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9 April 2024

The UK should stop sending arms to Israel

After Israeli forces killed seven aid workers in Gaza, there is renewed momentum to reach a ceasefire.

By Peter Ricketts

On 28 August 1995 five shells landed in the marketplace in Sarajevo killing 43 civilians. The Bosnian civil war had dragged on for more than three years, but this incident finally galvanised Western countries into taking decisive action. Two days later, Nato launched air strikes against the Bosnian Serb Army and changed the course of the conflict.

The circumstances of the Israeli attack on the World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid convoy in Gaza on 1 April were very different. But the deaths of seven humanitarian workers in this shocking incident could also come to be seen as a turning point in the Israeli military campaign against Gaza, and increase the prospects for an early ceasefire.

On 5 April the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) accepted that the WCK attack was a grave mistake, confirmed that five officers had been dismissed or reprimanded, and promised to learn lessons. But this was not an isolated mistake by a few individuals. The latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs show that more than 32,000 Palestinians have been killed. Over 200 humanitarian workers have died, 95 per cent of them Palestinians according to the International Rescue Committee.

The hard truth is that throughout this conflict Israeli forces have shown reckless disregard for their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and provide for their welfare. That was the reason I urged, in a BBC radio interview on 3 April, the suspension of UK arms exports to Israel. These only account for a tiny fraction of Israel’s military procurement. But there is a strong reason of principle for suspending them.

UK arms export licences include a condition that the recipient country must comply with international humanitarian law. There is abundant evidence to conclude that Israeli forces have not been doing so in Gaza. The same day I gave my interview, 600 UK lawyers and judges published a searing letter online to Rishi Sunak detailing the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. They demanded that the UK government take a series of measures, including suspension of arms deliveries, given the International Court of Justice’s conclusion that there was a plausible risk of genocide being committed in Gaza.

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For six months, Britain has stood with the US and other Western nations in supporting Israel’s right to defend itself after Hamas’s terrorist attacks on 7 October. Suspending arms sales now would not be to will the military defeat of Israel and the victory of Hamas, as Boris Johnson and other British politicians have claimed in recent days. It would underline that respect for international law is as vital during the conflict as it will be afterwards, when Israel’s right to security will have to be recognised by all parties.

The incoherence of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy in Gaza has become increasingly apparent. In the hours after the atrocities committed against Israeli civilians on 7 October, Netanyahu set his military commanders the impossible goal of destroying Hamas. Six months later, much of Gaza is a wasteland, and the humanitarian catastrophe within the Strip has done huge damage to Israel’s reputation. Yet Hamas fighters continue to operate, and still hold more than 100 hostages (the precise figure is not known) taken on 7 October.

The US president Joe Biden, incensed by the WCK attack, phoned Netanyahu on 4 April to demand specific steps to address humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers in Gaza, and warned that US policy would be determined by Israel’s response. As a result, Netanyahu rapidly agreed to open the northern crossing point to increase aid deliveries. But many aid agencies have pulled their staff out of Gaza over fears for their safety. Since Israel also made it impossible for the main UN relief agency in Palestine, UNWRA, to operate in the Strip, it now faces the dilemma of how to fulfil its obligations as an occupying power to supply food, drink and medical services to the civilian population. According to UN food security experts, the whole of Gaza is facing a serious risk of famine.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Netanyahu government’s approach seems to have assumed that the terrible wrong done to Israel on 7 October entitled it to pursue a war without limits against Hamas. The global reaction to the killing of the WCK staff has shown how isolated this approach has left the country. If Israel’s risky air strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on 1 April leads to a wider regional war, Netanyahu will need US support more than ever, at a time when his relations with Washington are under unprecedented strain.

In their exclusive focus on the destruction of Hamas, Israeli leaders have overlooked how military force alone cannot achieve their political goals. They should have been thinking and planning from the very start of operations in Gaza about how to use this crisis to form a new basis for Israel’s longer-term security. That can only be in partnership with a fresh Palestinian leadership willing to make a break with the disastrous Hamas policy of outright hostility.

The Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant recently floated the idea of a multilateral peacekeeping force composed of forces from moderate Arab states to establish law and order in Gaza and provide security for humanitarian and reconstruction work. That makes sense, but only as part of a much wider peace plan. And it should have been designed into the military operation from the start, with a far more targeted and proportionate approach to defeating Hamas. With Gaza devastated and the risk of a new generation of young people radicalised by their experience of war, peacekeeping will be an extraordinarily risky undertaking. It is inconceivable that Arab states would take on such a mission without cast-iron assurances that Israel would support a Palestinian state on the West Bank and in Gaza as soon as circumstances on the ground permit.

Within three months of the Sarajevo marketplace massacre, the US negotiator Richard Holbrooke had strong-armed the Bosnian parties into signing the Dayton peace accords. A resolution of the Gaza crisis still seems a remote prospect. But the global response to the WCK attack has established a new momentum. If Britain were to halt arms exports to Israel, it could help sustain that momentum. For the sake of the suffering people of Gaza, and the Israeli hostages and their families, the UK, the US and the entire international community must take this opportunity to bring the fighting to an end.

[See also: The new Tory divide on Israel]

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Trauma Ward