UK urged to publish legal advice on Israel’s conduct in Gaza

UK urged to publish legal advice on Israel’s conduct in Gaza

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The UK government has come under pressure to disclose legal advice about Israel’s conduct in Gaza after a senior Conservative MP claimed that an internal assessment found the Jewish state had breached international humanitarian law.

Alicia Kearns, chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, was recorded at an event last week saying: “The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law but the government has not announced it.” 

In comments first reported by The Observer newspaper, she said: “They have not said it, they haven’t stopped arms exports.”

One Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office official suggested Kearns would not necessarily know about the inner workings of the department.

The UK has conducted several assessments to ascertain whether Israel is complying with international humanitarian law since the war in Gaza erupted after Hamas’s October 7 attack, which killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.

The assessment by civil service lawyers at the Foreign Office determines whether the government can continue to grant licences for the export of arms to Israel. Such exports are “relatively small” and amounted to £42mn in 2022, ministers have said.

The Foreign Office official said there was a quasi-legal process around arms exports, which meant that they would be halted if formal advice found that Israel was breaking international law.

“The arms exports advice is guided by the legal advice and the arms export advice hasn’t changed,” they added.

But Kearns told the Financial Times that she remained “convinced” that the assessment was completed and it had concluded that Israel was breaching international law. “Transparency at this point is paramount, not least to uphold the international rules-based order,” she said.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza since October has killed more than 32,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials, and led to a humanitarian crisis. Israel has said it is complying with international law.

UK foreign secretary David Cameron has repeatedly complained about Israeli restrictions on aid deliveries to Gaza, where about half of the 2.3mn population has been displaced and hundreds of thousands of people are on the brink of famine, according to UN agencies.

This month Cameron warned that while the UK supported Israel’s right to self-defence, as the occupying power in Gaza, it had a “legal responsibility to ensure aid is available for civilians”. 

“That responsibility has consequences, including when we as the UK assess whether Israel is compliant with international humanitarian law,” he said.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, said in response to Kearns’s remarks that there were “serious questions about whether the government is complying with its own law”.

“David Cameron and Rishi Sunak must now [come] clean and publish the legal advice they have received,” he said on X.

Stephen Flynn, Westminster leader of the Scottish National party, said: “The prime minister and foreign secretary owe it to the public and to the high offices they currently hold to be honest about whether they have received advice that Israel has breached international humanitarian law.”

The Foreign Office said: “We keep advice on Israel’s adherence to international humanitarian law under review and ministers act in accordance with that advice, for example, when considering export licences. The content of the government’s advice is confidential.”