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UK Revokes Arms Export Licenses to Israel
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Rachel A. Weise

Following public outcry from British citizens and members of Parliament, the United Kingdom in July revoked five licenses for the export of arms components to Israel. The British decision could encourage other European Union (EU) members to review their current Israel export policy, a European Commission (EC) official said. According to a British government official, an EU working group will meet in Brussels Sept. 4 to discuss exports to Israel.

The July 13 British decision came after a lengthy review of all arms-related exports to Israel, following what the United Kingdom has called Israel’s “disproportionate” actions in Gaza in January. The licenses are widely believed to be related to Israel’s Saar-class Navy missile boats that fired on the Gaza coastline to support ground activities during Operation Cast Lead, the code name for Israel’s Gaza offensive to stop Hamas rocket fire. But the British official simply said that this was “speculation” and added that the government has not released information regarding the specific export licenses revoked.

Palestinian officials say that more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the conflict and that most of them were noncombatants. Israel estimates that fewer than 1,200 were killed and claims that most were affiliated with Hamas, an organization that Israel and the United States have labeled a terrorist movement.

Following Israel’s 22-day campaign in Gaza, the British Parliament, particularly the Committees on Arms Export Control (CAEC), demanded that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office review export licenses to Israel to ensure that no British components were used in Gaza. The review led the British government to revoke five of its 182 extant licenses to export arms to Israel.

Under EU policy, a member state that revokes an export license must circulate its reasons for doing so among the other 26 members. That requirement raises the possibility that other EU members will follow the United Kingdom’s lead. According to the EC official, although the United Kingdom’s action does not create a legal obligation on the other countries to follow suit, it is now “incumbent on EU members to actively consider this” as they evaluate their own export licenses. The purpose of the EU Code of Conduct, which regulates export policy, is to “harmonize” export practices across member states, the official said in an Aug. 8 interview. He said, “We take the Code of Conduct very seriously. That’s why we want to harmonize our [trade] practices…. Unless people want to challenge the U.K., probably, the EU will adopt those measures.” But because the specific exports in question were unique to the United Kingdom, there could be questions about the applicability of the British precedent, he said.

Israel has issued statements saying that the British decision will not have an effect on its military. The United Kingdom is not one of Israel’s major arms suppliers. Israel receives the vast majority of its arms imports from the United States, according to an Amnesty International report released in February.

Prior to the decision and in response to the CAEC’s sustained calls for a review of export licenses, Foreign Secretary David Miliband released a written ministerial statement to Parliament. In the April 21 statement, Miliband said all export licenses are assessed against British and EU criteria, which include the EU Code of Conduct and other relevant export policies. Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7 of the code apply to the Israeli case, Miliband said. Criterion 2 prohibits exports where there is a “clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression,” while Criterion 3 limits exports that would “provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination.” Criterion 4 is related to the “preservation of regional peace, security and stability,” and Criterion 7 requires that exports have a low risk of being “diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions.” The licenses and the review process are not public, which makes it difficult to assess the vigor with which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office evaluates export licenses, said Roy Isbister, an arms transfer analyst at Saferworld, a London-based nongovernmental organization.

Miliband’s statement addressed a variety of claims made about Israel’s use of British exports in Gaza, saying that all existing licenses would be reviewed. He said that most of the claims were unsupported but also said “there are credible reports” about Israel using British components for a 76 mm gun outfitted on Saar 4.5-class vessels, fueling speculation that these components were exported under the recently revoked licenses.

Immediately following the decision, the British Embassy in Israel issued a statement saying that termination of these licenses was not a partial arms embargo, but part of the United Kingdom’s standard export review process. According to the July 13 statement, the United Kingdom also revoked a number of licenses to Russia and Georgia after last year’s conflict in Georgia.

Although the United Kingdom frequently reviews its export licenses, the CAEC’s continued call for a license review and the general outcry from British citizens about Operation Cast Lead contributed to the unusual level of publicity surrounding the license termination, Isbister said.

A similar situation occurred in 2002, when the United Kingdom reviewed its exports to Israel after Israel seized the town of Jenin in the West Bank in response to the second intifada, a Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. The British Parliament and citizenry strongly protested British arms exports to Israel when they learned that Israel had sent into the Palestinian territories armored personnel carriers that had been built on the chassis of old British Centurion tanks. In a letter to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Nov. 29, 2000, Israel had pledged that “no UK originated equipment nor any UK originated systems/sub-systems/components are used as part of the Israel Defence Force’s activities in the Territories.” After the 2002 events, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary at the time, said the United Kingdom would no longer accept Israeli assurances and that the United Kingdom would evaluate each export against EU and British licensing criteria. This resulted in a number of refusals to export items to Israel based on Criteria 2, 3, 4, and 7, the British official said. This period of increased scrutiny apparently ended after a few months, in July 2002, when the United Kingdom allowed the export of F-16 components to the United States although the United States exports F-16s to Israel.

This page was corrected on January 13, 2010. The original article failed to note that the EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports was replaced on December 8, 2008, by the EU Common Position (2008/944/CFSP) defining rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment.

Posted: September 4, 2009