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UNA-UK calls for the UK to suspend arms exports to Israel

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UNA-UK is calling on the UK Government to immediately suspend arms sales to Israel in the face of overwhelming evidence suggesting that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes.

UNA-UK condemns the heinous attack carried out by Hamas in Southern Israel on 7 October 2023, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 200 people taken hostage; atrocities that constitute a war crime.  We also condemn the appalling and indiscriminate nature of the response by the Israeli Government and call on the UK and its allies to use all tools available to halt the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza. We echo our previous calls urging the UK to use all tools to protect civilians in Gaza, including by implementing export restrictions following surges in violence in 2021 and 2014.

Since declaring a “state of war” eight weeks ago, the Israeli military has dropped more than 25,000 tons of explosives on the Gaza Strip - equivalent to two nuclear bombs - according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has raised alarm at the “unparalleled and unprecedented” killing of civilians in Gaza. According to reports from health authorities run by the Hamas administration, more than 17,000 civilians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, including over 7,000 Palestinian children. 

The scale and indiscriminate nature of the violence in densely populated areas has been unprecedented in recent decades; hospitals, UNRWA schools, refugee camps, religious sites, key infrastructure and 45% of civilian homes in Gaza have been bombarded by Israelis Defence Forces. UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has stressed the overt disregard for civilian lives stating, “the large number of UNRWA facilities hit and the number of civilians killed cannot just be “collateral damage”. 

While UNA-UK continues to call for an immediate ceasefire to halt the killing of civilians and avert a humanitarian catastrophe, it is also essential that steps are taken to reduce the flow of arms into the area. The UK has a longstanding and vast arms export relationship with Israel. The UK has stated that it will continue to arm Israel while simultaneously attempting to downplay the level of support given. UK Secretary of Defence Grant Shapps recently claimed that defence exports to Israel are “relatively small” at £42 million in 2022, and that “they go through a very strict criteria before anything is exported.” This is a concerning mischaracterisation since it fails to incorporate arms exported through the UK Government’s secretive Open General Export Licences - a category of export licence UNA-UK has consistently called to be scrapped.  

Research suggests that the UK has exported at least half a billion in export licences to Israel over the past decade. Around 15% of the value of each of Israel’s F-35 combat aircraft is produced in the UK - aircraft that are being heavily used in Israel’s bombing campaign on Gaza. Even within the more transparent licences issued there is significant cause for concern. For example, in 2021 the UK granted export licences worth £9 million for unmanned air vehicles, military aero-engines, and related equipment and components. UNA-UK is dismayed at the UK’s position and characterisation with respect to its arms sales to Israel and calls on the Government to reconsider its stance.  

In 2014, in response to concerns over Israeli forces operating in Gaza, the then coalition Government  implied that the decision to continue authorising licences to Israel was finely balanced. In a press release following the worst of the violence, the Government stated that “in the event of a resumption of significant hostilities” that the UK would “suspend licences [for equipment which could be used in Gaza]”.

The magnitude and human cost of current Israeli operations undoubtedly represents a resumption of significant hostilities, raising serious questions about the objectivity and rigour of the UK’s export control system.

Hamas is designated a proscribed terrorist group by the UK and does not receive authorised UK arms transfers. Any actors supplying Hamas with military support risk being complicit in war crimes.

Last year UNA-UK commended the UK for joining 82 states in endorsing a political declaration committing to action to avoid civilian harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Endorsing states have committed to take action by making changes to their national policy and practice and promoting stronger standards. As Israel’s military forces continue to commit widespread abuses that contravene international law, we call on the UK - as well as fellow endorsing states - to urgently live up to their commitments under this declaration, as well as those enshrined in the Arms Trade Treaty and the UK’s corresponding domestic legislation.

The UK must do all in its power to stop the flow of arms which may be used in this conflict, including through an immediate suspension of exports to Israel. A failure to do so not only suggests UK complicity for the appalling humanitarian situation unfolding, but also indicates the absence of a joined up foreign policy, leaving civilians to pay the cost.

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