Britain Cuts Some Arms Exports to Israel Over Conduct in Gaza War

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

JERUSALEM, July 13 -- Britain has revoked five licenses for arms exports to Israel after reviewing how British-provided equipment was used during Israel's three-week war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, officials from both nations said Monday.

It marks the only such action to date by a foreign government against Israel over the country's incursion into Gaza in December and January. Israeli officials said the license revocation would have no effect on the country's military and noted that 177 British arms-export licenses remain intact.

The decision, first reported by the Israeli daily Haaretz, comes amid steady criticism from human rights groups over Israel's conduct of the Gaza war, an ongoing United Nations inquiry into the conflict, and calls for an arms embargo against the country.

"We do not believe that the current situation in the Middle East would be improved by imposing an arms embargo on Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself and faces real security threats," said a statement by the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. "This said, we consistently urge Israel to act with restraint and supported the [European Union] Presidency statement that called the Israeli actions during Operation Cast Lead 'disproportionate.' "

Operation Cast Lead involved thousands of air force sorties against Gaza targets, as well as naval salvos, mortar barrages and a ground invasion that pushed to the outskirts of densely populated Gaza City.

Palestinian officials say more than 1,400 people were killed, most of them noncombatants; Israel puts the figure at fewer than 1,200, most of them fighters affiliated with the Islamist Hamas movement. Israel says the war was in response to years of rocket fire by Hamas and other Gaza-based groups into Israel.

Amnesty International in particular called for governments to review military exports to Israel after the conflict. The British Foreign Office said it started such a study, which it described as routine, after the fighting.

The British Embassy statement said "a small number" of export licenses had been suspended under rules forbidding arms exports "where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression." It did not detail the types of equipment affected by the license revocations, and an embassy spokeswoman said that information could not be released.

The Israel Defense Forces, which said it tried to minimize civilian casualties during the Gaza war, did not comment. Neither did the Defense Ministry. An Israeli official, who was not authorized to speak for the record, said the licenses involved shipments to Israel's navy but could not provide further detail.

Haaretz, citing a memo from Israel's embassy in London to the Foreign Ministry, said the licenses involved spare parts for armaments aboard the Israeli navy's Saar 4.5-class ships.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in an April statement to Parliament, said there were "credible reports" that Saar-class vessels had fired on Gaza with 76mm guns that contain parts exported from Britain.

The navy played a less prominent role in Operation Cast Lead than Israel's air force, tank units and infantry, but it did fire regularly on Gaza targets, said retired Col. Reuven Erlich, head of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a think tank with ties to the Israeli intelligence community.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company