End confusion in UK policy on arms exports to Israel


In the light of recent events in Libya and elsewhere, the latest report from the House of Commons Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) rightly questions UK policy to date in exporting arms to Middle Eastern and North African countries where there is a clear risk they could be used for internal repression.

The report also has some stinging comments about UK policy on arms sales to Israel. Over a decade ago, in line with the UK’s longstanding policy that UK arms exports should not be used for internal repression or external aggression, the then Labour government secured a written assurance from Israel that military equipment imported from the UK would not be used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Since then, however, there have been a number of incidents in which UK supplied arms and components have indeed been used by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, the likelihood that arms exported from the UK were used during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008/09 as part of Operation Cast Lead directly led to the revocation of five UK arms export licences in 2009/10.

However, in the absence of either an arms embargo or clear monitoring mechanisms, concern remained widespread that the UK all too often appeared to be left trying to shut the stable door after the horse had bolted as far as arms sales to Israel were concerned. As a result, the last CAEC Report published in March 2010 specifically urged the government to learn whatever lessons were needed in the issuing of licences to ensure that arms exported to Israel from the UK are not used in the Occupied Territories in future.

The government response to the committee came after the 2010 general election in the UK and appeared to show a surprising about-turn in UK policy. Ministers now stated that the UK does not, after all, have a policy precluding use of UK arms exports by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, the committee was told that the UK government would look at licence applications on a “case by case” basis in accordance with recognised EU and national criteria on arms exports.

Central to these criteria, of course, is the requirement that arms exports should not be used for “external aggression or internal repression”. But wasn’t the original prohibition of the use of UK arms in the illegally Occupied Territories precisely about this? The UK government’s policy appeared to have assumed a circular logic of which Joseph Heller would have been proud. With stinging understatement, the CAEC describes the UK government’s position as “confused”.

So the CAEC is now asking the government to end the confusion by telling the rest of us just what arms from the UK it is OK for Israel to use in the West Bank or Gaza without running the clear risk that internal repression or external aggression is involved. On past form, I am not holding my breath for the response. Something tells me we won’t get any examples at all. Instead we will simply be told that applications are considered “on a case by case basis”. Catch 22. Again.

All this has gone on long enough. All peoples have the right to self defence. That applies to Israel and to the Palestinians just as much as anyone else. But people are now rightly demanding that the UK withholds arms exports from governments which we know are prepared to turn them on either their own people or aggressively on their neighbours, whatever they may say before then. Parliament’s Committee on Arms Exports is also right to have published a list of the kind of arms recently exported from the UK to a number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa which could be used for internal repression.

A list of similar items of equipment exported to Israel in 2009 and 2010 is available online here. We should not let Israel have them.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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