UK Arms for Israel? – No Problem

In May 2008 I wrote to my local MP, who happens to be Nick Clegg the leader of the Liberal Democrats, asking him to put pressure on the government to halt its sales of military equipment to Israel. I also asked him to make this part of his own party’s policies. I cited some of the numerous condemnations of the Israeli government’s actions against the Palestinians and against Gaza in particular. A drawn out correspondence has followed between myself and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, with Mr Clegg passing letters between us. Apart from an initial comment saying "we believe that the Government must initiate a wholesale review of the arms trade between the United Kingdom and Israel", Mr Clegg did not engage in the exchange.

Mr Miliband attempts to justify the ongoing sale of military equipment to Israel by saying that "we do not believe the current situation in the region would be improved by imposing an arms embargo on Israel", and by saying that all export licence applications are individually assessed and that this includes taking into account the fact that Israel has breached its assurance that UK originated equipment would not be used in the Occupied Territories.

Mr Miliband also assures me that they follow the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria [1]. Of these 8 criteria I would reckon Israel fails at least 4:

  • No. 2: … if there is a clear risk that the proposed export might be used for internal repression …

  • No. 3: … which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination.

  • No. 4: … the existence or likelihood of armed conflict between the recipient and another country; a claim against the territory of a neighbouring country which the recipient has in the past tried or threatened to pursue by means of force; whether the equipment would be likely to be used other than for the legitimate national security and defence of the recipient; the need not to affect adversely regional stability in any significant way …

  • No. 6: … its compliance with its international commitments, in particular on the non-use of force, including under international humanitarian law applicable to international and non-international conflicts; its commitment to non-proliferation and other areas of arms control and disarmament …

Apparently the UK government doesn’t think that Israel fails these criteria, despite the Israeli governments armed occupation of the Occupied Territories; its repression of the Palestinian people; it’s attacks upon Lebanon and others; its occupation of the Golan Heights and so on. You can see some of the equipment the UK government allows to be sold to Israel in its annual reports [2]. In 2008 255 new licences were granted, worth nearly £31 million, 15 were refused and 1 revoked. Items licensed include components for assault rifles, components for combat aircraft, components for semi-automatic pistols, equipment for the production of unmanned air vehicles and many more. The 2009 report is not yet available, but the quarterly reports for the first half of the year indicate less new licences. Licences are usually valid for 2 to 3 years.

How is it that the UK government’s licence granting process approves such licences to Israel, given the above criteria? How does this process work? Can it be challenged?

After repeated enquiries on this front it seems that records of licensing decisions are stored electronically, but are not all available to the public. I was informed that parts of them can be viewed via a searchable database [3], but I could glean no more from this than was available in the government reports. Licensing decisions are reviewed by the Committee on Arms Export Controls, a Parliamentary Select Committee. Select Committees are apparently selected by the Select Committee of Selection, no really I’m not making this up. They too cannot publish information without the government’s permission. Reading their latest report [4] it seems that this committee is satisfied with the government’s assurances on this issue.

So apparently we have a system whereby the UK Government can approve export licences for military products, apparently in defiance of export control criteria. It is not possible for a member of the public to see how they justify this unless they choose to tell you and a committee of MP’s set up to review these decisions doesn’t seem to be challenging them.

You can add this to your list of reasons to vote for none of the biggest political parties next election. I recommend the following: look at the manifestos of all the parties standing in your region and vote for the one that you agree with most; don’t vote for the main parties, their track records speak for themselves on this and any number of other issues.


1: Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, http://www.fco.gov.uk/resources/en/pdf/3849543/eu-arms-export

2: Stategic Export Controls, http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/about-us/publications-and-documents/publications1/annual-reports/export-controls1

3: Strategic Export Controls: Reports and Statistics, https://www.exportcontroldb.berr.gov.uk/eng/fox/sdb/SDBHOME

4: Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmquad/178/178.pdf


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