Understanding Israel-UK Weapons Trade


Recent reports suggest that the UK is considering ceasing arms sales to Israel. This paper looks at the current state of military trade between the two nations, in the context of strong bilateral ties.

UK to Israel arms sales 

While the UK is considered Israel’s second-staunchest western ally after the US, UK arms imports do not represent a substantial part of Israel’s defence procurement. In addition to its own sophisticated domestic production, Israel is a substantial importer of arms, at least 70 percent of which come from the USA. Imports from France, Germany, and Italy also constitute a larger percentage than those from the UK.

UK-Israel defence trade is of mutual benefit, and the relative importance of the trade relationship is arguably greater to the UK military than to the IDF.

Data from Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK based pressure group that seeks an end to the global arms trade, shows the UK granted licences worth £574 million for companies to export to Israel since 2008, the year country level data was first made available.

A substantial proportion of this total was in 2017, when £221 million worth of licences were approved. CAAT says the single biggest licence in value, worth £182 million, was issued in October 2017, for “technology for military radars”. Licences were also granted for components for military radars, electronic warfare and targeting equipment, and components of aircraft and helicopters. [1]

Out of those goods licensed by the UK for export to Israel, a large proportion are for dual use goods for non-military use, or for goods for incorporation in Israel before onward export to a third country. Within the military goods, the majority are for components rather than complete systems or sub-systems. Many UK licences for military equipment are for components for incorporation into US-manufactured platforms which were then re-exported to Israel.

The UK exports nearly 25 times the value of arms to Saudi Arabia as it does to Israel. According to CAAT figures, since 2008, countries ahead of Israel in terms of receiving UK arms are, in descending order: Saudi Arabia (£14bn); United States of America (£8.3bn); France (£5.2bn); Qatar (£3.5bn); Italy (£2.8bn); Oman (£2.5bn); Turkey (£2.3bn); India (£2.3bn); Norway (£2.2bn); United Arab Emirates (£1.7bn); Germany (£1.3bn); South Korea (£1.2bn); Indonesia (£1.0bn); Spain (£883m); Sweden (£874m); Canada (£861m); Taiwan (£790m); Netherlands (£788m); Brazil (£724m); Australia (£691m); Malaysia (£673m)

While the UK’s precise contribution to total Israeli arms imports is difficult to quantify [2], Stockholm International Peace Research Institute data lists Italy as Israel’s third largest supplier of arms, with 0.9 percent of Israel’s total imports. The UK’s share can therefore be reliably quantified as less than 0.9 percent of Israel’s total.

Israel to UK arms sales

Imported Israeli arms have protected UK service personnel in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other combat deployments. A theoretical cessation of arms trade between the two countries would in fact likely to have a more direct impact on UK operations than on the IDF.

The UK is the world’s thirteenth largest importer of arms (two places higher than Israel), and Israel is its third largest supplier, accounting for 2.7 percent of UK arms imports according to the most recent data (the USA is by far the largest, accounting for 89 percent of UK imports.)

Israeli arms sales to the UK increased significantly from 2006, due to the British need in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Significant arms imported include:

  • The Hermes-450 UAV, a multirole high performance tactical Unmanned Air System (UAS) developed by Elbit Systems which serves as an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) platform and which is designed to support long endurance and concealed operations. The Hermes was used extensively by Britain in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2014. In 2013 British-controlled Hermes 450s had completed 70,000 hours flight time in Afghanistan.
  • The Watchkeeper UAV is a tactical system, modelled on the Elbit Hermes 450, which provides the UK armed forces with intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability. It is produced through a joint venture of Elbit and Thales UK in a contract priced at £800-million.
  • M-113 Spike-NLOS, an Israeli fourth-generation fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missile and anti-personnel missile with a tandem-charge HEAT warhead.

Elbit’s Systems UK has won 25 public contracts, totalling more than £355m, since 2012, according to data supplied by Tussell, which provides details on UK government contracts. Elbit also runs a joint venture called Affinity Training with US company KBR. Affinity has a contract with the UK MoD worth £500m over 18 years to train UK pilots at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

Context – arms sales during the war in Gaza

Activists have called on the UK to reconsider Israeli import licences in light of the war in Gaza. Several countries, such as Canada, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium – like the UK all relatively small arms providers to Israel – have suspended or limited sales for the duration of the war.

On 12 December 2023 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, decided that he was “satisfied that there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply[ing] with International Humanitarian Law” and decided to recommend not to suspend or revoke extant licences but to keep them under careful review. On 18 December 2023 the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, decided, following a review, not to suspend or stop granting export licences to Israel. Instead, she decided to “keep her decisions about whether or not to grant, revoke, or refuse licences under continuing, careful review, in view of the current hostilities in Gaza”. [3]

In late February, the High Court dismissed a case brought by the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (Glan) urging the suspension of UK arms sales to Israel. The court found that a “high hurdle” needed to be cleared to prove that Badenoch and Cameron’s reasoning was “irrational”, and that there was “no realistic prospect of that hurdle being surmounted here.” Also in February, the UK ceased cooperation with Israel on maintenance of F-35s at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus for the duration of the war in Gaza.

Temporary UK suspensions of arms sales to Israel is not without precedent. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the UK Government reviewed its export licences to Israel and “found that the vast majority of exports currently licensed for Israel are not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas.” It temporarily suspended 12 licences which did meet that criteria.

In last Friday’s Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore wrote, responding to speculation of a suspension of arms sales to Israel: “In the present case, it is safe to say that, if Israel did not make, buy and sell arms with great skill, it would long ago have been destroyed. It follows that since a government like ours is friendly to Israel, it should resist the use of international law to assist through courts the undermining of a country, which its enemies have so far failed to achieve in 75 years of intermittent violence…Unlike the United States, we are not Israel’s arms lifeline. Britain sells less than £50 million worth of arms-related material to Israel annually. We buy much more from the Israelis than we sell them. Some of what they get from us is useful in tasks like reclaiming Gazan tunnels from Hamas, but its loss would not be materially large.”

Moore touched on the issue of potential double standards of selling to other countries. “It would make it much harder for Britain to conduct future arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia, whose help will be needed if plans for a durable Middle Eastern peace are revived. It would make Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Iran gleeful… autocrats who hold all law in contempt but love it when it ties their opponents up in knots – Putin, Xi, Hamas etc. They note that our deepening engagement with international legal processes seems increasingly to mean that we are the losing stomach for any long fight. Europeans called Putin ‘delusional’ when he invaded Ukraine, but the sad truth may be that we are the more deluded.”


Israel is considered to be a first-tier ally of the UK. UK-Israel military cooperation has been growing over the last decade, with the relationship viewed as mutually beneficial. The 2021 joint ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ signalled the growing importance of the relationship, and led to 2023’s ‘2030 roadmap for UK-Israel bilateral relations’. This accord recognised that “The UK and Israel enjoy a close strategic partnership, with extensive defence and security cooperation to tackle shared threats, protect our mutual security interests and develop stronger capabilities. For both the UK and Israel, this is one of the most important defence and security relationships, encompassing a broad range of activities.”

Both militaries share a commitment to improving and integrating their multi-domain capabilities in maritime, land, air, space, and cyber and electromagnetic. They share similar interests in the region. While Israel feels the Iranian threat far more acutely due to its relative geographic proximity, both countries wish to prevent Iran achieving a nuclear capability, curb its advanced ballistic missile programme and counter Iranian proxies, particularly in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the shipping lanes of the Gulf.

The sales of UK-manufactured arms and other security equipment to Israel is a sign of the two countries’ shared security interests, (though of less material significance than the kinds of cooperation described above).

In threatening to suspend sales, the UK is sending the message – likely in consort with the US – that it has serious reservations over the conduct of the war in Gaza and its humanitarian impact. Doing so while continuing to affirm Israel’s right to self-defence against a Hamas enemy whose genocidal intent was made explicit on October 7th, the UK is trying to act the role of critical but loyal friend.

In Israel, however, the move will be seen as having little material impact but as sending a dangerous message to Hamas and to Israel’s other enemies – that Israel’s western coalition is fraying and support for its campaign to defend itself against Hamas waning.

1. NB Total licence value does not necessarily indicate total sale value, only the total amount the licence permits the seller to trade to Israel. A full list of UK to Israel defence sale licences both granted and refused between 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2022 can be found in Appendix 1 (page 25) here.)

2. Britain’s open licence system is what makes precise calculations hard. The F35 combat aircraft is one example: 15 percent of every F35 is made by British industry, with much of this covered under the open licence system and therefore not included in licence calculations. CAAT estimates the value of the components UK industry supplies for Israeli F35s to be worth at least £336m since 2016. Possessing advanced stealth capabilities, the F35 is an important weapon in Israel’s war in Gaza, and in its defence against both Hezbollah aggression in the north and Houthi attacks from the Red Sea.

3. The UK bases decisions on arms exports on eight separate criteria. The purpose of these criteria, says the government, is “to promote global security and facilitate responsible exports. They help ensure that goods exported from the United Kingdom do not contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or a destabilising accumulation of conventional weapons. They protect the United Kingdom’s security and our expertise by restricting who has access to sensitive technologies and capabilities. Export controls also help ensure that controlled items are not used for internal repression or in the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law. They are one of the means by which we implement a range of international legal commitments including the Arms Trade Treaty.”