Israeli soldiers on a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer fire a shell towards Gaza.

Israeli soldiers on a 155mm M109 Dores self-propelled howitzer fire a shell towards Gaza.

Questions are being asked about a secret £7.7 billion UK arms deal to Israel after the exporter took the “unprecedented” step of dropping its licence during the war in Gaza last year.

Little is known about the huge export order for “cryptographic equipment and software,” but a licence to sell it to Israel was initially denied because the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) thought it may be used for “internal repression”.

Parliamentarians are now demanding government answers on the deal, a licence for which was suddenly granted in early 2013 but was later inexplicably relinquished in August, only 18 months later, as the war in Gaza raged and as the cabinet debated licence suspensions.

Liberal Democrat ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Business Secretary Vince Cable, said Israel had “overstepped the mark” in Gaza and called for the suspension of arms export licences to Israel.

The next government must now answer questions from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, a group of committees in parliament, about decision made during and prior to this period. The Committees’ annual report, released at the end of March, focuses on sales to the 28 countries listed as having human rights concerns, of which Israel is one.

Tory grandee Sir John Stanley, the Committees’ chairman and former Defence minister, is now pressing the government on whether British-made equipment was used for “repression” in Israel and Palestinian territories.

The equipment is described as commercial, mostly cryptographic software to supply Israel’s mobile phone networks, but Stanley’s Committees’ are concerned that it could have a less benign use.

“We shall continue to seek more clarification from the Government,” Stanley said. “For example, whether the cryptographic equipment can be used on internal dissent, and its possible military use.”

Thousands of export licences worth £12 billion have been granted to 28 countries listed as having human rights concerns, but most of this total is made up of the mystery licence of UK cryptographic equipment, software and technology to Israel.

In late 2013, Stanley’s Committee was told by FCO officials that the cryptographic licence had first been refused under Criterion 2 (Respect for Human Rights) because “there was a clear risk that the export might be used for internal repression”.

The UK is a world leader in cryptography, but the deal may be politically precarious, as privacy advocates continue to criticise any circumvention of technologies that NGOs, political activists and journalists depend on. They use of encryption tools to ensure private connections to a site and anonymous, but verified, communication.