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The UK has licenced arms worth over £442 million to Israel between May 2015 and August 2022, according to analysis of Government export data by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK based pressure group that seeks an end to the global arms trade.

Some MPs have raised concerns about arms exports to Israel both before and during the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. Ministers have responded to such concerns by referencing the UK’s strategic export licencing system, under which all applications for a licence to export weapons and related items are assessed against a set of criteria. These criteria reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law, and the potential for the goods to be used in the violation of human rights (for example, torture).

During oral questions to the Department of Business and Trade on 30 November 2023, Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, said:

Since the barbaric terrorist acts by Hamas against Israel on 7 October and the subsequent conflict in the region, the Government have been monitoring the situation very closely. The UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that that is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. Export licences are kept under careful and continual review as standard, and we are able to amend licences or refuse new licence applications if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.

Overview of UK arms exports system

Any company wanting to export military or dual-use (that could have military or civilian use) goods to other nations must apply for a licence from the Government to do so.

A list of items which require a licence for export is set out in the UK Strategic Export Control Lists (also known as the consolidated list). This list includes equipment, software and technology.

The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) is responsible for processing licence applications. The unit sits within the Department for Business and Trade, and it draws together expertise from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State for Business and Trade is responsible for arms export controls.

The ECJU assesses licence applications against the Strategic Export Licencing Criteria. These reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law, and the potential for the goods to be used in the violation of human rights (such as torture). For example, a licence will not be granted if:

  • There is a clear risk that the items might be used to “commit or facilitate” internal repression or a serious violation of international humanitarian law (Criteria 2a and 2c). 
  • There is a clear risk that the items would, overall, undermine internal peace and security (Criterion 3) or regional/international peace and security (Criterion 4).
  • The items could be used to commit or facilitate an offence under international conventions or protocols to which the United Kingdom is party relating to terrorism or transnational organised crime (Criterion 6a).

Existing licences will be revoked if they are “found to be no longer consistent with the Criteria.”

More detail and the full list of criteria can be found in Commons Library research briefing UK amends its criteria for arms exports (CBP 9494).

UK arms exports to Israel

Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) collates data on export licences published by the Government. According to CAAT analysis of Government export licence data, the UK licenced over £442 million worth of arms to Israel between May 2015 and August 2022. This included:

  • £183 million worth of ML22 licences (military technology) 
  • £117 million worth of ML10 licences (aircraft, helicopters, drones) 
  • £22 million worth of ML4 licences (grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures)
  • £4.6 million worth of ML6 licences (armoured vehicles, tanks)

The amounts given above do not indicate the actual value of exports shipped, only the value of goods that licence holders are allowed to export. Commons Library briefing UK arms exports: statistics explains what data on arms exports is available and what it tells us.

On 20 November 2023, the Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps, said that UK “defence exports to Israel are relatively small—just £42 million last year”.

In relation to the current Israel-Hamas conflict, CAAT has highlighted UK industry contributions to F-35 combat aircraft, which CAAT says are “currently being used in the bombardment of Gaza.” CAAT, alongside the NGO Saferword, are among the groups  calling for the revocation of all licences for arms exports to Israel.

MPs concerns and Government response

There have been long-standing concerns among some MPs regarding arms exports to Israel.

For example, Early Day Motion 1305, signed by 73 MPs in 2018, cited a risk that UK arms to Israel might “be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law” and may “affect adversely regional stability”.

Government responses to oral and written questions, such as the one given to Daisy Cooper (Liberal Democrat) in September 2022, often refer to the criteria used when assessing licence applications:

The UK Government takes its defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operates some of the most robust export controls in the world. All applications for export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against strict criteria. We will not issue a licence if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression. The UK Government continues to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the OPTs [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and if extant licences are found to be no longer consistent with the criteria, those licences will be revoked.

Pre-2023 Israel-Hamas conflict

In 2014 the Coalition Government reviewed export licences granted to Israel following the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza.

The Government said the review found the vast majority of exported currently licensed for Israel are “not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas.” However, the Government did suspend twelve licences for components which could be part of equipment used by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza.

In a report published in October 2022, the Committees on Arms Exports called on the Government to provide a detailed breakdown of licences granted for exports to Israel, including any end-use conditions. A breakdown of licences issued, refused, rejected and revoked between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2022 was published in the Government’s response.

The Government also said it would consider the Committees’ suggestion of including Israel as a case study in the 2022 strategic export controls annual report. Upon publication, the annual report contained only Belarus and China (PDF) as case studies.

Current Israel-Hamas conflict

On 7 October 2023, the Palestinian group Hamas, officially designated a terrorist group by many countries including Israel, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, commenced an armed assault against Israel. In response, Israel’s military forces launched air strikes and a ground assault in Gaza.

Members have asked the Government to consider revoking arms export licences to Israel. Steve Bonnar (SNP) raised this with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, in oral questions on 30 November.

Kemi Badenoch said the UK “supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that that is within the bounds of international humanitarian law.” She added licences are kept under review and can be amended if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.


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