Lawyers and Retired Judges Call On U.K. Government to End Arms Sales to Israel

The British government is coming under escalating pressure to suspend arms sales to Israel after the strike on a convoy in Gaza that killed seven aid workers, including three Britons. More than 600 lawyers and retired judges sent a letter to the government, arguing that the sales violated international law.

Citing the risk of famine among Palestinians, a potential Israeli military assault on the city of Rafah and a finding of the U.N.’s top court that there was a “plausible risk” of genocide in Gaza, the lawyers urged Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “suspend the provision of weapons and weapons systems” to Israel.

“Serious action,” the 17-page letter sent on Wednesday concluded, “is moreover needed to avoid U.K. complicity in grave breaches of international law, including potential violations of the Genocide Convention.”

Among the signatories are Brenda Hale, a former president of Britain’s Supreme Court; Jonathan Sumption and Nicholas Wilson, former justices on the court; and dozens of the country’s most prominent lawyers.

Mr. Sunak has hardened his criticism of Israel’s conduct of the war in recent weeks, while stopping short of punitive measures. On Tuesday, he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that the strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy, in which the three Britons were killed, was “appalling.”

But Mr. Sunak has not signaled he is considering a halt to arms sales. Speaking to The Sun, a London tabloid, on Wednesday, he said, “We’ve always had a very careful export licensing regime that we adhere to. There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we’ll always follow.”

Britain’s arms trade with Israel is nowhere near that of the United States. Grant Shapps, the defense secretary, told Parliament that British exports to Israel totaled 42 million pounds ($53 million) in 2022, a figure he described as “relatively small.” It sells parts for military aircraft, assault rifles and explosive devices. Under a 10-year agreement reached in 2016, the United States provides $3.8 billion in annual military aid to Israel.

But the strike on the aid convoy has provoked fury across Britain, dominating the front pages of newspapers and TV news broadcasts. The family of one of the three British victims, John Chapman, said in a statement, “He died trying to help people and was subject to an inhumane act.”

Britain summoned Israel’s ambassador to lodge a formal objection and demanded an investigation into the strike, which Mr. Netanyahu characterized as a tragic accident in the fog of war.

That explanation is unlikely to quiet the growing chorus of condemnation. Several members of Parliament from Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party have also demanded that arms sales be halted, as has Peter Ricketts, who was national security adviser to David Cameron, the current foreign secretary, when he was prime minister.

“Sometimes in conflict you get a moment where there is such global outrage that it crystallizes a sense that things can’t go on like this,” Mr. Ricketts said to the BBC on Wednesday. “I hope that this awful incident will serve that purpose.”

Mr. Cameron, who was in Brussels on Thursday for a second day of meetings of NATO foreign ministers, said Israel needed not only to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, but also to make sure that the convoys were able to transport it throughout the enclave without further lethal incidents.

“Britain will be watching very closely to make sure that that happens,” Mr. Cameron said to reporters on Wednesday.

The Labour Party, which holds a double-digit lead over the Conservatives in opinion polls, said Britain should suspend arms sales if Israel is found to have violated international law. “I must say that I do have very serious concerns,” David Lammy, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, told reporters.

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