Tue 09 Apr 2024 11:29 pm - Jerusalem Time

Has UK support for Israel reached a tipping point?

By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Six months have elapsed since Israel launched its brutal military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip.

Despite the extensive destruction and humanitarian anguish that’s unfolded in Gaza, Israel’s Western backers have still largely resisted calls to end their own complicity. 

“After six months of relentless, indiscriminate bombardment by the Israeli military, there are no more words I can use to adequately describe the horror and suffering being inflicted on Gaza’s civilians,” Aseel Baidoun, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), told The New Arab.

The UK government is currently under immense pressure from many segments of society - ranging from lawyers, MPs, rights groups, and grassroots activists - urging an immediate halt of arms sales to Israel, citing legal and humanitarian violations committed in Gaza.

This push has intensified following the killing of seven aid workers from the humanitarian NGO World Central Kitchen on 1 April, three of whom were British nationals, all victims of three separate Israeli strikes.

"The UK government is currently under immense pressure from many segments of society - ranging from lawyers, MPs, rights groups, and grassroots activists - urging an immediate halt of arms sales to Israel"

And per a leaked recording reported by the Observer, UK government lawyers had warned ministers that Israel has broken international humanitarian law in Gaza, information the government has not made public.

Despite initially supporting Israel’s “right to self-defence” following Hamas’ 7 October attack, Britain’s continued deference to Israel’s narratives during its subsequent military offensive is becoming less defensible.

“In a situation where Israel’s actions have crossed every feasible red line, the UK government must take concrete action that ends this horror,” added Aseel.

Complicity in Israeli violations

Despite the growing legal backlash, Deputy PM Oliver Dowden claimed on 7 April that “I think that Israel is conducting a legitimate campaign,” adding that Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s advice on continuing but reviewing arms exports “has not changed”.

So far, the UK government has refused to investigate how its own arms sales may fuel violations, let alone seriously contemplate an arms embargo.

Although the United States and Germany are Israel’s primary arms suppliers, Britain still provides important components used in Israeli-used warplanes, including the F-35s and F-16s, underscoring the UK’s less visible, albeit significant, contribution to Israel’s military capabilities.

However, these components are among the 62 open license parts not included in the single British arms licenses worth over £487 million since 2015. This omission means the actual value of British exports to Israel currently remains unclear.

Layla Moran, a British-Palestinian MP whose family were until recently trapped in Gaza, told The New Arab that “the thought that UK-made arms could have been used in strikes, including the one that killed aid workers, is unconscionable”.

The Liberal Democrat MP said: “If the UK Government has received legal advice that Israel’s actions are not compliant with international humanitarian law, then Conservative ministers risk being in breach of the Ministerial Code by failing to halt UK arms exports to Israel”.

Even before the recent aid worker killings, over 200 humanitarian workers had been killed in Gaza, as well as over 136 journalists, on top of a Palestinian death toll of over 33,000, including 13,000 children.

“Gaza is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an aid worker right now,” said Aseel Baidoun of MAP. “Our own emergency medical team was hit by an Israeli airstrike on their compound on 18 January.”

"After months of Israeli attacks on civilians, ministers may be approaching a tipping point, and the looming threat of legal challenges against them and their officials over the lawfulness of the UK's arms to Israel policy may also be coming into play"

Baidoun said that their compound was attacked after its coordinates had been shared with the Israeli military through the UN’s deconfliction process, which is meant to protect humanitarian personnel in Gaza.

“An independent multi-agency investigation by the UN carried out on 19 January found that it had most likely involved a GBU32 (MK83) missile package. This 1000 lb US-manufactured 'smart bomb' was fired from an F16 jet. F16s are manufactured in the US and include parts supplied by the UK,” she told TNA.

The weaponisation of aid and the record number of aid workers killed in Israel’s war has compounded Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and triggered what EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently described as a man-made famine.

A boiling point

With Israel’s plethora of violations now laid bare, the pressure within the UK has certainly reached a boiling point, with cross-parliamentary opposition.

