Britain has slapped a partial arms embargo on Israel, refusing to supply replacement parts and other equipment for Sa'ar 4.5 gunships because they participated in Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip earlier this year.
Britain's Foreign Office informed Israel's embassy in London of the sanctions a few days ago. The embassy, in a classified telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, said the decision stemmed from heavy pressure by both members of Parliament and human rights organizations.
The embargo followed a government review of all British defense exports to Israel, which was announced three months ago. In total, the telegram said, Britain reviewed 182 licenses for arms exports to Israel, including 35 for exports to the Israel Navy. But it ultimately decided to cancel only five licenses, all relating to the Sa'ar 4.5 ships. The licenses in question apparently cover spare parts for the ship's guns.
The British said the embargo was imposed because these ships participated in Operation Cast Lead. In so doing, the British claimed, they violated the security agreements between Britain and Israel, which specify what uses may be made of British equipment.
Last week, Britain's foreign and defense ministries informed the relevant companies that they would have to cease their planned arms deals with Israel's navy.
Ever since the Gaza operation, British MPs and nongovernmental organizations have been trying to persuade London to impose a complete arms embargo on Israel. However, the British government has rejected this demand.
In February, Amnesty International published a report on arms sales to Israel in which it highlighted Britain's role in supplying engines for Hermes 450 drones. According to Amnesty, Israel uses these drones to conduct assassinations in Gaza. The report prompted the Palestinian organization Al-Haq to file a suit against the British government, arguing that British arms sales facilitate Israeli operations in Gaza.
In April, Foreign Secretary David Miliband informed Parliament that Britain would reexamine all its defense exports to Israel in light of Operation Cast Lead. An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that since then, Britain's military attache in Israel has requested information on the uses Israel made of various types of British-supplied equipment during Cast Lead.
Foreign Ministry officials said that only a small percentage of Israel's defense-related imports come from Britain. According to data suppled by Britain's department of trade, these sales total some 20 million pounds - about NIS 130 million.
The British embargo is not expected to have any impact on the navy's operational capability. However, it has great political significance, and could encourage other countries to halt defense exports to Israel. The country considered most likely to be next is Belgium, which sells Israel equipment used to disperse demonstrations.
In response the British Embassy in Tel Aviv issued a statement saying, "On 21 April 2009 the Foreign Secretary issued a Written Ministerial Statement about U.K. exports to Israel which may have been used by the Israel Defense Forces during the conflict in Gaza. This statement makes clear that all exports are subject to stringent controls.
"The statement sets out clearly the detail of U.K. components in equipment that may have been used in Operation Cast Lead. U.K. equipment was not exported for specific use in Operation Cast Lead and export licenses were issued based on all the evidence available at the time they were granted.
"Future decisions will take into account what has happened in the recent conflict. We do not grant export licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression.
"We do not believe that the current situation in the Middle East would be improved by imposing an arms embargo on Israel. Israel has the right to defend itself and faces real security threats.
"This said, we consistently urge Israel to act with restraint and supported the EU Presidency statement that called the Israeli actions during operation Cast Lead 'disproportionate.'"
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