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Legal pressures mount on Germany to cut aid to Israel

April 10, 2024

Multiple legal cases have been filed against Germany trying to force the government to cease military support for Israel. Germany says its policies are fully lawful.

Israel I Scholz visits Benjamin Netanyahu
Olaf Scholz visits Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2023Image: Kobi Gideon (GPO)/Handout/Anadolu/picture alliance

Months of street protests have failed to persuade German policymakers to shift their stance on Israel. Increasingly, pro-Palestinian organizers are trying the legal route, in hopes of having more success.

Last week, Berlin-based lawyers filed an "urgent appeal" on behalf of Palestinians against the German government in a German court, according to a statement by the European Legal Support Center, a nonprofit aligned with the Palestinian solidarity movement.

The suit alleges that German "weapons are being used to commit grave violations of international law, such as the crime of genocide and war crimes." The plaintiffs are calling on the courts to order a halt to these deliveries.

On Friday, the government's deputy spokesperson, Christiane Hoffmann, told reporters she would have to follow up later with a response to the latest legal action.

The case goes hand-in-hand with criminal charges filed on behalf of Palestinians in February, which specifically targeted high-ranking members of the German government, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and Economy Minister Robert Habeck, whose cabinet portfolios are most responsible for approving weapons export licenses.

Other countries, such as Canada and the Netherlands, have taken steps to review their military support for Israel.

Berlin rejects claim Germany aids Gaza “genocide”

'War weapons' versus other kinds

The latest effort, against the German government as a whole, specifically goes after "weapons of war." The German laws covering export licenses to third countries distinguish between those and "other military equipment." "War weapons" include tanks and fighter jets, which must meet a higher bar to receive export approval.

"Other military equipment," as defined by government terminology, could include equipment like helmets, body armor, medical supplies, and training resources.

Over a 20-year period spanning from 2003 to 2023, German governments approved nearly €3.3 billion ($3.6 billion) in arms export licenses to Israel, according to Forensis, a Berlin-based investigatory nonprofit. More than half of that is listed as "war weapons," including big-ticket items such as submarines.

Forensis is aligned with those filing the suit, but its report is based on open-source data from the German government and other public sources, such as SIPRI, a conflict research institute. In a recent SIPRI report, Germany was listed as Israel's second-biggest supplier of weapons, behind the United States, between 2019 and 2023.

The two countries account for nearly all of Israel's weapons imports. In 2022 and 2023, the split between the two was almost 50-50.

In the latest five-year period, the Forensis report shows that the value of "actual exports" of war weapons to Israel is "redacted" or "undisclosed," to "avoid the 'identification of relevant companies' and to 'protect trade and business secrets,'" according to the report, quoting from a German government report from 2020.

The German government has approved almost all export licenses to Israel since 2003. In 2023, the total value of approved arms export licenses jumped about ten-fold over the previous year, and exceeds the 20-year average.

German submarines in Eckernförde, Germany
Germany has supplied heavy weapons like submarines to Israel in the last few yearsImage: Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

Total value only part of the story

Naval vessels, armored vehicles, explosive ordnance, and tank and aircraft parts are among some of the equipment Germany approved for Israel over the two-decade period, the kinds of "war weapons" that the latest suit goes after.

The plaintiffs allege these kinds of licenses continued unabated following the Hamas terror attack on October 7, which prompted Israel's unprecedented retaliation in the Gaza Strip and is the focus of allegations of genocide and other war crimes.

Although German officials so far have little to say on the matter, the government's defense before the International Court of Justice in The Hague this week provides insight into how it may fight the lawsuits pending in its own courts.

Though the cases are separate, both Nicaragua at the international level and Palestinian plaintiffs at the national level want Germany's support for Israel, and weapons exports in particular, to stop, due to their alleged support of genocide and violation of international law.

German officials do not dispute the overall export figures, though they take issue with how they have been characterized. Legal representatives for Germany at the ICJ portrayed the case filed against by Nicaragua as having "no basis in fact or law."

"The picture presented by Nicaragua is at best inaccurate; and at worst, it is a deliberate misrepresentation of the actual situation," Christian Tams, a professor of international law at the University of Glasgow, told the panel of ICJ judges on Tuesday.

He presented breakdowns showing a tapering-off of approvals since Israel's campaign in Gaza began. He went on to suggest that what was approved and delivered were not war weapons, but could only be used for training and support.

Germany and Israel's "close ties," Tams said, are "based on a robust legal framework that assesses export licensing requests on a case-by-case basis, and that ensures compliance with national law and Germany's international obligations."

Tania Freiin von Uslar-Gleichen (L), and Christian J. Tam, Professor of International Law at the University of Glasgow (R) attend the hearing on Nicaragua's claim that Germany aids Israel's ongoing genocide
Germany defended itself against Nicaragua's claim in The Hague on TuesdayImage: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu/picture alliance

Protest from within

The Forensis report appears to support these claims, at least in part, showing more approval for "other military equipment" than "war weapons," especially in 2023, though the redacted and undisclosed figures concerning "actual exports" of war weapons are not counted in these numbers.

To decide whether the suits against Germany have merit, courts will likely have to bore into these figures very precisely, to determine if Germany's differentiation between kinds of military support accurately portrays their actual ability to abet possible war crimes. Definitive rulings are unlikely to come anytime soon, though an initial judgement in the ICJ matter could be made within weeks.

Until then, the German government may be facing a revolt from within. Ahead of the ICJ case, several hundred civil servants allegedly submitted an anonymous letter of protest, according to reports in left-wing domestic media that followed one in Al Jazeera English.

"Israel is committing crimes in Gaza that are in clear contradiction to international law and thus to the Basic Law," the statement reads, referring to Germany's quasi-constitution. "Therefore, it is our duty as federal employees to criticize this policy of the federal government and to remind it that the federal government must strictly adhere to the constitution and international law."

DW could not independently verify the veracity of the letter. A spokesperson for the Economy Ministry said, "we generally do not comment on open letters." A spokesperson for the Foreign Office confirmed that a communication was received claiming to be from members of the German civil service.

No further details were provided, other than a reiteration of the German government's rejection of accusations that its support for Israel violates either national or international law.

Edited by: Milan Gagnon.

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