There is no doubt that the UK plays a major part in the global arms trade. According to a Commons Library Research Briefing published in January 2023, the UK is “the second largest exporter of defense items worldwide”. Whilst this might be an overstatement (given that China and Russia do not always declare exports) such a claim is based on the value of orders and contracts signed in 2021. From January 2013 to October 2023, UK arms exports worldwide are estimated to have been worth £50 billion. The Middle East has been the largest market for UK arms, with Israel being among its primary importers.
Such a trade is in spite of the fact that the UK is a signatory of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a treaty that seeks to prevent the illicit use of arms traded internationally. It is not surprising, then, that this aspect of the UK’s global trade as been heavily scrutinised by non-governmental organisations, including Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), concerned about its role in civilian deaths during armed conflicts, and with a special focus on Israel.
According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), in the last decade, the UK government has approved over 1,223 Single Individual Export Licenses (SIELs) for the sale of armed goods to Israel. These licenses have allowed UK arms manufacturers to sell specific quantities of military goods to Israel within certain designated time frames, amounting to a total value of £496 million. Notably, 2017 was the most profitable year, as SIELs issued that year for Israeli-bound exports reached an estimated £221 million.
This constitutes a significant escalation in the arms trade between the UK and Israel in recent years. Moreover, when it comes to Open Individual Export Licenses (OIELs), 71 have been approved for Israel over the last decade. OIELs allow for the unlimited export of controlled arms to a specific end-user over a sustained period. However, the UK government does not publish data on the value and quantity of arms being shipped under OIELs. For NGOs such as AOAV and CAAT, this lack of transparency has long been a significant cause for concern.
As for the nature of these exports, it appears the UK has supplied Israel often with high-value arms. For example, the items listed among these exports include aircraft, helicopters, drones (ML10) at some £125 million; technology (ML22) at £184 million; target acquisition, weapon control, and countermeasure systems (ML5) at £39 million; as well as grenades, bombs, missiles, and countermeasures (ML4) at £25 million.
In so doing, the UK appears to have played a major role in boosting Israel’s military arsenal, an arsenal which reportedly stands at an estimated 656 aircraft, 1015 drones, and 995 artillery units of various types.
What is the controversy behind UK arms sales to Israel?
Within the last decade, a growing controversy has emerged regarding the UK’s arms sales to Israel. This is in main part because over 3,000 Palestinian civilians are believed to have been killed by IDF attacks between January 2013 to September 2023 with 1,329 of these casualties being women and children.
Specifically, during the conflict in Gaza in 2014, it has been estimated that Israeli air and artillery strikes killed 1,462 Palestinian civilians. According to Human Rights Watch in 2014, the “reckless” IDF attacks on civilians that year constituted a war crime under international humanitarian law. This claim was supported by a United Nations Independent Inquiry in 2015, which found credible evidence suggesting that war crimes had been committed by both sides in 2014
The number of civilian Gaza dead has risen rapidly following October 7th when Hamas launched a surprise invasion of southern Israel, resulting in over 1,400 Israeli deaths and 240 people being taken hostage. In response, members of the government of Israel has vowed to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth” by launching retaliatory air strikes and artillery bombardments on Gaza, which have killed an estimated 10,022 Palestinians, with women and children constituting 67% of these fatalities, as of November 6th, 2023.
When it comes to the UK’s role in this conflict, recent reports suggest Israel has used UK-supplied weapons in attacks on Gaza civilians during conflicts with Hamas. A review conducted by the UK Business Department in 2014 identified 12 UK licenses for arms that may have been used in that year’s Gaza bombardment. However, while such claims are concerning, no independent inquiry has conclusively established such a direct connection.
Despite such an failure of the UK government to align arms exports with concerns about the protection of civilians in armed conflict, sustained arms exports to Israel still raise significant legal and ethical questions. Is, indeed, the UK in violation of its obligations under the ATT and its own Strategic Export Licensing Criteria (SELC)?
It may well be so. For example, in terms of the SELC, Criteria Two mandates that the UK government withhold arms sales if there is evidence of international humanitarian law violations being committed by the end-user. Such a stipulation appears particularly pertinent to Israel’s actions in Gaza since October 7th with, according to UN experts, the obstruction of humanitarian aid and restricting access to basic necessities such as food and water violating international humanitarian law.
Furthermore, the high number of women and children among civilian casualties in Gaza over the past decade is of particular concern given that under Article 7 of the ATT, it states that the UK is obliged to consider the risk posed to such vulnerable actors before exporting arms to an end-user.
