Deputy Prime Minister rejects claim by 600 lawyers that UK may be breaking international law exporting arms to Israel

At the end of last week, a letter was sent to the UK government, signed by more than 600 lawyers, including former High Court Judges, warning the government to suspend sale of arms and other military equipment to Israel, or risk breaking international humanitarian law.  Details of the letter were revealed as calls were being made for the government to publish the legal advice and the legal opinions it had received on the issuing of licences.

A growing number of senior legal and political voices from across all political parties, including the Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, joined the clamour for the government to publish the government’s legal advice. This followed the revelation by Alicia Kearns MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, which indicated that the government was in receipt of legal advice from its own lawyers, clearly stating that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza. This it was argued, could risk rendering the UK itself in breach of international law, as it could reasonably be judged to be aiding and abetting war crimes.

As the onslaught on Gaza reached its sixth month on Monday, with a death toll on the Gaza strip now exceeding 33,000 mostly innocent women and children and with thousands more at risk of famine, the UK Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, continued to reject claims that Britain should cease exporting arms to Israel, clearly ignoring the possibility that it may find itself in breach of international law.  Whilst acknowledging to journalists on Sunday, that Israel has made ‘Big mistakes’ for which ‘we should hold them to account’, he insisted that:

‘Israel is legitimately able to receive arms exports from us and our advice hasn’t changed on that…of course we have concerns about the way in which Israel is conducting itself. That is why we have raised issues…but that is in the context of a legitimate conflict that Israel is pursuing’

He spoke after the UK Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, publicly made clear that Britain’s support for Israel was not unconditional. Cameron was responding to the news of the air strikes on food aid workers in Gaza at the beginning of the week, which claimed the lives of 7 western nationals including three British citizens. Writing in the Sunday Times, he defended Israel’s right to defend itself, but said UK’s support to Israel is ‘not unconditional’. He added:

‘The tragic and avoidable killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers was a terrible reminder of the cost of the Gaza conflict. Citizens from five different countries lost their lives, three of them from the UK. There is no doubt where the blame lies: Israel’s inquiry has already enumerated the inadequate processes and the unacceptable conduct of the Israel Defence Forces personnel involved. This must never happen again’


In the thousand-word op-ed column in the Times, he expressed what he saw as the complexities of finding a solution to ‘the crisis’ and he welcomed the opening of several crossings to allow essential humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, which would avoid ‘mass starvation’. He nevertheless maintained the government’s position of arguing against a permanent ceasefire stating that:


‘Calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire are easy to make but, alongside US and other allies, we are clear that unless you deal with the cause of the conflict — the rule of Hamas over Gaza and the presence of those responsible for October 7 — no ceasefire would last. Israel cannot be expected to live next to an organisation that carried out such brutal attacks and has declared, if possible, it would do the same again…We all want an end to the fighting, but we must face up to the difficult question: what should we do if Hamas refuses a deal and if the conflict continues?

Cameron: ‘‘We cannot stand by with our head in our hands, wishing for an end to the fighting that may well not come’

There was no reference to the current demands for a cessation of the export of arms to Israel. Instead he seemed to be advocating for the UK to prepare for supporting a protracted assault on Rafah as long as ‘there is a proper plan to protect people’. He added:

‘We cannot stand by with our head in our hands, wishing for an end to the fighting that may well not come — and that means ensuring the protection of people in all of Gaza including Rafah. As an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to the people of Gaza’

Amnesty International’s UK Military, Security and Policing Director, Oliver Feeley-Sprague, was vocal in demanding a cessation, which he said was long overdue. He said:

‘Ministers and officials are blatantly flouting their own rules about not exporting UK arms when there’s a clear risk of them being misused. With every weapon and every piece of military kit the UK sends to the Israeli war machine, the UK is deepening its complicity in Israel’s war crimes, apartheid and possible genocide in Gaza’

On Tuesday evening at a press conference in Washington, on a platform with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken, the UK Foreign Minister, Lord David Cameron, finally broke his silence over the arms sales licences, confirming that the UK government had fully considered all legal advice and were satisfied that there was no need to alter its current position. He will no doubt have been cognisant of the fact that in 2022 alone, Britain supplied 42 million pounds ($53 million) of arms to Israel. He said:

‘The latest assessment leaves our position on export licences unchanged. This is consistent with the advice that I and other ministers have received. And as ever, we will keep the position under review.”


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