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Why is Britain supplying arms to Israel’s war machine?

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
The proportion of British arms heading to Israel has increased in the last year, writes Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against Arms Trade
Issue 2136

There has been widespread criticism of Israel and its assault on Gaza – but where do its weapons come from? Israel buys arms from around the world as well as manufacturing many of its own. And it has strong links to Britain’s arms industry, currently the world’s second largest after the US.

Britain has consistently sold arms to Israel. Over recent years it has licensed arms exports worth between £10 million and £25 million each year.

Figures for the first half of 2008 show that arms worth over £24 million had already been approved for export to Israel (figures for the second half have not yet been published).

Most of thse licences were for components rather than for “platforms” – complete aircraft, ships, and so on.

Export licences approved in the first half of 2008 include components for combat aircraft, electronic warfare equipment, helmet mounted display equipment, military aircraft engines, naval radars, surface-to-air missiles, weapon sights, general military aircraft, general naval vessels and military communications equipment.

The most prominent military equipment used by Israel in Gaza were F-16 fighter aircraft and Apache combat helicopters – the same weapons it used in Lebanon in 2006. Both contain significant British components, including missile triggering systems for Apaches and head-up displays for F-16s.


On paper Britain has a very good set of rules governing arms exports. The government’s “Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria” are supposed to assess the impact on regional peace, security and stability, and the human rights record of the recipient.

For example, the rules state that licences should not be given to countries under international sanctions, or to those who are likely to send weapons to undesirable countries.

The rules bar exports of arms to areas where peace and security is at threat, where human rights might be abused, or where the social and economic balance within the country is threatened.

Most of these conditions apply to Israel. But the government’s policy is to support arms sales – so these rules are very narrowly drawn, and consequently very few licences are refused.

There is another set of guidelines relating to components to be incorporated into products for onward export, which can be used to allow arms sales even if the primary criteria are blatantly contravened.

For example, components can be licensed if stopping their export would threaten the relationship with the country where these products are finally assembled. This is the case for British components supplied to the Apaches and F-16s, both of which are manufactured by US companies.

In July 2002, the government approved the export of components built by BAE Systems for F-16 fighters being made by US company Lockheed Martin and sold to Israel.

Jack Straw, who was then foreign secretary, justified the sales by saying, “The government has judged that the UK’s security and defence relationship with the US is fundamental to the UK’s national security.

“Defence collaboration with the US is also key to maintaining a strong defence industrial capacity. Any interruption to the supply of these components would have serious implications for the UK’s defence relations with the US.”

In other words, the commercial relationship between BAE and US companies such as Lockheed Martin were judged more important than the lives of Palestinians.

The recent destruction of Gaza has attracted condemnation from the United Nations and from governments around the world. But it hasn’t changed the British government’s stance on arms sales.

The arms trade is not all one way. Israel has its own arms industry and is now a major exporter as well as an importer of arms.

That is why the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is calling for an embargo on the sale of British equipment to Israel, all purchases from Israel, as well as the breaking off of all military contacts between the two countries. This would send a strong message to the Israeli government that its actions are totally unacceptable.

Stop Arming Israel is a campaign launched by CAAT, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and War On Want to campaign against the sales of military equipment to and from Israel. To learn more and take action go to CAAT website at »

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