LONDON – Despite consistent support from Prime Minister David Cameron and recently appointed Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond for Israel’s right to defend itself, growing concern among some ministers over the direction of the Gaza war has prompted a review by the British government’s Business Innovation and Skills Department (BIS) of all UK export licenses for arms sales to the Jewish state.
The news slipped out of the department in response to a front-page story in The Independent, a constant critic of Israel, claiming “Revealed: Britain’s ‘role’ in arming Israel,” with a subhead saying there was evidence that weapons with components made in Britain were being “used against Gaza.”
The paper said it had seen documents disclosing that arms export licenses totaling £42 million had been granted to 130 UK defense manufacturers since 2010 and that the items ranged from weapon control and targeting systems to ammunition, drones and armored vehicles.
Two companies had supplied components for the Hermes drone, which the paper said the Israel Air Force had described as the backbone of its targeting and reconnaissance missions, while another had provided parts for Israel’s main battle tank, the Merkava.
The Independent added that Israel was one of Britain’s biggest clients for dual-use equipment, items that could be used for both civilian and military purposes.
Using Freedom of Information requests, the lobbying group Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said it had discovered that out of the £42m. worth of exports on the “military list,” about £10m. had been licensed over the past 12 months.
For the first time, CAAT said, it had found out the full extent of military-only sales and the names of companies granted export licenses by BIS. Dozens of UK defense companies have deals with Israeli partners for items including bullet-proof garments to naval gun parts.
However, as The Independent noted, “the sales are entirely lawful.”
According to recent statistics, in 2013, Britain sold Israel just over £6m. worth of direct arms as well as nearly £4m. worth of items for Israel to re-export. Still, Britain buys more Israeli military technology and hardware than it sells to Israel.
Critics of Israel’s actions have called on the British government to determine whether the IDF has used any UK-made weapons or components in Gaza.
One Labor MP, Katy Clark, who serves on the parliamentary committee overseeing arms sales, argued that the government was trying to bury its head in the sand over the issue, adding it was a “shameful approach” that made the government look as though it had something to hide.
The paper claimed the “evidence exists” that British-made components feature in weapons being deployed during Operation Protective Edge, though it gave no details other than to mention the use of drones.
In response to The Independent’s article, a spokesman for BIS acknowledged that it was reviewing all licenses to export to Israel.
“All applications for export licenses are assessed on a case by case basis against strict criteria.
We will not issue a license if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression, or if there is a clear risk that it would provoke or prolong conflict,” the spokesman added.
The head of BIS is a leading Liberal Democrat cabinet minister, Vince Cable, one of the partners in David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government. And while ministers are required by collective responsibility not to stray into other departmental briefs, no one could ignore the fact that his party leader, Deputy Premier Nick Clegg, became the first minister to break ranks, calling Israel’s response to Hamas “disproportionate” and in an article in Saturday’s Guardian telling Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that now was the time to talk to Hamas.