Such issues with the oversight of export licenses were highlighted in a recent report submitted by the Committee on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) in 2022, which noted a rise in the number of companies failing to comply with UK arms controls. Moreover, the CAEC report concluded that there is an overall lack of transparency and information in annual reports submitted by the UK government regarding adherence to and the enforcement of arms export controls. Additionally, in 2021, the CAEC was informed by Control Arms UK, an NGO advocating for adherence to the ATT, that the UK ceased requesting end-use assurances from Israel after discovering a breach of conditions on UK-supplied tank components in 2000. This could suggest a potential lapse in enforcing export control regulations, which raises concerns about the accountability mechanisms in place to prevent their misuse.
Furthermore, in 2022, when the UK government was requested to provide written evidence concerning arms exports and questioned about potential concerns over exports to Israel, it stated that all “licenses are kept under careful and continual review as standard and we are able to suspend, refuse or revoke licenses as circumstances require.”
It should also be noted too that, in 2022, the UK signed a political commitment in Dublin – along with 86 other states – to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Despite such a national political commitment, it is clear that this does not extend to international opprobrium of Israeli use.
It is important to state here that the UK is not a significant outlier when compared with the practices of the US and EU, who also export substantial amounts of arms to Middle Eastern countries. For example, the US has provided Israel with most of its modern military equipment which, as of October 2023 alone, includes shipments of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopters, KC-46A Aerial Refueling Tankers, and precision-guided munitions valued at a combined total of $23.8 billion. Meanwhile, EU member states have also provided Israel with military goods ranging from warships, tanks, as well as aircraft. Despite concerns from the international community, the EU and the US have justified arms exports to the region on the grounds of national security, foreign policy objectives, and economic interests while claiming to balance these with their human rights considerations and obligations under international law.
What is being done to address this issue?
As concerns over human rights violations by Israel against Palestinian civilians grow, NGOs such as CAAT and Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) have urged the UK to halt arms exports to Israel. However, getting the UK to take such action has produced mixed results in previous years.
On the one hand, in 2014 the UK government announced that it would “suspend” arms exports to Israel if it failed to uphold a ceasefire agreement reached in Gaza. Additionally, the UK has recognized Israel’s breaches of international law in the past, particularly regarding its illegal settlement of Palestinian land in 2020.
On the other hand, the UK has long been a firm supporter of Israel’s right to self-defense. For example, when the UK government announced that it would suspend arms exports to Israel in 2014, Prime Minister David Cameron as well as the then foreign secretary Philip Hammond, opposed this decision with officials from Downing Street arguing that Israel had a “legitimate right to self-defense”. Moreover, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has, after the October 7th invasion, reiterated the UK’s support for Israel’s right to “defend itself”, which included deploying the Royal Navy to the eastern Mediterranean.
Furthermore, previous parliamentary efforts to suspend arms exports have failed. For example, in July 2021, an attempt was made to introduce Parliamentary Bill 144, which aimed to restrict exports to Israel. Yet, by 2022, the bill was prorogued, halting its progress.
Another possible reason why the UK government has not taken firmer action regarding its arms sales to Israel is due to a strong economic relationship concerning areas such as technology, investment, research, and security. For example in 2018 trade between the UK and Israel reached an all-time high of more than $10 billion (£8.2 billion). In fact, since 2019, Elbit Systems, Israel’s leading arms producer, has set up nine manufacturing locations and offices in the UK.
It is worth noting, however, that, in light of the recent violence occurring in Gaza, over 150 protesters formed a blockade outside one of these manufacturing sites, demanding the UK to “stop arming Israel” signalling growing public dissent against UK arms sales to Israel.
In conclusion, the UK has, as a significant player in the global arms trade and a key supplier to Israel, faced substantial scrutiny regarding its alleged role in facilitating civilian casualties in Gaza. While the UK government has maintained that its arms export controls are under continual review, recent reports have highlighted issues of non-compliance among UK companies and the potential use of UK arms in Gaza against civilians.
Furthermore, public protests against such exports underscore discontent with the UK arms industry. Ultimately, the UK finds itself in a debate that pits economic interests and national security considerations against moral imperatives and international legal obligations, a balancing act that remains precarious amidst ongoing conflict and humanitarian concerns.
To this end, Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), says: “AOAV calls for a comprehensive inquiry to examine whether the UK’s arming of Israel stands in violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. It is imperative to ascertain if these actions are congruent with the UK’s own commitments. The international community, as well as the citizens of the UK, deserve transparency and accountability in this matter. The consequences of these arms sales are not just diplomatic rhetoric; they are measured in human lives. It’s time our leaders reassess their role and responsibilities on the global stage to ensure that their practices do not undermine the very principles the UK government has pledged to uphold.”
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