Pressure is piling on the Prime Minister and on Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, to reconsider the UK’s position on arms sales to Israel after over 600 legal experts, including three former UK Supreme Court justices, signed an open letter to the PM, demanding a suspension on all arms exports, given the “plausible risk of genocide” in Gaza.

The 17-page letter – whose signatories include former Supreme Court president Lady Hale and former Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption – stated that  “serious action” is needed “to avoid UK complicity in grave breaches of international law, including potential violations of the Genocide Convention”.

The intervention – which comes after three British aid workers were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on Monday – included a warning that evidence of violations of international law are growing starker. Aside from Israel’s “continued dismantling of the health system in Gaza” and the risk of imminent famine in the strip, the lawyers added that: “More children have been killed in the last four months in Gaza than have been killed in the last four years of wars around the world combined.”

The fact that such high-profile senior retired judges, who tend to shy away from weighing in on such politically sensitive issues, have added their signatures to the letter will make it harder for ministers to dismiss its content. 

Piling further pressure on Number 10 is a leaked recording obtained by The Observer over the weekend, suggesting that the British government received advice from its own lawyers that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza but failed to make the findings public. The recording comes from a recent speech made by Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, in which she also warned that “Israel’s actions [in Gaza] put its and the UK’s long-term security at risk.”

Labour is now urging the government to publish all of the legal advice it has received. Sunak – who insists the UK has a “very careful” arms export regime – has so far resisted doing so. 

The SNP and Lib Dems are both demanding an immediate suspension of all arms exports to Israel – and a growing number of Tory figures are joining the calls, including Tory MPs including David Jones, Paul Bristow,  Flick Drummond and peers such as Alan Duncan, Hugo Swire, and Peter Ricketts, who was a government national security adviser during David Cameron’s premiership.

According to party sources, Cameron himself is pushing the government to harden its approach to Israel. Though he is yet to comment on the arms embargo debate in light of this fresh legal plea. 

In Reaction today, Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne provides a useful summary of the relevant laws to consider when it comes to assessing whether the UK is in breach of its international obligations. Aside from the Geneva Conventions highlighted in the letter to Sunak, there is also the UN Arms Trade Treaty to take into account. 

If the government was to halt arms exports to Israel, it would be joining Canada, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. 

Nor would it be the first time Britain has taken such action. Former PMs Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both temporarily suspended sales to Israel in 1982 and 2002 respectively.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the UK isn’t exactly a big player when it comes to weapons supply. Over the past decade, the US has been Israel’s main supplier by a long way, accounting for roughly two-thirds of arms transfers, while Germany has supplied just under 30 per cent. 

British military exports, meanwhile, represented just 0.02 per cent of Israel’s total in 2022, although this figure doesn’t include UK components for foreign-made military equipment. 

A ban would barely dent Israel’s military capabilities. Yet that’s not to say it wouldn’t hold any significance. It would still send out a strong diplomatic message from a key ally. 

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