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'Beyond alarming': Cameron slammed over continued UK arms exports to Israel

Cameron's remarks from the US appear to confirm that 28 arms export licences flagged in internal government review have remained active
British Foreign Secretary David Cameron and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hold a joint press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC on Tuesday (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

More than two dozen licences for UK exports to Israel of weapons and components flagged by government officials as "most likely" to be used by the Israeli army in Gaza appear to have remained active since 7 October and will continue to do so.

That's one conclusion that can be drawn following British Foreign Secretary David Cameron's remarks on Tuesday during a press conference in Washington with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that the UK will not suspend arms exports to Israel.

"The latest assessment leaves our position on export licenses unchanged," Cameron told reporters. "The overall judgement is those export licenses will remain open and continue."

More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the war began with Hamas-led attacks on 7 October, destroying most of the strip's critical infrastructure including all major hospitals, and displacing the vast majority of the 2.3m population.

Cameron's comments, in response to questions posed by BBC and ITV journalists, followed weeks of speculation and unanswered questions in parliament demanding clarity about the government's assessment of Israel's compliance with international humanitarian law.

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Calls for the government to publish its legal advice - and, more broadly, for the UK to halt arms sales to Israel - heightened following the killing of three British aid workers in an Israeli military attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy in Gaza last week.

'At the moment, [UK arms export licenses are] completely opaque. Nobody knows who is advising whom'

- Brendan O'Hara, SNP

MPs from opposition parties have been highly critical of the government's position.

Labour's David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has called the refusal to publish legal advice "simply not good enough", while Scottish National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Brendan O'Hara said continuing arms sales and government evasiveness on the issue was "incredibly disrespectful to parliamentarians and the people of the UK".

"The whole situation in Gaza is one of the most pressing issues of our time," O'Hara told Middle East Eye on Wednesday. "[Cameron] should have the courage of his convictions and stand in the UK and say it."

Cameron has also faced calls to halt arms exports to Israel, or to explain the basis on which it is continuing to approve arms sales, from some members of his own Conservative Party.

But other members of the ruling party have pressed for sales to remain in place, suggesting that their end could be a threat to UK-Israel intelligence sharing and national security.

Active UK licences 

Cameron's comments appeared to confirm that 28 active licences flagged in an internal government review after 7 October as "most likely" to be used by Israel in Gaza, including components for combat aircraft, armoured personnel carriers and targeting equipment, have remained in place.

Details of the internal review were made public in an affadavit filed in January by the Department for Business and Trade in response to a legal challenge to UK arms sales to Israel brought by Palestinian rights group Al-Haq in the High Court.

'This is UK military equipment Israel is using to commit utterly horrendous war crimes, and our government knows it. It must be held accountable'

- Emma Apple, CAAT

When asked about the specific licences on Wednesday, the department pointed MEE to Cameron's comments that the latest assessment leaves the UK's position unchanged and declined to comment further.

Emily Apple, spokesperson for the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, which raised concerns about the licences alongside seven other NGOs in a letter to the government in February, called for all arms exports to Israel to "cease immediately".

"It is is beyond alarming that the government’s position hasn’t even shifted on the licenses it identified itself as being of particular concern," Apple said. 

"This is UK military equipment Israel is using to commit utterly horrendous war crimes, and our government knows it. It must be held accountable and face the consequences of this abhorrent decision."

O'Hara said he was "hugely concerned" that the licences still appeared to be active, saying that it spoke more broadly to the lack of ability for parliamentarians to closely follow the arms export licensing process. 

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"There is no scrutiny for parliamentarians," O'Hara said. "At the moment, it's completely opaque. Nobody knows who is advising whom."

O'Hara said the SNP would be calling as soon as possible for an emergency debate in parliament to press for a release of the legal advice on all active UK arms export licences to Israel, including the 28 "high risk" ones identified by the government itself.

He also said he is motioning for a backbench business debate looking at parliamentary scrutiny into UK arms export licensing.

Anna Stavrianakis, international relations professor at the University of Sussex and director of research and strategy at UK-based Shadow World Investigations, noted that the business department's affadavit showed that as early as 10 November, government lawyers had been worried about Israeli compliance with international humanitarian law.

"It is hard to imagine that the updated legal advice has got any more confident about Israeli compliance with [international humanitarian law] - and the government refuses to publish it," Stavrianakis told MEE.

"This leads me to conclude that David Cameron has made the assessment that there is no clear risk, a position that flies in the face of all publicly available evidence."

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