UK approval of arms exports to Israel plunged at start of Gaza war

FILE PHOTO: British PM Rishi Sunak meets Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in London

(This June 17 story has been refiled to add the dropped word 'against' in paragraph 1)

By Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's approval of arms export licences to Israel dropped sharply after the start of the war against Hamas in Gaza, with the value of permits granted for the sale of military equipment to its ally falling by more than 95% to a 13-year low.

The figures, which have not previously been reported, are based on information provided by government officials to Reuters and data from the Department for Business and Trade's Export Control unit.

The United States and Germany increased arms sales to Israel after the start of the war with the Palestinian group Hamas in October last year.

However, the value of British-approved licences between Oct. 7 and Dec. 31 last year dropped to 859,381 pounds ($1.09 million), government officials told Reuters. That is the lowest figure for the period between Oct. 7 and Dec. 31 since 2010.

This compares with the government approving 20 million pounds of arms sales to Israel for the same period in 2022, including small arms ammunition and components for combat aircraft, according to government data.

In the same period in 2017, the government approved 185 million pounds in arms sales to Israel, including components for tanks and surface-to-air missiles, the data shows, the highest figure for the period in publicly available data going back to 2008.

The issue of arms sales to Israel has been controversial, with some politicians and pro-Palestinian groups saying such sales should halt because of the huge death toll among Palestinian civilians and the destruction wrought on Gaza during the more than eight months of warfare.

The British government says Israel has the right to self-defence and its legal advice permits continued sales, although it has declined to publish that advice.

The Department for Business and Trade said licences continue to be granted to export some military items to Israel, including components for fixed-wing aircraft and small arms ammunition for training.

The department said due to the government's strict rules around approving licences, reviews may take longer than normal to be approved, but the most recent legal advice regarding transferring arms to Israel was unchanged.

Unlike the U.S., Britain's government does not give arms directly to Israel but rather issues licences for companies to sell weapons, with input from lawyers on whether they comply with international law.

Many of the licences approved in the period after the start of the war in Gaza were for items listed for "commercial use" or non-lethal items such as body armour, military helmets or all-wheel drive vehicles with ballistic protection.

Israel's embassy in London did not respond to a request for comment.


Israel's conflict in Gaza was triggered when Hamas fighters charged into Israel on Oct. 7 and killed some 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies. Israel's subsequent bombardment and invasion of Gaza has killed more than 37,400 Palestinians, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave.

Members of Britain's parliament and human rights groups have criticised the government for the lack of public information about arms sales to Israel since the start of the conflict.

Some countries such as Italy, Canada and the Netherlands have imposed restrictions on arms exports to Israel because of concerns about how the weapons could be used.

While Germany approved arms exports to Israel worth 326 million euros last year, 10 times more than in 2022, the volume of approvals fell to around 10 million euros in the first quarter of this year.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been one of Europe's strongest advocates of Israel's right to respond with overwhelming force against Hamas.

He has resisted calls to halt arms transfers to Israel but has said the government adheres to a "very careful licensing regime".

Britain is expected to provide information about arms sales to Israel in the first half of this year in the coming months.

The government has in the past blocked arms sales to Israel, such as in 2009 when it revoked some licences, and in 1982 when there was a formal restriction after Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

($1 = 0.7885 pounds)

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Kate Holton, Alison Williams and Angus MacSwan)