2008, the UK has granted arms export licences to Israel worth £574m ($727m) in total. Mostly these have been for components for US-made warplanes that have been supplied to Israel.

Israel has also built up its own defence industry and now ranks as the ninth-largest arms exporter in the world boasting annual sales in excess of $12bn (£9.9bn) in 2022, with India (37%), the Philippines (12%) and the US (8.7%) the three main recipients.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) made up 25% of those exports, followed by missiles, rockets and air defence systems (19%) and radar and electronic warfare systems (13%).

For we Catholics, the latest killings in Gaza bear brutal and unambiguous testimony to our position on both the arms trade, and the conduct od warfare in general. Since St Augustine we have always upheld the concept of a ‘just war’, and the right of people and nations to take up arms in certain extreme circumstances of oppression, but even this concept has waned since humankind unleashed the atomic bomb and we finally had to confront the utter destruction and annihilation that human beings could be capable of.

Modern Catholic questioning of the legitimacy of warfare began in earnest with Pope John XXIII, and St John Paul II was the first pontiff to ask the ultimate question – is there really any ever condition that meets the criteria of a ‘just war’?

Pope Francis may just have closed this door completely when in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti  he stated: “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”

Unfortunately, a pacifist position poses particular challenges for Catholics here in the UK, as so many of the country’s employers have either direct supply chains, or connections into the arms industry. (British Aerospace alone has more than 45,000 employees in the UK, many of whom will be Catholics).

In an ideal world the Catholic Church would simply be asking that no Catholic lays their hands upon any component that is designed exclusively for the purpose of killing another human being – a Christian precedent that has been set by the Quakers, Brethren, Mennonites, Anabaptists and others. Sadly, pacifism within UK Roman Catholicism is still confined to small groups such as Pax Christi and the Catholic Worker movement.

Rather shamefully there has been a recent tendency to dismiss Catholic pacifism as just a product of mid-20th century eco-awareness philosophies, but its roots go back to the very origins of the Christian faith, and to the teachings of Christ himself.

This is a powerful mandate for contemporary Christians, and for Catholics especially, to disengage from the complexities and contradictions of ‘just war’ theory and the hypocrisy of the arms trade, and simply state categorically that ours is a faith that hold no compromises when it comes to rejecting militarism and killing as a mechanism with which to solve our human differences.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian