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Revealed: David Cameron advised continuing arms exports to Israel, accepting Israel has a different interpretation of its International Humanitarian Law obligations

MEDIA RELEASE: Revealed: David Cameron advised continuing arms exports to Israel, accepting Israel has a different interpretation of its International Humanitarian Law obligations

Legal document in the case brought by GLAN and Al-Haq against the UK government over arms sales to Israel reveal that:

  • The UK government has confirmed that it has conducted a review of arms exports to Israel but will not suspend sales. Despite overwhelming evidence presented in the South African ICJ case that the Israeli government is committing war crimes in Gaza that amount to a genocide against Palestinian people, only a handful potential International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violations were assessed as part of the review.
  • The document reveals that on 10th November, the Foreign Office assessment unit advising David Cameron had “serious concerns” that Israel had breached IHL, and highlighted concerns over its willingness to comply with IHL including its obligation not to arbitrarily deny access to humanitarian assistance. However, just four days later when Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, questioned Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell over arms exports and breaches of IHL, he replied “The hon. Member will know that the President of Israel, President Herzog, has made it clear that his country will abide by international humanitarian law.”
  • The assessment unit then wrote to the Israeli government outlining its concerns on 21st November. The document says it was satisfied by reassurances from the Israeli government that it is committed to complying with IHL, repeatedly stating that Israel has a different interpretation and view of its IHL obligations. It decided there was “insufficient information” to assess whether there had been potential IHL violations over four other allegations.
  • Despite David Cameron refusing to give specific details of any review when he was questioned at the Foreign Affairs Committee on 9th January, Secretary of State for Business and Trade Kemi Badenoch ‘reviewed’ export licences to Israel on 18th December based on advice from Cameron. The government’s Strategic Licensing Criteria states that weapons should not be exported when there is a clear risk they could be used in violations of International Humanitarian Law.
  • Specifically the document states that on 8th December, the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) wrote to Cameron setting out three options – continuing exports but keeping them under review, suspending exports that are likely to be used in Gaza, or suspending all arms sales – and “that the availability of each of the options turned on the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of whether there is a clear risk that items would be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of IHL. On 12th December, Cameron “decided that he was satisfied that there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply with IHL. On the basis of that assessment in particular, the Foreign Secretary decided to recommend Option 1 to the Secretary of State for Business and Trade”.
  • The document also confirms that the UK government legally regards Israel as an occupying force in Gaza – something Cameron refused to confirm at the Foreign Affairs Committee.
  • Since 2015, the UK has licenced over £487m worth of arms to Israel in single issue licenses. However, this does not include open licenses where companies can export unlimited amounts of specified equipment without further reporting requirements.  One of these open licenses is for components for the F35 stealth combat aircraft that Israel is currently using to bombard Gaza. UK industry makes 15% of each F35, and Campaign Against Arms Trade estimates the value of the F35 contract is at least £336m since 2016. These figures do not include licenses issued since 7th October due to a lag in reporting arms export data.
  • Zarah Sultana’s private members bill, formally titled Arms Trade (Inquiry and Suspension) Bill, would suspend arms sales to Israel and to any country where there is a risk they would be used in violation of international law. The Bill would also launch an inquiry into the end-use of arms sales, identifying inadequacies of the export licensing regime, and recommending reforms to ensure Britain never again sells weapons for war crimes.
  • The Bill was presented to Parliament on 11th December 2023 and it is scheduled for its Second Reading today (Friday 19th January), where it is expected to be blocked by the Conservative government.

Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, said:

“It’s utterly outrageous that the government made the active decision to continue arming Israel despite the overwhelming evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza.

These documents expose that whilst ministers were giving public reassurances about Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law, in private there were major concerns in the Foreign Office about Israel’s behaviour.

The government must now end its complicity in this atrocity and immediately suspend arms sales to Israel.”

Campaign Against Arms Trade’s Media Coordinator, Emily Apple, said:

“It is a disgrace that we only know about this review through the legal action brought by Al-Haq and GLAN. It shouldn’t take the threat of a court case for there to be any government accountability. David Cameron could, and should, have shared this information with the Foreign Affairs Committee. He chose not to, and was evasive, despite intense questioning.  There must be consequences for this refusal to present this information to the committee that is supposed to be scrutinising his actions. As a Lord, he cannot be questioned on the floor of the House of Commons, so this committee is the only way MPs can hold him accountable.”

“The so-called ‘review’ is nothing but a sham by a government that is trying to find any excuse it can to continue arming Israel, and that does not care about the lives of Palestinian people. The UK government has a duty to suspend arms sales when they could be used in violations of international law, and it is outrageous and abhorrent that the Foreign Secretary is willing to simply accept that Israel has its own interpretation of its obligations under IHL. It makes a mockery both of IHL and our arms export criteria.

“There is a genocide happening in Gaza. The UN has described Gaza as ‘a graveyard for children’. Hospitals have been destroyed, refugee camps bombed, thousands have died, thousands more have been displaced and are facing famine because the Israeli government is refusing to allow aid into the area. Our government, and the UK arms trade, are complicit in these war crimes, and the deaths of thousands of Palestinian children.”

Dearbhla Minogue of Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) said: 

“The U.K.’s defence has made it clear that they have not stood back and looked at all of the evidence objectively, but instead have gone to the perpetrator, asked whether they are violating international law, and taken their word for it. Just as the ICJ proceedings test the credibility of the international legal system, this case is a test for the credibility of the national arms control system, including the role of the Courts in monitoring that. International humanitarian law was designed to balance humanity with military necessity, and the government’s approach drives a coach and horses through that cardinal objective”.


Notes for Editors:

  1. More information about the legal case Al-Haq and Glan are bringing against the UK government can be found here and here
  2. A copy document, Summary grounds for the Secretary of State is available here. Page 12 references the “serious concerns” and decision to write to the Israeli embassy. Page 17 references the assessment unit conclusion following the response from Israel, and page 18 sets out the timeline for the review carried out and Cameron’s role in making the recommendation to continue exporting arms. Page 5 confirms the UK government’s legal position that Israel is an occupying force in Gaza.
  3. David Cameron’s appearance at the Foreign Affairs Committee can be seen here. Relevant time stamps at 14:52 – refusing to answer whether the UK regards Israel legally as an occupying force in Gaza and 15:10 in relation to the review into Israeli arms exports.
  4.  Zarah Sultana’s question to Andrew Mitchell and his response are here and a link to her presentation bill is here
  5. CAAT’s UK arms exports figure to Israel since 2015 has been updated to take into account recently released data for quarter 2 in 2023. The figures are now up to June 2023.

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