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The British government has blocked almost one third of British military exports to Israel this year, citing possible threats to regional stability and fears the equipment might facilitate human rights violations.
According to official figures, the value of UK military sales arms to Israel declined by one third last year, and has fallen by a drastic 75 percent since 2005.
"There is evidence that the British government's export control policy to Israel may have been tightened up," said Parliament's new 2007 Strategic Export Controls report, issued by the Quadrapartite Commission, which comprises representatives from four ministries.
The change in policy, said the report, reflects a convergence of government attitudes with its own official guidelines.
The report comes amid a period of uncertainty in Anglo-Israeli relations.
While the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has voiced public support for Israel and has appointed several pro-Israel MPs to cabinet positions, he has also promoted a leading critic of US and Israeli policy, former UN deputy secretary-general Mark Malloch Brown, to a key Foreign Office post.
Outside of government, the opposition Liberal Democrat party has called for a rethinking of arms sales to Israel, while in May the UK's Legal Services Commission, the state agency that provides funding for attorney's fees for indigent defendants, agreed to underwrite the costs of litigation brought by a Palestinian man in a British court seeking a ban on arms sales to Israel.
The August 7 Quadripartite Committee report largely praised the government's overall handling of strategic exports but warned that the rapid pace of technological change and rising threat of terrorism required increased state vigilance.
"Any gaps in the legislation could have serious consequences for the UK," it concluded.
However, it criticized as "unclear" the British government's policies on arms sales to Israel.
While the "case-by-case" approach gave the government a "flexibility" that allowed a "latitude to adjust policy without the need for public explanation," its arms sales policies towards Israel were "neither transparent nor accountable," the panel found.
The committee asked that "the government explain its policy on licensing exports to Israel, Jordan or other countries in the Middle East and that it explain whether it has adjusted its policy since 1997 as events in the Occupied Territories and Middle East have unfolded."
"We further recommend that the government explain how it assesses whether there is a clear riskâ€š that a proposed export to Israel might be used for internal repression," it said.
Statistics published by the committee showed that arms exports to Israel totaled 14.5 million pounds last year (about $29 million), compared to GBP 22.5 million in 2005. Between 1997 and 2006 Britain granted Israel 1561 Standard Individual Export Licenses (SIELs) valued at GBP 113 million. During the same period it authorized 626 SIELs valued at GBP 136.5 million for shipment to Jordan.
However, over the last 10 years, 190 application for military sales to Israel have been prohibited, comprising 11 percent of all applications for sales of military equipment. During the same period, only two such applications were rejected for military and restricted goods bound for Jordan.
The British government reported it had approved 37 military SIELs to Israel in the first quarter of 2007 valued at GBP 1.5 million, a rate that if held constant throughout the year would cut British sales to Israel by three quarters since 2005.
The UK also blocked 11 SIELs to Israel in the first three months of 2007: three for airborne guidance systems, four for information security systems and equipment, one for munitions, one for fire control equipment, one for electronic components, and one for specialty aluminum alloys.
Three SIELs for the sale of radar and avionics guidance systems to a third country for use in aircraft destined for the IAF were blocked this year also.
The 14 rejected SIELs violated various "Consolidated EU and National Arms Licensing Criteria," the Foreign Office stated, citing concerns the shipments would not respect "human rights and the fundamental freedoms in the country of final destination," would worsen the "the internal situation in the country of final destination;" and would harm "regional peace, security and stability."
One SIEL was denied due to the "behavior of the buyer country with regard to the international community; in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law," while concerns the equipment would be "diverted" for non-approved uses or "re-exported under undesirable conditions" were cited in rejecting three SIELs.
The Foreign Office said in its annual human rights report to Parliament that "progress on improving the human rights situation" in Israel and the territories had been "limited."
Testifying before the committee on March 15, foreign secretary Margaret Beckett stated that the Foreign Office kept a "close eye" on the uses made by the IDF of British military equipment.
The then-foreign secretary said: "If we discovered that equipment had been sold to Israel and was being used contrary to agreed terms, we would regard that with grave concern and we would make sure we did not issue licenses for such equipment in the future."
Beckett said at the time that Britain's total arms sales to Israel were slight. "I believe something like 0.1% of Israel's total arms imports comes from the United Kingdom, and we have not sold main equipment like tanks or artillery or warships to Israel since 1997," she said, noting the Blair government had "visibly conformed" to EU guidelines not to sell equipment that might harm regional peace, security and stability in the Middle East.
During last year's Second Lebanon War, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat party urged the government to review its arms sales to Israel.
Sir Menzies Campbell said the government "must now comply with its own arms export rules and institute an immediate suspension of all UK arms exports to Israel."
Pressure is also being exerted through the courts to end arms sales to Israel.
Last November, Public Interest Lawyers, in cooperation with the Palestinian rights group, al-Haq, filed suit against the British government on behalf of Saleh Hasan of Bethlehem. Hasan claimed the sale of military goods to Israel violated British export guidelines and contributed to his "oppression" as a Palestinian by Israel.
Phil Shiner, head of Public Interest Lawyers, stated the crux of their case was whether the British government had met its own criteria about what it can and cannot do in terms of arms exports where there is a risk of internal repression in another country.
In May, a spokesman for the Legal Services Commission said Hasan's lawsuit was receiving legal aid as a test case.
"The fact that applicants may live abroad is not a factor under the legal aid scheme," he told The Times. "The key is whether the case involves issues of English law and will be tried in this jurisdiction."
The case is scheduled for a court hearing in October.
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