The Foreign Office this week denied imposing a partial arms embargo on Israel, despite its decision to ban spare parts for Israeli naval vessels used during its winter operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.
The news broke as 26 Israeli soldiers claimed that the IDF had committed war crimes during the Gaza operation.
On Monday, the government, in response to a sustained campaign from pro-Palestinian groups and parliamentarians, announced the cancellation of five export licences for equipment to upgrade weaponry on 4.5 Saar Corvettes.
The ban on sales was imposed after the Foreign Office decided that Israel had contravened “Criterion 2” of an agreement forbidding the use of British-supplied military equipment in actions involving internal repression.
No evidence has yet emerged that anyone was hit or killed by these ships during Cast Lead.
A Foreign Office statement said that UK policy is to assess all export licences to Israel against consolidated EU and national export licensing criteria. British officials had examined the use of the gunships and judged that Israeli action in Cast Lead “would result in the export of those goods now contravening the consolidated criteria. These licences have now been revoked”.
One senior Israeli defence official pointed out in response that Britain’s armed forces and intelligence services freely use both Israeli hardware and know-how. British forces in Afghanistan have been using Israeli tactics for the last six years to deal with suicide bombers.
When Britain intensified its involvement in Afghanistan, senior commanders realised that they did not have any operating procedures for dealing with suicide bombers.
An unofficial request was sent through the Israeli Embassy in London and a senior IDF expert was sent over to brief UK officers on the IDF’s experience with suicide bombers.
These briefings formed the basis of new British Army tactics for soldiers in the field — tactics which remain in use today.
For reasons of diplomatic sensitivity, the Israeli involvement has never before been published. “We give the British a great deal of intelligence on terror groups around the world and in the UK,” said a senior Israeli officer, “and, personally, we have good relationships. Government and diplomats are a different matter.”
Another sensitive issue is the sale of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Britain already uses the Elbit 450 UAV in Afghanistan and is now developing a new series of UAVs for the British Army, the Watchkeeper WK450, in a joint venture between UK company Thales and Elbit.
Early flight tests of the system were moved last year from the Golan following British demands.
Israel still wants Britain to stand by its earlier commitments to amend the law allowing private citizens to bring war crimes charges against foreign citizens.
Senior Israeli military officers have not visited Britain for four years due to the law, but the government has failed to bring the necessary changes to Parliament, citing political difficulties.
“It is the height of chutzpah,” said a senior Israeli official, “that IDF officers risk being charged in Britain for the same things that British officers are doing in Afghanistan.”