Britain defends 'careful' arms sales policy amid calls to stop supplying Israel

PM Rishi Sunak stands by export regime after three UK nationals killed in attack on aid convoy

A protest in Edinburgh, Scotland, after the destruction of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza in an Israeli raid. Getty Images
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The UK defended its arms export policy on Wednesday amid calls to halt sales to Israel after three British aid workers were killed in an air strike in Gaza.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Britain stood by a “careful export licensing regime” that has so far put up no obstacle to arms sales to Israel.

Mr Sunak said there were “procedures that we'll always follow” but he had told his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must defend itself according to the rules of war.

British nationals James Kirby, John Chapman and James Henderson were killed in an Israeli attack on their World Central Kitchen aid convoy on Monday.

The UK summoned Israel’s ambassador and demanded an investigation into what Israel said was a “grave mistake”.

But there were calls to go further by ending UK arms sales to Israel, which the government has so far insisted are fairly small and do not risk breaching the laws of war.

“When the UK talks about not being a large exporter then the obvious response to that is: Why are you giving yourself all this grief?” arms control expert Roy Isbister of campaign group Saferworld told The National.

“If it’s no big deal to you, no big deal to Israel, then you can get yourself on the side of the angels on this.”

Peter Ricketts, the UK’s national security adviser from 2010 to 2012, said the situation had now “reached that point” where arms sales should be halted.

“I think there’s abundant evidence now that Israel hasn’t been taking enough care to fulfil its obligations on the safety of civilians,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf wrote to Mr Sunak on Wedneday to warn that if the UK carries on selling arms to Israel, it risks being “complicit in the killing of innocent civilians”.

Mr Yousaf told the prime minister he was calling for “an immediate end to arms sales to Israel from the United Kingdom”.

“The civilian death toll is intolerable, as is the killing of humanitarian workers who deliver vital aid to Palestinians facing starvation and violence at the hands of this Israeli government," the SNP leader told Mr Sunak.

“By not stopping arms sales to Israel, the UK is in danger of being complicit in the killing of innocent civilians.”

The opposition Liberal Democrats called for an export stop. Andy McDonald, a left-winger recently reinstated as a Labour MP, said Israel “blithely ignores” appeals from the US and UK to protect civilians.

“We continue to export arms as Israel carries on breaking international humanitarian law, killing more civilians, press and now aid workers. Stop the arms exports now,” he said.

Mr Sunak said in a broadcast interview with The Sun that Britain has “always had a very careful export licensing regime that we adhere to”.

“There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we’ll always follow,” he said.

“I have been consistently clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu since the start of this conflict that while of course we defend Israel’s right to defend itself and its people against attacks from Hamas, they have to do that in accordance with international humanitarian law, protect civilian lives and, sadly, too many civilians have already lost their lives.”

There was no confirmation of the weapon used by Israel in the attack on World Central Kitchen workers, although some experts suggested it was an Israeli-made Spike missile.

Manufacturer Rafael says the missiles are known for their “pinpoint accuracy”. Israel said the attack on the aid convoy was down to night-time “misidentification” of the target.

Reports in Israeli media said the missile was launched from a Hermes-450 drone, made by Israeli company Elbit Systems.

Pro-Palestinian protesters have targeted the premises of a British subsidiary of Elbit, UAV Engines, in England several times.

When the issue was last raised in parliament in 2009, ministers said a licence existed for Elbit to use UK parts in drones to be sold abroad, rather than used in Israel.

UK ministers say defence sales to Israel were worth about £42 million ($52.8 million) in 2022.

The Campaign Against Arms Trade, a group lobbying for an end to arms sales, says the UK has approved at least £474 million ($595.8 million) of exports to Israel since 2015.

It says UK exports include parts for missiles, tanks and combat aircraft, including tyres, ejector seats, fan propellers and laser targeting equipment for the jets being used in Gaza.

The US typically exports more than $3 billion a year, while Germany last year sold arms worth €326.5 million ($351.7 million) to Israel.

However, Britain's role also includes making parts for American-made F-35 fighter jets that are used by the Israeli military.

“Once you get into the F-35s, which have been used extensively in Gaza, to me, this isn’t so much about Israel, this is about the US and the UK’s supply relationship with the US,” Mr Isbister said.

“The UK produces 15 per cent of every F-35, and so if the UK says ‘no’ to exports that does become significant, and an issue for Israeli capabilities which would risk upsetting the Americans.”

Lord Ricketts said halting UK arms sales would send Israel a “powerful political message” and potentially influence US policy.

“Israel has enormous military power which certainly wouldn’t be affected by short-term UK measures. I hope it would create some further pressure for what is really needed here, which is an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

“It might just stimulate debate in the US as well, which would be the real game-changer.”

Calls for a UK arms embargo were rejected by Defence Secretary Grant Shapps in December as part of a “harmful and divisive” boycott campaign.

The terms of a UK export licence include respect for human rights and the laws of war.

Ministers must not grant a licence if they feel there is a “clear risk” that items might be used to breach humanitarian law.

A “change in circumstances” review that can lead to licences being suspended was invoked after the Israel-Gaza war erupted on October 7.

But Foreign Secretary David Cameron wrote to MPs in December to say this “clear risk” had not been identified.

He said that “all licences, including those granted to Israel, are kept under careful and continuous review”.

Mr Isbister said the argument that arms exports should only be stopped if they are linked to a specific case of misuse might be valid if incidents were “very isolated”.

But that changes “once you get into a broader behaviour – for example, the limitations on supply of aid, the limitations on access to water, the decimation of the health system, and with the Israeli military machine as a whole involved in that, and with the F-35s as a significant part of that,” he said.

“With UK components in every single F-35, it then becomes quite difficult to argue that you aren’t playing a role in contributing to the violations that are happening across the board.”

Updated: April 03, 2024, 9:51 PM