In late March, over 134 MPs parliamentarians signed a letter to David Cameron and Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch calling for an immediate arms embargo, penned by Labour MP Zarah Sultana. Among them were six Conservative MPs and 55 Labour MPs. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party oppose weapons sales and support a ceasefire over Gaza.

Former prominent Conservatives have also denounced arms sales, including former foreign minister Alan Duncan and former UK National Security Advisor Peter Ricketts. London Mayor Sadiq Khan also urged a ban on weapons to Israel on 4 April.

In the media sector, British newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, which had given favourable coverage to Israel, mourned the killings of the three British aid workers while criticising the fact that an Israeli airstrike was responsible.

Even LBC presenter Nick Ferrari, who had described himself as a “friend” of Israel, suggested Britain should now suspend weapons.

“It speaks volumes about Western prejudice that media and many politicians in the UK have said more about the killing of seven people, when three British citizens were among the victims, than about the tens of thousands of Palestinians murdered in Gaza and the use of starvation as a weapon of war,” Claudia Webbe, MP for Leicester East, told The New Arab.

“However, prejudice aside, the UK government’s prime responsibility is supposed to be the protection of its people, yet even after three were violently killed the reaction of David Cameron and the government is limited to yet more regret and finger-wagging.”

On a societal level, Israel has increasingly lost favour. A new YouGov poll found, even before the airstrike on the WCK workers, that around 56% of the British public now support a suspension of arms sales to Israel, as opposed to 17%, while the same poll found that 59% think Israel is violating human rights in Gaza.

"During the past six months, the UK's arms export control system has completely failed regarding the safety-first principle of suspending arms transfers when there's a clear risk of their misuse"

Legal challenges

Over 600 lawyers, including former Supreme Court President Lady Hale, have warned the Prime Minister in a letter that exporting weapons to Israel could breach international law, citing Gaza’s deteriorating conditions and the International Court of Justice's mention of the risks of genocide as reasons for the UK to cease arms sales.

Civil servants working on arms exports at the Department of Business and Trade have threatened potential legal action against the government to stop their members from being compelled to support illegal arms transfers.

“After months of Israeli attacks on civilians, ministers may be approaching a tipping point, and the looming threat of legal challenges against them and their officials over the lawfulness of the UK’s arms to Israel policy may also be coming into play,” Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Crisis Response Manager, told The New Arab.

“During the past six months, the UK's arms export control system has completely failed regarding the safety-first principle of suspending arms transfers when there's a clear risk of their misuse.”

Should Britain eventually be forced into suspending weapons to Israel, such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented.

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher imposed an arms embargo on Israel over the 1982 Lebanon war, which wasn’t lifted until 1994. Moreover, Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown suspended lethal equipment to Israel during the Second Intifada and the 2008-09 Gaza war respectively.

Yet the current Conservative government, which has established an unprecedently close relationship with the Israeli right wing, has remained determined not to suspend arms, despite publicly expressing concern for Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe.

“Gradually the UK is moving from being mildly critical of Israel’s actions on the humanitarian front to taking a more robust position generally,” Chris Doyle, Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, told TNA. “For Palestinians, much of this is far too late.”

Publishing the government lawyers’ legal advice could likely compel Britain into implementing an arms embargo. And doing so may also establish a precedent, encouraging other European countries to halt their weapons sales as well.

While domestic legal pressures are expected to play a significant role in changing the government’s stance, international developments could further drive this shift.

Not only has the ICJ already spotlighted the role of Israel's supporters, on 5 April, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted in favour of a resolution that calls for a ban on arms sales to Israel. External legal and political pressure may also compel the government to act.

However, there are also concerns that an arms embargo, even if implemented, may only be temporary and, ultimately, insufficient in ending the suffering of the Palestinians.  

“If the UK wants to comply properly with international law, it also needs to introduce emergency measures to recognise the state of Palestine and to call for all Western nations to fund the rebuilding of its flattened homes, schools and hospitals,” said Claudia Webbe, adding that sanctions on Israel and Israeli politicians would also ultimately help stop the atrocities in Gaza.


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