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Government Faces Court Action Over Arms Sales to Israel Amid Claims of Gaza “Genocide”

‘There should be no doubt that [UK-made] weapons are at acute risk of being used to commit further criminal acts and, possibly genocide’

People attend a Day of Action For Palestine in London’s Trafalgar Square in solidarity with the people of Palestine and to demand a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Credit: Stephen Chung /Alamy

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Human rights groups are taking the UK Government to the High Court over arms exports to Israel. 

Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) announced the launch of legal proceedings earlier this week.

The legal filing comes amid claims Israel’s policies explicitly call for collective punishment and forced displacement of Gaza’s trapped population, along with increasingly aggressive settlement activity in the West Bank.

The legal action was taken after written requests to suspend arms sales to Israel due to grave breaches of international law and UK rules were “repeatedly ignored”, the groups say.

The filed papers detail indiscriminate attacks on civilians, destruction of infrastructure critical for their survival, starvation, forced displacement, and the risk of genocide. 

The action is supported by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, and the briefing will also have contributions from other UK organisations, including the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Since 7 October, more than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel according to the health ministry, around half of whom are children. It comes as Israel continues to respond to Hamas’ terror attacks six weeks ago.

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Under the UK Government’s ‘strategic licensing criteria’, weapons may not be exported where there is a clear risk that they might be used in serious violations of international law.

Israel’s policies and actions have resulted in widespread indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians, killing thousands and levelling entire neighbourhoods to the ground, Al Haq and GLAN argue.

Protected sites such as hospitals, schools, and food sources have been repeatedly and, in the eyes of human rights observers, targeted by airstrikes. Israel has also ordered the forced displacement of more than a million Gazans from north to south Gaza. The UN stated this transfer would have “devastating humanitarian consequences”.

Earlier this month, UK health workers protested to demand an immediate end to UK arms sales to Israel.

The UK Government has authorised nearly £500 million worth of arms exports to Israel in the past eight years, according to MedAct, a non-profit for social-justice focused health workers.

In the statement by Health Workers for a Free Palestine, the group said: “As health workers, we are responding to the call from our colleagues in Palestine for us to stand with them in solidarity.”

Elizabeth, a foundation doctor, told the protest: “We are horrified at the attacks on hospitals, the thousands of deaths, the collective punishment of the Palestinian people, and how politicians are justifying this. As health workers in the UK, it is our responsibility to demand the UK ends its support for genocide.”

Recent statements by Israel’s Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, strongly suggest that the military is conducting reprisal attacks against civilians, with Gallant ordering a “complete siege” of the Gaza Strip.

“There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we act accordingly”. In the context of ordering the evacuation of northern Gaza, he also stated on 9 October that the aim is “to change the face of reality in Gaza 50 years ahead”.

An IDF spokesperson has admitted that, in the large-scale bombardment of Gaza, Israel’s “emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy”, and an unnamed Israeli official told local media that Gaza would be reduced to a “city of tents” by the end of the campaign.

Legal experts have even suggested that these statements demonstrate “genocidal intent” to destroy Palestinians as a national group.

On 16 November, UN experts made a statement calling on the international community to prevent genocide against the Palestinian people, saying “grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians in the aftermath of 7 October, particularly in Gaza, point to a genocide in the making”.

The Israeli regime violates most of the fundamental human rights of Palestinians. 

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More than 800 scholars recently signed a letter aiming to “sound the alarm about the possibility of the crime of genocide”.

The backers of the UK legal claim over arms sales say that Israel imposes a comprehensive system of “apartheid in occupied territory”, including constructing a separation barrier (or ‘Apartheid Wall’) which the International Court of Justice has declared illegal.

“Its soldiers regularly shoot unarmed civilians with live ammunition; it constantly monitors the Palestinian population and impedes their movement through dozens of checkpoints and advanced technology; it destroys Palestinian property and moves its own population into occupied territory,” the groups said in a statement. “This brutality against Palestinians in the West Bank has only worsened since 7 October.”

The UK Government has granted licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel under a wide range of categories in recent years. For example, since 2015, there has been £472 million in limited value ‘standard’ licence grants, and 58 unlimited value ‘open’ licences. 

The categories include: body armour, military communications equipment, military electronic equipment, components for military radars and targeting equipment, components for military aircraft displays and unmanned air vehicles, components for military support and combat aircraft, naval vessel components, and much more. 

Given that these items are all capable of being used in Israel’s actions against Palestinians, many of which are criminal acts under international criminal law, some legal experts argue there is a “clear risk” of human rights abuses under the strategic licensing criteria, meaning the Government should not be issuing these licences.

Dearbhla Minogue, GLAN senior lawyer, said: “No self-respecting state should allow its weapons anywhere near the atrocities that Israel is currently committing against the entire population of Gaza. These licences are outrageous, and I am curious to see how the UK Government will defend itself before the High Court.” 

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Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network, argued that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is the result of “numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity committed over time”.

“Recent statements by Israeli military leaders now obligate states to review their transfer of arms,” Dr Ó Cuinn said. “There should be no doubt that these weapons are at acute risk of being used to commit further criminal acts and, possibly genocide.”

Other experts say that it is not possible to prove Israel’s actions meet the legal threshold for genocide so far.

“I don’t think it’s genocidal yet – I think it can easily be,” Ernesto Verdeja, an associate professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, told the US outlet Vox. “At this point, it’s a little hard to put all the pieces together.”

Israel has vociferously rejected claims of genocide in Gaza.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said on 17 November: “Israel rejects all allegations made by the [UN] Special Rapporteurs. Those who signed the statement insult the victims of genocide throughout history… Israel is committed to international humanitarian law and will continue to take measures to prevent civilian harm in Gaza.”

Under the UN Genocide Convention – which came into force in 1951 and has been ratified by 153 states – genocide means acts to specifically destroy a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”. 

Israel and Hamas have agreed a four-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into the conflict zone, which began on Friday (24 November) morning.

A Conservative bill to ban council boycotts of countries like Israel on political grounds is currently making its way through Parliament and will soon head to the House of Lords.

GLAN has launched a crowdfunder to support its legal challenge.

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

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