By David Cronin

French arms sales to Israel are "in total contradiction" of European Union rules on the defence industry, the author of a new study has said.

Between 2003 and 2007 France issued licences worth more than 446 million euros (623 million dollars) for arms exports to Israel. This made France by far the largest supplier of weapons to Israel in the EU.

Patrice Bouveret from the French Centre for Research on Peace and Conflicts (CRDPC) in Lyon says that these sales are at variance with the Union’s decade-old code of conduct on weapons exports. Formally declared legally binding by EU governments last year, the code forbids weapons sales in cases where they may exacerbate regional tensions or where there is a strong likelihood they will be used in violation of human rights.

Speaking at the launch Thursday of his new report on Israel’s involvement in the arms trade, titled ’Who Arms Israel and Hamas?’, Bouveret dismissed repeated assurances from the French government that the exports in question are generally only components of military goods rather than complete weapons systems. "Even if they are only components, they are used directly by the Israeli army," he added.

According to the results of an Amnesty International investigation published in February, electrical components with ’Made in France’ written on them were found in the wreckage of buildings destroyed by the Israeli army during the offensive it launched on Gaza late last year. The components were part of Hellfire AGM missiles manufactured by the U.S. company Hellfire Systems, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

Bouveret also argued that Israel is eager to bolster its military cooperation with Europe in order to reduce its traditional reliance on the U.S.

Since a seven-year embargo on weapons sales to Israel was lifted by the French government in 1974, Israel has turned to France to buy lasers and specialised equipment for reconnaissance which it has been unable to obtain from the U.S.

The overall value of licences awarded by EU governments for arms sales to Israel amounted to 846 million euros between 2003 and 2007. After France, the largest exports came from Germany, Britain, Belgium, Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic.

Ten of the Union’s 27 member states officially state, however, that they do not sell any weapons to Israel. These include Portugal, Ireland, Finland and Denmark.

Caroline Pailhe from GRIP, a Belgian organisation that monitors the arms trade, said at the launch of the report in Brussels Thursday that Israel’s attack on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 appeared to have had "no net influence" on defence exports to Israel. At 127 million euros the value of licences approved by EU countries for 2006 fell from 145 million euros the previous year. But it then climbed to 199 million euros in 2007.

Israel is becoming an increasingly important player in the global defence industry. It is both the sixth largest arms importer and the fourth largest exporter. Last year appears to have been a record year for its industry. In the first six months, Israel sold 5.3 billion dollars worth of arms abroad, compared to 4.7 billion dollars for the entire 2007, according to the France- Israel Chamber of Commerce.

The development of this industry has been heavily subsidised by the U.S. In the 1951-2006 period, the U.S. has provided Israel 162 billion dollars. In contrast, sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, has received just 88 billion dollars.

About 75 percent of bilateral U.S. aid to Israel has been channelled via two programmes: Foreign Military Financing, which funds the sale of U.S. weapons, and the Economic Support Fund, which allocates subsidies to strategic allies.

Gerald Loftus, a former U.S. diplomat, says he expects President Barack Obama not to reduce the size of aid to Israel.

But Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Authority’s chief representative in Brussels, draws a distinction between the tone of the foreign policy advocated by Obama and that pursued by his predecessor George W. Bush. "Fear was the leitmotiv of all the policies of President Bush," she said at the launch of the report. "He exploited fear against Islam and fear of a clash of civilisations. Obama has rejected the idea of manipulating fear."

Meanwhile, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset Colette Avital has criticised the restrictions placed by her government on supplies of goods to Gaza.

Pharmacists in Gaza say they are unable to sell treatment for head-lice in children, or sell knee braces for people with leg injuries, and a variety of medicines because Israel will not allow such items to be transported into the strip. Books and newspapers have also been prevented from entering Gaza.

Avital, a leading member of the Israeli Labour Party, told IPS that she would be in favour of ensuring that material which may be used as explosives is prevented from entering Gaza but that denying access to goods that are commonly available elsewhere is "counterproductive".

"I don’t see the purpose of not allowing in certain items that are not destructive," she said during a visit to Brussels this week. "Books and medicines have to go in."