UK Arms to Israel: A Potential Suspension?

On 19 February, the UK high court dismissed a case urging the suspension of UK arm sales to Israel. As a result, Palestinian human rights organisation – Al Haq – and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) applied for a judicial review of the Government’s export licences to Israel.

They cited a risk that they could be used to violate international humanitarian law (IHL) in Gaza. According to Gaza authorities, more than 16,000 -mostly civilians- have been killed since 7 October. For its part, the Israeli Government has responded in kind, stating it is committed to conducting its military operations in accordance with international law and will investigate any alleged misconduct by its forces.

Key Judgement 1. It is likely that judicial targeting of the UK’s strategic export licencing will increase over the next 12 months.

Key Judgement 2. The UK Government is unlikely to revoke export licences or halt arms unless the ICJ deems Israel in contravention of IHL violations.

Key Judgement 3. Despite public discontent and mounting pro-Palestinian sentiment, it is likely that the UK’s economic rationality will supersede ideological purity with continued arms sales to Israel.

KJ-1. It is likely that judicial targeting of the UK’s strategic export licencing will increase over the next 12 months.

a. Following the UK High Court’s February judgement, Palestinian human rights organisation – Al Haq – and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) have applied for a judicial review of the UK Government’s export licences for the sale of British arms capable of being used in Israel’s bombardment of Gaza [source], [source]. 

b. UK’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) has called on the Government to suspend export licences to Israel and is seeking the suspension or revocation of grants for new licences [source].

c. Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and Safer World have called for the UK to halt arms exports to Israel. For their part, Ministers responded to such concerns by referencing the UK’s strategic export licencing system. A set criterion which assesses all applications for a licence to export military equipment. Ministers also emphasised Israel’s right to defend itself within the bounds of international humanitarian law [source], [source], [source]. 

KJ-2. The UK Government is unlikely to revoke export licences or halt arms unless the ICJ deems Israel in contravention of IHL violations.

a. On 26 January, South Africa accused Israel of international humanitarian law violations in its military operations in Gaza [source]. 

b. On 22 April, the UK High Court revealed that it had suspended legal assessments over the legality of Israel’s actions only accounting for potential violations up until 28 January. Although this disregards potential violations thereafter [source]. 

c. According to a leaked recording by the Observer, the UK Government’s own lawyers stated that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza but has failed to make it public [source]. 

An Israeli F-35 Fighter, one of the UK's industry contributions to supplying arms.
Fig.1 An Israeli F-35 Fighter, one of the UK’s industry contributions to supplying arms.

KJ-3. Despite public discontent and mounting pro-Palestinian sentiment, it is likely that the UK’s economic rationality and politico-strategic interests will supersede ideological purity with continued arms sales to Israel.

a. On 19 February, the UK high court dismissed a case urging the suspension of UK arm sales to Israel [source]. However, a month prior, court documents revealed that Foreign Office legal advisers were unable to conclude whether Israel was in compliance with IHL in its bombardment of Gaza. 

b. On 22 April, the High Court postponed Al-Haq’s judicial challenge of the UK sale of arms to Israeli until October. It is pending the examination of sensitive information [source]. 

c. On 9 April, UK Foreign Minister stated that the UK would not halt the export of arms to Israel [source]. 

d.The UK Secretary of State for Defence -Grant Shapps – stated that UK defence exports to Israel are “relatively small”, amounting to £42 million in 2022. Since 2008, CAAT has reported that the UK has licenced arms worth over £574 million to Israel. Not least, industry contributions to F-35 combat aircraft are currently in use in the bombardment of Gaza [source], [source], [source]. 

Analytical Summary

We have high confidence in our assessment that the UK Government will come under further judicial challenge. We also anticipate that the Government is unlikely to revoke or suspend export licences to Israel. Unless, of course, the ICJ finds Israel in contravention of IHL.

Further, we are confident that the UK’s economic rationality and politico-strategic interests will outweigh ideological purity with continued arm sales. We base these assessments on data collated from non-profit organisations, official court documents, and international news press reports.

Intelligence cut-off date: 26 April 2024.

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