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Trade Department Would Not “Hesitate” To Revoke Arms Licences To Israel

Greg Hands, the Trade minister, said the UK Government would not "hesitate" to revoke arms licences to Israel (Alamy)

4 min read

The Department of Trade would not “hesitate” to revoke arms licences to Israel if the evidence in favour of doing so presented itself, a minister for the department has told PoliticsHome.

Greg Hands, the Minister of Trade, said the Government and Foreign Office was monitoring the war in the Middle East very carefully in light of growing calls for an arms embargo in Israel in response to large numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza. 

“Whilst we have great concerns about what's happening on the humanitarian side in Gaza, the policy is unchanged here in this space,” he said.

“But the Government continues to monitor the situation in Gaza extremely closely and extremely regularly. We won’t hesitate to remove export licences if the evidence were to be presented. But at the moment, UK Government policy is unchanged.”

Countries who buy military equipment from Britain have to meet a set of criteria, including abiding by international humanitarian law. Since 7 October terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel, the Government has said Israel has the right to defend itself within the bounds of this international framework. 

The UK has sold £442 million worth of arms to Israel since 2015, according to Campaign Against Arms Trade, a pressure group which wants to end international arms trade. 

David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, has said he has looked at the latest legal advice from the Foreign Office over whether Israel is abiding by international humanitarian law. On Wednesday the Foreign Secretary confirmed the UK would continue to sell arms to Israel for now. 

Hands told PoliticsHome records of new export licences issued to Israel were listed on a publicly available government database. The data was last updated in January this year and currently provides quarterly licensing statistics up to June 2023. 

“A licence being approved doesn't necessarily mean that the arms export, or the licence product, or the control products, export then ensues,” Hands explained. 

Since Hamas' terrorist attack in southern Israel on 7 October, in which 1,200 people were killed, 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory strikes by Israel in Gaza. Much of the region's infrastructure including schools and hospitals has been destroyed. According to the UN almost 200 aid workers including three Britons have been killed in Gaza.

More than 100 Israeli hostages are also currently being held in Gaza by Hamas. Under its own laws, the UK would be required to halt the weapons exports to Israel if they are believed to have broken international law, or risk being seen as facilitating war crimes in a country it was exporting arms to.

The UK and Israel in 2022 launched negotiations for a new free trade agreement with a focus on services. The new deal completed its fourth round of negotiations in February, with a fifth round of talks set to take place in due course.  

Hands said that trade talks between the two countries remain ongoing despite the growing humanitarian crisis. “I can't comment on current trade negotiations, but we set out our objectives of securing a trade deal with Israel,” he added. 

The trade minister has also been in Washington this week and has met trade representatives from the US in the nation's capital. The Government has signed eight individual agreements with US states which represent a quarter of US GDP.

Hands said the department is looking at securing further deals with California, Colorado and Illinois. However he could not guarantee such agreements would be made prior to the next election, which must be called before the end of this year.

“I'm not putting any timetables on any of those negotiations when they will conclude. We've got a very good track record of delivering high quality agreements in good time,” he said. “I remain confident in the department's ability to carry on doing that.”

He declined to comment whether a second Trump or Biden presidency would be better for Britain after the next election.

“We’ve got a long tradition in the UK of working with the United States administration, across different parties, different presidents. That is something which the UK has always been very, very successful at doing.”

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