Britain punishes Israel for Gaza naval bombardment

The British Government has reacted to Israel's bombardment and invasion of Gaza last January by barring further exports of components used in naval gunships which took part in the three-week operation.

Britain has officially told Israel's embassy in London that it is revoking five licences for exports of equipment used in Saar 4.5 vessels because they violate UK and EU criteria precluding military sales which could be used for "internal repression".

Israel used naval vessels to bombard Gaza targets from the Mediterranean to augment the ground and air offensive after Operation Cast Lead was launched against Hamas on 27 December last year. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons in April that there were "credible" reports that the Saar-class Corvette vessels had been used in "a naval fire support role".

The Saar vessels' 76mm guns are almost certain to have used British-made components because the Government had previously granted export licences specifically for them. It had also allowed exports of cabling for Saar-class ships and also components for radar which Mr Miliband acknowledged could be used for "fire control against surface targets" as well as its primary role in air defence.

The cancellation of the five licences follows a review started by the UK Government three months ago, in the aftermath of the Israeli offensive, of the 182 licences currently in force for arms exports to Israel.

The Israeli military acknowledges killing 1,166 Palestinians during the offensive, including at least 295 civilians, 49 of them women and 89 of them children under 16. Palestinian and other human rights groups put the total killed at up to 1,417, with a much higher proportion of civilians.

The revoked licences appear to involve the only military equipment directly exported from the UK to Israel identified as having been used during Operation Cast Lead. But Mr Miliband acknowledged in April that other British-made components had also been exported to US manufacturers of military equipment that was subsequently sold on to Israel.

These included equipment for the avionics systems – specifically cockpit display units – for F16 aircraft, widely used during Operation Cast Lead for aerial bombing of targets in Gaza.

They also included parts used in the fire control systems of Apache helicopters, as well as navigation units and engine assemblies. Apaches were also regularly used in lethal air attacks during the Gaza operation.

There was a row in the British Cabinet at the peak of the Palestinian intifada during 2002 over the export of F16 avionic components. But although the then Blair government barred direct sales of F16 components to Israel, it continued to license the sale of parts to the US manufacturers on the grounds that it would disrupt Anglo-US relations not to do so.

Richard Burden, chairman of the Britain Palestine All-Party Commons Group, yesterday welcomed the decision to revoke the Saar licences and Mr Miliband's April announcement of a review of "all extant" military export licences in the light of Operation Cast Lead.

But he added that the criteria needed to be applied to indirect exports as well. "The vast majority of arms imports to Israel come from the US and unless any new policy addresses that issue it will simply not be effective."

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