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UK arms export licences to Israel in the dock

British arms export licences to Israel are under growing scrutiny over claims that international law has been broken in the war in Gaza, with a court set to rule on the divisive matter. The contentious issue surfaced on Wednesday when an opposition Labour lawmaker accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of having “the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands”. Protesters this week confronted delegates outside a London defence industry conference. Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who is visiting the Middle East, has been criticised for a lack of transparency over his role in helping the sales. In London, a coalition of legal advocacy groups is asking the High Court to expedite a judicial review of the UK government’s decision to keep selling military parts and arms to Israel. Britain’s strategic licensing criteria states that weapons should not be exported when there is a clear risk they could be used in international humanitarian law violations. The court claimants, led by Palestinian rights group Al-Haq and including the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), argue that the government is ignoring its own rules in the Gaza conflict. “This case is a test for the credibility of the national arms control system, including the role of the courts in monitoring that,” Dearbhla Minogue, GLAN’s senior lawyer, told AFP. “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.” – Inconclusive – The coalition says the UK has approved over £487 million ($621 million) of weapon sales since 2015 in so-called single issue licences, while companies export more under open licences. That includes contributing key equipment worth tens of millions of pounds for F-35 fighter jets made in the United States and sold to Israel. Figures for the period since October 7, when Hamas launched its unprecedented attacks in Israel and the Israeli military responded witha relentless bombing campaign in Gaza, are not publicly available yet. The UK case comes after a Dutch court ruled last month that the Netherlands can continue to deliver F-35 parts to Israel, and threw out a case brought by human rights organisations. The court in The Hague said that supplying parts was primarily a political decision that judges should not interfere with. Documents submitted this month by government lawyers in the London case highlighted internal deliberations over the licences and how Israel is conducting the war against Hamas. A January 12 summary showed foreign ministry officials advising on the licences had “serious concerns” about aspects of the Israeli military campaign. It said officials were “unable to make a conclusive determination of Israel’s record of compliance, to date” with international humanitarian law. – ‘Satisfied’ – The 22-page legal filing revealed that International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch — who is ultimately responsible for the licences — nonetheless decided on December 18 not to suspend or revoke any licences. Instead, she opted to keep them “under careful review”. That was in line with a recommendation six days earlier from Cameron, the former prime minister who returned to government as Britain’s top diplomat in mid-November. He “was satisfied that there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply with” humanitarian law, according to the legal submission. Minogue hit out at that assessment. “The UK’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,” she added. Meanwhile, Cameron has been accused of evasion for failing to disclose his advice and foreign office concerns, when lawmakers quizzed him on January 9. During questions about whether government lawyers had shared assessments that Israel had breached international law in Gaza, he appeared unsure. “I cannot recall every single bit of paper that has been put in front of me. I look at everything,” Cameron said. He eventually answered “no” before adding: “It is not really a yes or no answer”.

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