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Q&A: The calls for halting arms exports to Israel and the political implications

The Prime Minister is under growing pressure to suspend arms sales to Israel after seven aid workers were killed by an air strike in Gaza on Monday.

The victims included Britons John Chapman, James “Jim” Henderson and James Kirby, 47.

Three former Supreme Court justices are among 600 legal experts who have signed a letter arguing that the Government is at risk of breaking international law if UK arms exports do not cease.

Here the PA news agency summarises the current situation and the potential implications.

– What is the significance of the letter and what does it say?

The letter has been signed by 600 lawyers, legal academics and retired senior judges, including Supreme Court President Brenda Hale and former justices Jonathan Sumption and Nicholas Wilson.

The scale and standing of the signatories means it can only be taken very seriously by politicians in the UK and beyond.

With the Government already facing cross-party calls for action in response to the killings of the aid workers, the letter’s argument for an end to arms exports to Israel demands that the Government sets out its position in response to an emotive aspect of a broader complex and sensitive ethical and diplomatic issue.

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Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen wrecked by an Israeli air strike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip (Ismael Abu Dayyah/AP)

The main thrust of the 17-page letter is that the UK must act in response to the “catastrophic” situation in Gaza because the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in a provisional judgement that there is a plausible risk of genocide being committed against Palestinians.

Importantly, it accuses ministers of falling “significantly short” of their obligations under international law over the sale of weapons to Israel and the suspension of aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which Israel claims has links with Hamas.

– Does anyone disagree with the letter’s argument?

The Israeli Government will of course defend itself against accusations of breaking international law.

Elsewhere, as with any complex aspect of law, there will be different interpretations, but the high number of experts who have signed the letter gives the impression that its argument is sound.

However, legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg said the letter contains a “disturbing error” in claiming the ICJ concluded that there was a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza.

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An Israeli soldier moves atop a tank near the Israeli-Gaza border (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Mr Rozenberg notes that the words “plausible risk” do not appear in the court’s order, adding it ruled that “it is the Palestinians rights’ that were found to be plausible – not the risk they may face”.

Interpretations of the ICJ order could feed into discussions over the Government’s next step, particularly in the context of the broader uncertainty surrounding the internal legal advice it has been given on whether Israel has breached international humanitarian law.

– Who else is calling for action?

With most MPs biding their time before commenting on the issue, some Tory figures have called on the Government to suspend arms exports to Israel.

MPs who have backed the move include former minister Alan Duncan, David Jones, Flick Drummond and Paul Bristow.

Notably, Lord Peter Ricketts, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron’s former national security adviser, said the UK should halt arms sales to Israel.

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Lord Peter Ricketts said the UK should halt arms sales to Israel (Chris Ison/PA)

The crossbench peer told the BBC this “would be a powerful political message, and it might just stimulate debate in the US as well, which would be the real game-changer”.

The charity that the killed aid volunteers were working for, World Central Kitchen, has called for an investigation into the attack by the Israel Defence Force.

Founder Jose Andres claimed the Israeli military knew his aid workers’ movements and targeted them “systematically, car by car”.

The claim has been dismissed by the Israeli Government.

– What is the position of Labour and other parties on the issue?

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called for arms sales to be halted if there has been a “serious breach” of international law.

It is likely that many in the party, including senior figures, believe official legal opinion will find this is the case, as Labour continues to call for the Government to publish its internal legal advice.

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Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy called for arms sales to be halted if there has been a “serious breach” of international law (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

Jack Straw, who blocked exports of some military equipment to Israel in 2002 when he was foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s government, told the i newspaper that all arms sales should be suspended “in concert” with European allies.

The Liberal Democrats and the SNP have both called for exports to be suspended.

– What must the Government consider when making a decision?

Rishi Sunak has called for an independent investigation into the deaths of aid workers but stopped short of saying arms exports should end.

He insisted the UK has been “consistently clear” with Israel that it must abide by international law.

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Rishi Sunak has called for an independent investigation into the deaths of aid workers in Gaza (Carl Recine/PA)

This is key to decisions on whether export licences are granted or maintained.

Guidelines say a determination that items might be used to “commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law” is expected to lead to licenses being withdrawn, but it is the business secretary, currently Kemi Badenoch, who formally makes the final decision.

– What are the domestic political implications?

There will be an ongoing challenge for both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer to maintain a united front in their parties on the issue of Gaza, but the killing of aid workers could threaten to expose further divisions.

The flow of Tory figures calling for arms exports to be halted is currently no more than a trickle, with the heat taken out of the issue by the fact that MPs are still on their Easter break.

This is also true for Labour, which has experienced a greater level of division on the issue.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (Dan Kitwood/PA)

A joint appearance by Rachel Reeves and Sadiq Khan on Monday was telling in this regard.

The London Mayor was happy to suggest “people suspect” the Government’s legal advice found Israel has broken international law, adding there is now “a case” for halting arms sales.

In contrast,  the shadow chancellor simply repeated the party line that Labour was calling on the Government to publish its legal advice.