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This week, I joined leaders from civil society calling on the UK government to immediately suspend arms sales to Israel. This is not only the right thing to do but is also what the government should do to uphold its own laws on weapons licensing.
Under the UK’s arms export regime, licenses cannot be granted where there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The Israeli military’s conduct of hostilities in Gaza creates a clear risk of UK arms being used in grave abuses including reinforcing the unlawful blockade and carrying out unlawful attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. That is why human rights groups have brought a legal challenge to try to stop the UK selling arms to Israel, and Parliament is debating the issue today (12 December)
Since 2015, the UK has licensed at least £474 million worth of military exports to Israel, including components for combat aircrafts, missiles, tanks, technology, small arms and ammunition. The UK provides approximately 15% of the components in the F-35 stealth bomber aircraft currently being used in Gaza.
The horror we have witnessed over the last two months in southern Israel and Gaza has shocked humanity. The brutal attack by Hamas-led gunmen on October 7 resulted in the killing of about 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to the Israeli government. Hamas is still holding scores of civilians hostage, a war crime. In response, the Government imposed an arms embargo, and a range of other sanctions on Hamas officials and entities.
Israeli authorities responded to the Hamas attack by tightening the screws on their 16-year unlawful blockade of Gaza – which is part of the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution – by imposing a near complete blockade on the enclave. This amounts to collective punishment of the population, a war crime.
Over the past two months, Israeli forces have carried out unlawful and apparently unlawful attacks in Gaza and neighbouring countries on medical facilities, personnel and transport, a civilian vehicle and a journalist; and have struck multi-story residential buildings, places of worship and UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees facilities that were sheltering displaced people.
More than 18,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, about 70 per cent are women and children, according to Gaza authorities. Due to Israel’s blockade and bombardment, most hospitals are not functioning and people are deprived of essential items, such as food, water and electricity.
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As the Israel military resumed its offensive on 1 December in Gaza – which is just 11% the size of Cambridgeshire – there is no sign attacks will stop anytime soon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel intends to “turn Gaza into a deserted island”.
This is not the first time Israel has been accused of possible war crimes. In hostilities prior to 2023, Israeli forces carried out unlawful airstrikes that killed scores of civilians at a time, wiping out entire families, and targeted civilian infrastructure, destroying high-rise Gaza towers full of homes and businesses, with no evident military targets in the vicinity—acts that violate the laws of war.
The UK government is on notice of the risk its arms may be used in Gaza. Indeed, it has previously admitted that its arms were used in the 2008-2009 hostilities in Gaza. And during the 2014 Gaza hostilities, the government warned that it would suspend existing licenses if significant hostilities resumed, as it would not be able to ensure that UK arms were not being used to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Allies of Israel, including the UK, and backers of Palestinian armed groups should suspend arms sales and military assistance so long as parties continue to commit widespread, serious abuses amounting to war crimes against civilians with impunity. Providing weapons knowingly, that significantly contribute to unlawful attacks, would make the UK complicit in such abuses.
The UK should follow its own laws and immediately suspend licenses for arms and military equipment to Israel. In failing to do so, it risks breaching its own laws and being complicit in grave abuses.
Yasmine Ahmed is the UK director at Human Rights Watch.