On Tuesday, Sayeeda Warsi announced her resignation as senior minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in protest over the government’s policy on Gaza.
In her letter, Baroness Warsi said: “My view has been that our policy in relation to the Middle East peace process generally but more recently our approach and language during the current crisis in Gaza is morally indefensible.”
FactCheck takes a look at what she might be referring to.
1. What is the government’s policy towards Israel?
Foreign policy is set out to the public through statements, to the press and to MPs. Unlike other government departments, foreign policy isn’t laid out in a specific document, as it is with others such as transport, education or health.
In the “policy” section of the government’s website, a search for “Gaza” draws a blank.
So when we refer to “policy” in foreign matters, what we’re often talking about is a position or a stance, and how that is played out through, for example, military or trade agreements.
Baroness Warsi didn’t explain in her letter exactly what she thinks “our policy in relation to the Middle East peace process” is, or indeed which aspect of it she finds “morally indefensible”. She criticised “our approach and language during the current crisis in Gaza”.
But she did tell the Huffington Post shortly afterwards: “It appalls me that the British government continues to allow the sale of weapons to a country, Israel, that has killed almost 2,000 people, including hundreds of kids, in the past four weeks alone. The arms exports to Israel must stop.”
She also said that she regrets not speaking out against the decision not to recognise Palestinian statehood at the UN in November 2012. Last week, Channel 4 News revealed that she had “deep reservations and concerns about government policy on Gaza”, according to sources in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Looking back through ministerial statements on Gaza since the conflict began, these are a few:
Downing Street, 5 August 2014: “The prime minister regrets that Baroness Warsi has decided to stand down…our policy has always been consistently clear – the situation in Gaza is intolerable and we’ve urged both sides to agree to an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”
Foreign secretary Philip Hammond, 3 August 2014: “I spoke to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni this morning…I reiterated the UK’s position on the need for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, for every effort to be made to prevent further civilian casualties.
“Hamas must also cease the firing of rockets at Israeli communities and endangering the lives of the Israeli population.”
Asked whether Israel has acted disproportionately over the last few weeks, Mr Hammond said on 1 August, 2014: “What I have said consistently throughout this conflict is that all parties are required to act in accordance with international law and to act proportionately. But what I have focused on, and I think that my colleagues around the world have focused on, is trying to influence behind the scenes to get to a ceasefire…Ending the suffering of the people of Gaza is the number none priority.”
Former foreign secretary William Hague, 14 July 2014: “In Gaza, as of today, at least 173 Palestinians have been killed, and 1,230 injured. The UN estimates that 80 per cent of those killed have been civilians, of whom a third are children…The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security and the people of Gaza also have the fundamental right to live in peace and security.
“There are hundreds of thousands of extremely vulnerable civilians in Gaza who bear no responsibility for the rocket fire and are suffering acutely from this crisis.”
2. How does the UK compare with other foreign governments?
The major issue emerging is the government’s refusal to condemn Israel’s actions in stronger terms. Last week, Margot James, Tory MP for Stourbridge, wrote to Mr Hammond urging that the government rethinks its policy towards the conflict, describing Israel’s actions as disproportionate.
While President Obama has said he supports Israel’s right to defend itself, last week the US said the shelling of a UN shelter in Gaza was “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on 18 July: “Both sides must accept painful compromises but we stand by the side of Israel when it comes to self-defence.” A few days later, on 23 July, a spokeswoman for the German foreign office said: “We urge Israel to show restraint and to avoid more victims.”
On 3 August, French President Francois Hollande called the shelling by Israel of a UN school in the Gaza strip a “violation of international law”, describing it as “inadmissible” and demanding that “those responsible…answer for their actions”.
José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, last week described scenes in the Gaza strip as “heartbreaking”. A few days later, Spain decided to freeze military equipment to Israel.
3. Where do we stand on arms exports to Israel?
Latest figures, from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, say that last year, £8bn of arms export licenses were issued to British companies selling to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Terroritories, for 470 licences.
Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is one of 28 of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s named countries of human rights concerns. Of this list of 28 countries, Israel has been the largest beneficiary of sales, followed by Saudi Arabia, which was granted £1.7bn worth of licences.
Over the last year, licences have been granted to British companies to supply things such as components for sniper rifles, small arms equipment, military vehicle components, targeting equipment, components for unmanned air vehicles and nuclear grade graphite.
Last month it emerged that of the £8bn, a £7.8bn export licence was granted for spyware technology which the House of Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls suggested could be used for military purposes, although Michael Fallon said, when he was minister of state for BIS, that the equipment was for building public mobile phone networks.
We asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills what they are doing about licences to Israel. A government spokesman said: “Reviews of export licenses are routine when there is an increase in violence in a region.
“In this case a cross-government review was instigated in mid-July following the sustained barrage of rocket atttacks from Gaza into Israel which prompted Israel to launch Operation Protective Edge.
“We continue to monitor the situation in Gaza and to keep extant licences under close review. During this time no new licenses have been issued for use by the Israeli military.”
4. What’s the significance of “third party” arms transfers?
Even under licence, arms rarely flow in just one direction, which means that British arms to Israel do not necessarily come directly from British companies.
Most of the military equipment exported by the UK straight to Israel are fairly innocuous. But some are not and could arguably have been used in Gaza, such as components and technology for air-to-surface missiles, assault rifles, military combat vehicles, military helicopters, unmanned air vehicles and small arms ammunition.
In 2013 a total of 166 licences were granted for military equipment worth £6.2m. In the list of licenses categorised as ‘other’ which includes such items as ‘technology for equipment employing cryptography’, 200 licences were granted worth in excess of £7.8bn.
Significantly, reviewing these licenses does not necessarily stop British arms from ending up in Israel. When the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills approves licences for countries like the US, India, Singapore, Mexico, Italy, and ironically Germany, it comes with an acknowledgment: “The items being incorporated in this destination are ultimately destined for all or some of the following: Israel”.
What Israel actually receives is more serious: assault rifles, machine guns, pistols, sniper rifles, weapon sights, explosives, air-to-surface missiles, hand grenades, tanks, weapon night sights, gun silencers, military combat vehicles and components for artillery ammunition, combat aircraft, and combat helicopters.
This is where complications occur for the government. Suspending or revoking export licences for arms that go directly to Israel could be straight forward, but to prevent all transfers Britain would need to review licenses for weapons that are ultimately bound for Israel that travel via intermediary countries. The government says they are looking at these too, but commercial agreements dictating who pays what, to who, and when are very difficult to disentangle.
Adding to the complication is the sheer amount of money at stake. Last year alone arms sales to the United States were worth £413m, and the value of all the licences for the countries mentioned above its £620m – potentially a significant hole in the balance sheet of British arms manufacturers who would almost certainly want a say in the government’s review.
Additional problems could be created in for Britain when dealing with its allies if it said they were not allowed to make money for themselves by selling UK-sourced weapons to their most important ally in the Middle East.
5. What’s happened to other countries which have had similar licence reviews?
In March, Mr Hague said that Britain had halted all military exports to Russia that could be used by the military against Ukraine. But by mid-May, only 34 out of 285 existing arms export licences had been stopped, with £132m of licences, including for products such as components for pistols, sniper rifles and bullets, still valid.
BIS said last month that an export licence for Russia for components for missiles and anti-aircraft guns was for the use of Brazilian warships, were they to stop in Russia for repairs, and the pieces for sniper rifles and ammunition were for hunting.
In July last year, Vince Cable, the business secretary, announced that “all licences for exports of controlled goods to Egypt have been assessed on a case-by-case basis” after violence erupted following the deposing of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood president, by the army. Five arms export licences were revoked, but licences remained in place for assault rifles, pistols, cryptographic equipment and command communications control and intelligence software.
We asked BIS whether there was a possibility a similar situation may arise for Israel. A spokesman referred us back to their statement saying that licences would be reviewed.