UK under growing pressure to halt arms exports to Israel

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The UK government on Thursday came under increased pressure to end arms sales to Israel following the killing of seven aid workers in an air strike in Gaza earlier this week.

In a letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak, three former Supreme Court justices joined more than 600 jurists and dozens of Labour MPs in warning that the UK risks breaking international law over a “plausible risk of genocide” in Gaza if it does not stop its weapons exports to Israel.

Sir Alex Younger, former head of MI6, joined a chorus of criticism from senior Conservative figures including the MP Mark Logan and Lord Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill, telling the BBC on Thursday that “insufficient care is being paid [by Israel] to collateral risks”. 

The bulk of Britain’s arms exports go to the Gulf, notably to Saudi Arabia, with sales to Israel relatively small compared with those from other countries, including France, Germany and Italy. But they are dwarfed by the US, which accounts for the bulk of Israeli weapons imports.

The UK has sold arms worth more than £574mn to Israel since 2008, with exports amounting to £42mn in 2022 — compared to a global export total of £70.6bn that year, according to analysis of government data by the group Campaign Against Arms Trade.

The main exports to Israel in 2022 and 2023 were parts for aircraft and military radar systems, according to CAAT, but the group said the UK arms licensing regime “lacks transparency” and that it was “impossible” to know the full value. 

Britain also supplies around 15 per cent of the F-35 fighter aircraft, which is built in the US by Lockheed Martin and used by the Israeli military. CAAT estimates that given Britain’s share of the programme, the value of UK parts in the F-35s delivered to Israel has been worth “£336mn since 2016”. 

A spokesperson for CAAT, said ending British arms exports would “send a clear message that the UK believes that Israel is breaching international humanitarian law which would put pressure both on the Israeli government, and also on the US regarding their own much larger exports”.

BAE Systems, which builds the rear fuselage section of the F-35 jets at its factory in Samlesbury in Lancashire, said it has “no operations or employees in Israel or Gaza, nor do we sell military equipment directly to Israel”.

“We’re a partner on Lockheed Martin’s global F-35 programme, which includes Israel,” the company added. 

The UK subsidiary of Italy’s Leonardo makes the “advanced targeting laser” for the F-35 at a site in Edinburgh. Leonardo UK declined to comment.

The UK subsidiary of Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems has also been a target of arms protesters for several years. It employs more than 600 people in Britain and is an established supplier to UK armed forces, including for the army’s Watchkeeper drone programme. 

Elbit’s Israeli parent builds the Hermes 450 drone which was used during the strike that killed the aid workers, according to arms campaigners, who allege that the company’s UK subsidiary, UAV Engines, supplies the drone’s engines. 

A UK spokesperson for the company said: “Elbit Systems UK, its subsidiaries and joint ventures, including UAV Engines Limited and U-Tacs, are not involved in the Hermes 450 programme.”

Lord Ian Austin, the prime minister’s trade envoy for Israel, said a ban on arms sales to Israel could end up backfiring on the UK. “The impact [of a ban on arms sales] to Israel would be negligible, but a reciprocal move against Britain would be much more significant because much more equipment, and vital intelligence, comes the other way,” he said.

The UK government is already subject to a legal challenge over its sales of weapons to Israel by Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organisation. A person involved in the case told the FT that the decision being weighed by politicians currently is “fundamentally a political one” that will “depend on publicity and public opinion”.

The government has been contacted for comment.


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