Arms sales to Israel land UK government in court

A man sits on the rubble as others wander among debris of buildings that were targeted by Israeli airstrikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, 1/11/23.
A man sits on the rubble as others wander among debris of buildings that were targeted by Israeli airstrikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, 1/11/23. Copyright Abed Khaled/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Joshua Askew
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Nearly 16,000 people - mostly women and children - have been killed in Gaza so far, with the UN warning of an "even more hellish scenario" yet to come.

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Rights groups have taken the UK government to court over its arms exports to Israel amid the catastrophic war in Gaza. 

Supported by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq and UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) want London to immediately suspend lucrative weapons sales to Israel, claiming there is a "clear risk" they are being used in war crimes. 

They announced their legal challenge on Tuesday, claiming the government had "repeatedly ignored" written requests to halt supplying arms to Israel over "grave concerns". 

Their High Court case centres upon Israel's "indiscriminate attacks on civilians and infrastructure critical for their survival, starvation, forced displacement" and the "risk of genocide," said GLAN Director Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn in a press briefing attended by Euronews. 

He told reporters such weapons deliveries "called into question the UK's domestic and international legal obligations in light of the atrocities being committed by Israel in Gaza.

"Like other members of the international community, the UK has a clear obligation to prevent such crimes, including genocide, and should immediately consider all diplomatic, political and economic measures to do so."

FILE - Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.
FILE - Palestinians rescue survivors after an Israeli strike on Rafah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.Hatem Ali/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

In a statement, the UK Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories very closely.

“We can and do respond quickly and flexibly to changing international circumstances. All licences are kept under careful and continual review and we are able to amend, suspend, refuse or revoke licences as circumstances require.”

The government has previously said it has 'no plans' to suspend arms sales to Israel, despite repeated criticism from human rights campaigners and watchdogs.

UK supplies key weapons to Israel

The UK is a significant supplier of arms to Israel. 

It provides 15% of the components in the F-35 stealth combat aircraft that Israel has used to relentlessly bomb Gaza, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), which puts these sales at £336 million (€386 million) since 2016.

Katie Fallon, Advocacy Manager at CAAT, said suppliers were "very familiar names" like BAE Systems - Europe's largest defence company - Rolls-Royce and Dunlop Aircraft Tyres, during the journalist briefing. 

Yet, CAAT told Euronews in November the “most significant” exports are via open licences, which "lack transparency" making it difficult to know what exactly is being sent. 

They suggest equipment, software and technology for combat aircraft and helicopters, plus components for artillery, naval guns and combat vessels, missile and munitions equipment and military radars could have been sold by the UK to Israel. 

"No self-respecting state should allow its weapons anywhere near the atrocities that Israel is currently committing against the entire population of Gaza," said Dearbhla Minogue, Senior Lawyer at GLAN in a press release sent to Euronews. 

"These licenses are outrageous, and I am curious to see how the UK government will defend itself before the High Court.”

FILE - Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to a hospital in Deir al-Balah on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.
FILE - Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to a hospital in Deir al-Balah on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023.Hatem Moussa/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against strict criteria. Under its own rules, they can be denied if there is a clear risk arms will be used to perpetrate human rights abuses or jeopardise regional peace. 

Senior GLAN lawyer Siobhán Allen said at the press briefing that her organisation had submitted a 'Freedom of Information' request to the UK government to disclose how decisions about issuing licences had been made.  

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Articles 6 and 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty - to which London is a signatory - also bar transfers where there is an overriding risk arms could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian law.

But the UK is not alone in its arms sales to Israel. 

A recent Euronews report detailed that multiple European states had supplied weapons and equipment, including tanks, ships and helicopters, that Israeli forces were now likely using in their deadly Gaza offensive.  

"It is regrettable and utterly reprehensible that the UK continues to contribute to the transgenerational suffering of the Palestinian people," said Ahmed Abofoul, an international lawyer at Al-Haq.

"There is no place for double standards, selectivity and hypocrisy... the past months have shown clearly that when there is political will the UK government is capable of respecting, promoting and even mobilising international law to prevent atrocities." 

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Palestinian authorities said on Monday that 15,899 people - 70% of them women and children - have been killed since Israel started bombing the Gaza Strip. 

Some 1,200 people in southern Israel were killed during Hamas' raid on 7 October, which sparked the war. 

"One must say that this situation did not happen in a vacuum. Rather this is the result of 75 years of Zionist settler colonialism and apartheid imposed on the Palestinian people as a whole," lawyer Ahmed Abofoul told reporters. 

Palestinian children wounded in Israeli bombardment are brought to a hospital in Deir al Balah, south of the Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.
Palestinian children wounded in Israeli bombardment are brought to a hospital in Deir al Balah, south of the Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023.Hatem Moussa/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Israel typically justifies its military actions as self-defence and a response to security threats posed by Palestinian militant groups, like Hamas. 

GLAN crowdfunded its legal case. They expect to have a hearing at the High Court by March at the latest.

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Engaged in a ground offensive in northern Gaza since 27 October, Israel's army this week extended its operations across the entire territory. 

It is shelling southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have sought refuge since the start of the war. 

They are now trapped in a shrinking perimeter near the closed border with Egypt, with nowhere to go. 

Israel has already imposed a near-total siege on the Gaza Strip - where nearly half the population are children - blocking supplies of water, food and electricity, which some argue amounts to a collective punishment.

Gazans have faced dire humanitarian consequences as a result of the Israeli blockade, with Western capitals urging Israel to show restraint and take steps to avoid civilian casualties. 

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“An even more hellish scenario is about to materialise," warned the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinian Territories, Canadian Lynn Hastings.

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