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Fact check: is Australia exporting weapons to Israel? | Australian politics

PoliticsFact check: is Australia exporting weapons to Israel? | Australian politics

It is one of the most heavily contested areas of political debate in Australia’s response to the war in Gaza.

The Greens have repeatedly demanded that the Australian government “immediately stop military exports to Israel”. The Greens senator David Shoebridge told 2HD radio last week: “To Australia’s shame, we continue to export weapons parts and weapons to Israel.”

The government, however, has stated emphatically that Australia is not exporting weapons or ammunition to Israel, and has ramped up accusations that the Greens have been spreading “misinformation”. So what are the facts?

Defence officials told a Senate estimates hearing on 5 June that eight permits for defence-related exports to Israel had been approved since the conflict escalated on 7 October.

These are six more permits than previously known.

Does that mean Australia has sent weapons to Israel?

No. Permits are required for a range of goods, software and technology that are regulated under Australian export control legislation.

The government has previously been criticised for a lack of transparency about exactly what items have been approved. In the past, it has outlined the types of things like radios that “can” be included.

However, at the latest Senate hearing officials gave their most detailed account yet of the specific permits issued since 7 October in an attempt to allay community concerns.

So what were the permits for?

Hugh Jeffrey, a deputy secretary at the Department of Defence, explained that contrary to the common understanding of the term “export”, some items “require an export permit to be returned to the destination country for repair or overhaul and then return back to Australia after that”.

Officials said that of the eight permits issued since 7 October, seven were to allow for Australian equipment to be sent to Israel for repairs before returning to Australia. The one remaining permit was for “a non‑lethal item” to return to Israel.

The Labor senator, Jenny McAllister, representing the defence minister at the hearing, said she wanted to “be very clear” with the public that the permits issued since the previous Senate estimates hearing were solely “for items used by Australian defence and law enforcement and will return to Australia”.

Did Australia send $1.5m worth of ‘arms and ammunition’ to Israel in February?

This is a claim based on export data. The Greens said in a statement in April: “Just published data from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows that in February 2024 alone Australia directly exported over $1.5m in ‘arms and ammunition’ to Israel … Make no mistake: the Albanese Labor government by permitting these exports to Israel is complicit in the genocide that is occurring.”

But the first assistant secretary at the Department of Defence, David Nockels, told the hearing: “We have assured ourselves that what has been publicly put forward in the media is in fact incorrect and that it is not arms and ammunition. The most recent figure … $1.5m is for a single item – that is a return-to-Australia-item that falls under the category of what we’ve just been talking about in that it supports Australian defence capability.”

The government hasn’t revealed precisely what this item is – but emphasises that it is only in Israel temporarily and that it will come back to Australia, rather than being an “export”.

Are Australian companies supplying parts that go into F-35 fighter aircraft?

Yes. A now-deleted paragraph on a Lockheed Martin website said: “As a programme partner, Australian businesses are supplying components for the entire F-35 fleet, not just Australian aircraft. Every F-35 built contains some Australian parts and components.”

In the latest Senate estimates hearing, defence officials confirmed that Australian businesses continued to contribute to the supply chain for items used in F-35 aircraft, although they stressed this was a longstanding arrangement going back about 20 years and that all such parts were “exported to a central repository in the United States”. To date, they said, Australian companies had “been able to contribute in the global supply chain for the Joint Strike Fighter program to a value now of over $4.6bn”.

In an operational update in November, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces confirmed F-35 planes were being used to “strike terror targets and assist ground forces in very close proximity strikes”. In February, a Dutch appeals court found it was likely that F-35s were being used in attacks on Gaza, and a “clear risk” that parts exported from the Netherlands were “used in serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

When pressed by the Greens to confirm F-35 fighters were being used to bomb targets in Gaza, Australian officials insisted Australia was contributing to a “global supply chain” that was “directed by the United States” and that they “can’t speak for the IDF and how it engages in force deployment”. That prompted Shoebridge to tell the Senate committee there was “a moral vacuum at the heart of our export weapons scheme”.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, later defended the arrangement, telling parliament Australia was “one of 18 like-minded nations including Norway, Denmark, Canada and [the] Netherlands, [that] operate the F-35 and contribute to its global supply chain”. He reiterated Australia’s calls for a ceasefire in Gaza.

What about trade in the other direction? Are Israeli defence contractors supplying to Australia?

Yes. In February, the Israeli company Elbit Systems announced that it had secured a $A917m contract to supply systems for use in Australia’s new infantry fighting vehicles.

This flows from an Australian government announcement in August last year that the primary contractor for those vehicles would be the South Korean firm Hanwha (rather than the German rival bidder).

The defence industry minister, Pat Conroy, told parliament the infantry fighting vehicles were “being built in Australia for use by the Australian army”. Conroy denied direct involvement in the Elbit sub-contract and said: “Hanwha Defence Australia has contracted to Elbit to build the turrets of those vehicles in Australia without the commonwealth being a party to that contract.”

Meanwhile, Australia and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding on “defence industry cooperation” in October 2017, but a freedom of information application for the document was recently rejected, so its contents are unclear.

Is the government making any policy changes?

McAllister said the government continued to “calibrate” its approach to defence exports to reflect the “changing and quite challenging” circumstances in the Middle East, and flagged the possibility earlier permits might be revoked.

She said the government was “scrutinising pre-existing export permits to Israel to ensure that they align with this calibrated approach”. It is not yet clear what this means in practical terms.

The Greens maintain that they will continue to call for an end to all two-way military trade with Israel.

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