UK’s Rishi Sunak faces growing pressure to stop arms sales to Israel

Political pressure on British PM to halt arms exports to Israel grows after seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen were killed in an air attack on Gaza.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Sunak on Wednesday resisted calls to immediately suspend weapons sales to Israel [File: Carl Recine/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing growing political pressure to stop selling weapons to Israel after seven aid workers, including three British nationals, were killed by an Israeli air attack on Gaza.

Three opposition parties and some MPs in the governing Conservative Party said on Wednesday the British government should consider suspending arms sales.

The Liberal Democrats called for arms exports to Israel to be suspended, while the Scottish National Party also backed that move and said parliament should be recalled from its Easter break to discuss the crisis.

The main opposition Labour Party, which polls suggest will form the next government after elections expected later this year, said the government should suspend arms sales if lawyers found that Israel had broken international law.

“It’s important now that, that advice is published so that we can all be clear that if there has been a breach in international humanitarian law – and I must say that I do have very serious concerns – that arm sales are suspended,” David Lammy, Labour’s foreign policy chief, told reporters.

Meanwhile, three former Supreme Court justices joined more than 600 lawyers, legal academics and retired senior judges in calling for the government to halt arms sales to Israel, saying it could make Britain complicit in genocide in Gaza.

“The provision of military assistance and material to Israel may render the UK complicit in genocide as well as serious breaches of international humanitarian law,”  they wrote in a 17-page letter to Sunak on Wednesday.

“Customary international law recognises the concept of ‘aiding and assisting’ an international wrongful act.”

The attack on the convoy of people working for aid group World Central Kitchen (WCK) killed citizens of Australia, the UK and Poland as well as a Palestinian and a dual citizen of the US and Canada. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the strike was tragic and unintended, and the Israeli military pledged an independent inquiry.

WCK said its staff were travelling in two armoured cars emblazoned with the charity’s logo and another vehicle, and had coordinated their movements with the Israeli military.

Several of Israel’s key allies also expressed outrage at the deaths and called for an independent investigation into the attack.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he spoke to Netanyahu and conveyed that his country was “outraged” by the death of the Australian worker, Zomi Frankcom. Albanese said he raised the importance of full accountability and transparency, and that Netanyahu had committed to a comprehensive inquiry.

An investigation by Al Jazeera’s Sanad Verification Agency found that the Israeli attack on the aid convoy was intentional.

WCK’s founder Jose Andres said in an interview with the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that the Israeli military had targeted his employees “systematically, car by car”.

Arms sales kept under review

Sunak on Wednesday resisted calls to immediately suspend weapons sales to Israel. He said that arms exports to the country are kept under review. “We’ve always had a very careful export licensing regime that we adhere to,” Sunak said in an interview with the Sun newspaper.

“There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we’ll always follow.”

A majority of people in Britain back a ban on weapon sales to Israel, according to a poll published in The Guardian. Fifty-six percent of people are in favour of a ban compared with 17 percent opposed, the poll found.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps told parliament in November that defence exports to Israel were “relatively small” at 42 million pounds ($53m) in 2022, the last full-year data available. Military exports to Israel, which included components for explosive devices, assault rifles, and military aircraft, were about 0.4 percent of Britain’s total global defence sales that year.

During a previous conflict in Gaza in 2014, the British government said it would suspend some arms exports to Israel if hostilities continued. But ultimately, it made no move to restrict arms sales.

The British government has sold weapons and military components worth more than 570 million pounds ($719m) to Israel since 2008.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies