* Ian Black, Middle East Editor
* guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 July 2009 17.54 BST
Britain has revoked export licences for weapons on Israeli navy missile boats because of their use during the offensive against the Gaza Strip.
The licences apparently covered spare parts for guns on the Sa’ar 4.5 ships, which reportedly fired missiles and artillery shells into the Palestinian coastal territory during the three-week war, which started in late December.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, shrugged off what he called one of “many embargoes”. The foreign office in London insisted the rare move did not constitute an embargo but was the application of normal UK and EU export licensing criteria. Still, it linked the decision directly to Operation Cast Lead – the Israeli codename for the attacks – and described it as similar to action taken against Russia and Georgia after their conflict last year.
A spokesman for Amnesty International, citing the “weight of evidence” that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza, said: “It’s a step forward but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.”
Israel’s defence ministry made no comment but Lieberman told state radio: “We’ve had many embargoes in the past. This shouldn’t bother us.”
Israel gets the bulk of its military requirements from the US, more than 95% according to some estimates. The UK accounts for less than 1% or about £30m worth of exports a year.
The decision came after a review of UK defence exports to Israel announced in April by David Miliband, the foreign secretary. Israel’s London embassy ascribed the revocation of the licences to pressure from MPs and human rights organisations, the Ha’aretz newspaper reported.
Israeli officials confirmed the UK had reviewed 182 export licences, including 35 for exports to the navy. It decided to cancel five, all relating to spare parts for Sa’ar weapons. The arms involved include anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, cannons and heavy machine guns.
Israel launched its Gaza attack after the expiry of a ceasefire put in place to halt the firing of missiles into Israel, and as part of a strategy to weaken the Islamist movement Hamas. More than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Ha’aretz said the British decision was not expected to have any impact on the navy’s operational capability. But it added: “It has great political significance and could encourage other countries to halt defence exports to Israel. The country considered most likely to be next is Belgium, which sells Israel equipment used to disperse demonstrations.”
Amnesty had previously highlighted Britain’s role in supplying engines for Hermes drone aircraft. In another report this month, it detailed how Israeli forces killed hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians and destroyed thousands of homes in attacks that breached the laws of war.
“Amnesty has uncovered evidence of war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict,” it said. “We are calling on all countries to suspend all transfers of military equipment, assistance and munitions, to Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups until there is no longer a substantial risk that it will be used for serious violations of human rights.
“We will also be monitoring closely to ensure 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.”