Arms to Israel

Hugh Miles · The UK-Israel Arms Trade

The UK supplies Israel with a steady stream of arms on a 'case-by-case basis', although none of them are supposed to be used inside the Occupied Territories. In practice there is no way of knowing what Israel does with the kit it buys, so British companies are restricted from selling things, including fighter parts and missile systems, that have been used in the Occupied Territories in the past. But under the current rules the US can still tranship this kind of hardware to Israel through the UK.

'The UK government is keen to maintain good relations with the US defence industry so they leave it to the exporter to decide what is to be transhipped,' Ian Prichard from the Campaign against the Arms Trade told me. 'Since Israel is not one of the blacklisted nations for arms exports, apart from Category A and B goods which are very few, if the US considers it is OK to export something to Israel then it is OK for us.'

Category A goods include cluster munitions and equipment designed for execution and torture; Category B includes most small arms, long range missiles and unmanned air vehicles. All other military equipment is Category C, which means the US can still export to Israel the weapons that have wreaked most of the destruction in the Occupied Territories in past conflicts.

'UK government conditions on transhipments for Category C goods are pretty meaningless as long as the goods were exported from the country of origin in accordance with local laws, they remain on board a vessel or aircraft for as long as they remain in the UK and their original destination remains unchanged,' Prichard says. 'But there is a tighter restriction on arms going from our own companies to Israel because of extreme embarrassment about these weapons being used in the Occupied Territories in the past.'

In 2002 it emerged that armoured personnel carriers supplied by the UK had been used in the Occupied Territories. Jack Straw told Parliament that

The Israeli Foreign Ministry has said that the assurances given on 29 November 2000 were in good faith, and offered an explanation based on operational need about the use of the armoured personnel carriers in the occupied territories. They did not however accept that this was a breach of the assurances given and they have not committed to stop using the armoured personnel carriers in the occupied territories. In the light of this response we will (a) continue to assess export licence applications for the proposed export of controlled goods to Israel on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria; but (b) in so doing, we will no longer take the Israeli assurances given on 29 November 2000 into account.

Since then Israel has continued to use British arms in the Occupied Territories and Britain has continued to turn a blind eye to British arms and components being re-exported to Israel via the US. 'Transhipments are not the only loophole,' Prichard says. 'Even though the UK would not directly ship F-16 parts to Israel they allow them to be shipped to the USA and incorporated into F-16s and then re-exported to Israel. So there is also an ambiguity there.' In 2009, David Miliband said that the F-16s and Apache helicopters used by Israeli forces during the 2008-9 Gaza War 'almost certainly' contained British-supplied components.

Five UK arms export licences to Israel have been revoked since the Gaza War. A complete embargo on all arms and components going to Israel is an unlikely prospect, however. In January 2010 the foreign office minister Ivan Lewis said that there would 'not be any arms embargo against Israel' as the UK government was 'firmly of the view that Israel faces real threats'. William Hague and Liam Fox, who has said he wants ‘to increase Britain’s share of the world defence market’, are unlikely to disagree.


  • 16 August 2010 at 9:13pm
    pinhut says:
    But wait, this is scandalous. Oh, hold on, the British invented hypocrisy.

  • 16 August 2010 at 10:02pm
    Oliver Miles says:
    Another curiosity in this story is that during the war in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon, after President George W. Bush had apologised for failing to inform Britain about US flights passing through British airspace and using British bases while carrying bombs to Israel, Scottish opinion about the use of Prestwick airport was so inflamed that the shipments were re-routed through England - probably the first example since the Union when English and Scottish defence and foreign policy were so sharply divided.

  • 17 August 2010 at 6:18pm
    bluecat says:
    Can anyone explain why we make "cluster munitions and equipment designed for execution and torture" at all, irrespective of who we export them to?

    • 18 August 2010 at 12:47pm
      outofdate says: @ bluecat
      This is a celebrated account of the torture business: