The UK government’s decision to ban the further sale to Israel of gun parts used in Operation Cast Lead is feared by many Israel advocates as simply a curtain-raiser to worse scenarios.
Concern that Britain’s actions could lead to similar embargoes by other European countries was voiced by Zionist Federation chairman Andrew Balcombe.
“So far it is only a few items that have been banned, but we have to wait and see if it stops there. We don’t know if it is grandstanding or if it will happen with other suppliers.
“Britain only sells Israel one per cent of its security equipment, but others such as Germany and Belgium are much bigger suppliers.
“What is true is that relations between Israel and Britain have been showing a bit of strain lately. We in the ZF have been subject to these problems. In today’s world there are tremendous pressures from the boycott campaign.”
Anti-Israel groups have welcomed the government’s decision as evidence that the campaign within parliament and by non-governmental-organisations (NGOs) is indeed bearing fruit, as they press for a total ban on arms sales to Israel.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has urged suspension of all arms supplies to Israel and LibDem backbencher Bob Russell has sponsored an early day motion (EDM) calling on the government to investigate how British weapons were used by Israel during the Gaza conflict.
Signed by 60 mainly Labour and LibDem back benchers, the EDM also said the MPs were appalled at the scale of arms sales to Israel licensed by the Foreign Office.
Mr Russell, MP for Colchester, said: “I differentiate between the citizens of Israel and their government. I certainly do not support the Palestinian rocketing of Israeli civilians, but we need to reduce the weaponry and I support any means to do that”.
A petition of more than 38,000 signatures calling for an end to arms sales was posted recently on the 10 Downing Street website.
NGOs pressing the government to stop all sales to Israel have joined together in the umbrella group Stop Arming Israel, set up by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
A CAAT spokesperson said that the decision not to approve some licences for defence sales did not lessen the “urgent need” for a total embargo on all military equipment sales destined for Israel.
The bulk of sales approved in 2008 were listed as naval equipment.
The UK is also a steady supplier of components exported via the US for incorporation in weapons exported to Israel by US suppliers.
CAAT’s Kaye Stearman said: “We welcome the move, however belated, and hope other countries will follow. However, it has taken over six months for the UK government to take this very limited action. It must have realised that these weapons were likely to be used in a naval bombardment, so why did they approve the licences in the first place?
“This episode shows that we don’t know how UK components, whether exported directly to Israel or via the US, will be used.
“The only only effective and ethical action is an immediate embargo on arms and components — this would help to protect the people of Gaza and the West Bank and send a meaningful message to the Israeli government about its policy towards the Occupied Territories.”
This, she said, would send a strong signal of British disapproval of Israel’s actions.
In Israel, officials said they believed that the decision to ban the sale of equipment for Israeli corvettes was partly the result of the sustained campaign by anti-Israel groups.
The charity War on Want, another member of the Stop Arming Israel group, followed up its call last week for a global boycott of Israeli goods by welcoming the government’s move.
However, its senior campaigns officer Yasmin Khan joined the anti-Israel lobby groups’ chorus calling for the removal of licences for sales to the Israeli navy to be only the first step towards a full arms embargo.
The decision to revoke the licences, she said, sent a strong message to Israel that “there will be no more business as usual while it continues to defy international law”.
Amnesty International UK’s campaigns director Tim Hancock castigated the government for not going far enough. His organisation, he said, had uncovered evidence of war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict and was calling on all countries to suspend transfers of military equipment, assistance and munitions to Israel, Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.
However his demands concentrated on Israel: “We will be monitoring closely that the UK does not renege on its promises. In the past we have seen a tightening of restrictions against Israel in the wake of a major offensive, only for them to be loosened again once the issue falls out of the public eye”.
What Britain sells to Israel
Last year the UK granted more than £27.5 m worth of export licences for defence equipment, according to the latest figures from UK Trade and Investment.
Included in the list of items were components for fighter planes, unmanned aircraft, submarines and military communications equipment, as well as kits to protect troops against chemical warfare.