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UK: Labour official criticised for appearing to condone arms sales to Israel

Pat McFadden demonstrated 'clear anti-Palestinian bias' as he dodged questions on international humanitarian law, sources tell MEE
An Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, 30 October 2023 (AFP)
By Oscar Rickett in London

A senior Labour Party official has been criticised for appearing to condone the sale of British arms to Israel.

“We are selling arms to allies who are abiding by international humanitarian law,” Pat McFadden, the party’s national campaign co-ordinator, told Sky News on Tuesday, when asked if Labour was comfortable selling arms to Israel. 

“If there’s proper legal evidence that they aren’t, the government should come out and say so,” he said, when asked if he thought Israel was abiding by international humanitarian law.

“We don’t have a boycott on selling arms to Israel,” McFadden said earlier in the interview. "We always want Israel or any ally to abide by international humanitarian law." 

John McDonnell, Labour’s former shadow chancellor, told Middle East Eye: “It’s clear that Israel is defying both the UN Security Council resolution and the ICJ ruling and therefore any government supplying arms to Israel and any politician supporting this policy is open to charges of complicity in war crimes.”

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McFadden’s comments came the morning after seven international aid workers, three of whom were British, were killed in three targeted Israeli air strikes in central Gaza. 

The UK, US, Australia and Poland are among several countries calling on Israel to urgently explain what happened and why, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitting that his military had carried out an “unintended strike” on “innocent people in the Gaza Strip”. 

“It was quite clear that Pat McFadden was uncomfortable with the line of questioning,” Gary Spedding, an independent cross-party consultant on Israel-Palestine, told MEE. “I believe that is because of his role with Labour Friends of Israel (LFI).”

“The remarks that he made cause divisiveness and add confusion to Labour’s position on this matter. They help create the impression that the party is a cold house for Palestinians and for Palestinian activism,” Spedding said.

McFadden is the vice chair of LFI, a pro-Israel lobby group inside Labour. He has previously visited Israel on trips funded by the group and by the Israeli foreign ministry. 

A shadow cabinet minister, McFadden is a Labour veteran who was close to Tony Blair during his time as prime minister. Described as “the most powerful Labour politician most have never heard of” by the Guardian, a former goverment official who worked with McFadden told MEE the 59-year-old was “an important fixer”.

'Clear anti-Palestinian bias'

Spedding said he thought McFadden’s reluctance to answer questions on the arms trade demonstrated a “clear anti-Palestinian bias and put him at odds with Labour’s frontbench, which has been unequivocal in calling on the government to publish the legal advice it has received on whether Israel is violating humanitarian law”.

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According to a leaked recording obtained by the Observer, the British government has already received advice from its own lawyers stating that Israel has breached international humanitarian law in Gaza but has failed to make it public.

In comments made at a Conservative Party fundraising event on 13 March, Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs, said that she was “convinced the government has completed its updated assessment on whether Israel is demonstrating a commitment to international humanitarian law, and that it has concluded that Israel is not demonstrating this commitment”. 

Under its own arms exporting criteria, the British government is obligated to suspend licences for arms exports if it determines that there is a clear risk that British weapons might be used in such violations.

On 26 March, David Lammy, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, asked government minister Andrew Mitchell if Foreign Secretary David Cameron had received legal advice "saying there is a clear risk that items licensed by the UK to Israel might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international law". 

On 31 March, Lammy said that Cameron and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “must now come clean and publish the legal advice they have received”.

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