Britain Must Suspend Its Arms Sales to Israel

As the devastating Israeli war on Gaza continues, Labour MP Zarah Sultana is introducing a parliamentary bill that would suspend arms sales to Israel and any state that might use them in violation of international law.

Labour MP Zarah Sultana speaks during a strike rally in Trafalgar Square, central London, March 15, 2023. (Yui Mok / PA Images via Getty Images)

“The Palestinian people,” United Nations experts warned six weeks ago, “are at grave risk of genocide.” “The time for action,” they pleaded, “is now.” But since then, far from ending the slaughter, the number of Palestinians killed has almost doubled — and Britain is deeply complicit in this atrocity. 

Our government provides Israel with vital diplomatic cover, most recently joining the United States as the lone voices refusing to vote for a cease-fire at the UN Security Council, a move the United States vetoed. And Britain supplies the Israeli military with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of arms, including parts for the F-35 fighter jet, planes that are currently unleashing hell on Gaza

British-made weapons could be making that “grave risk of genocide” a reality. 

This moral travesty is why I introduced a bill to Parliament this week that would suspend arms sales to Israel and any state that might use them in violation of international law. 

Hollow protestations from our political leaders notwithstanding, there is no doubt about it — Israel is “clearly” violating international law, as the UN secretary-general said back in October

Since the brutal assault on Gaza began, Israel has killed more than eighteen thousand Palestinians, including over seven thousand children. More than 80 percent of the population — around 1.8 million people — has been displaced, with Palestinians being ordered to leave the north, only to be bombed again in the south. 

An almost unprecedented number of journalists have been killed, alongside a record number of UN aid workers. And just this weekend, the UN warned that Israel’s “total siege” on the enclave has pushed almost half of Gaza’s population to the point of starvation

Indiscriminate bombing and obliterating neighborhoods; collective punishment and cutting off vital supplies; forced displacement and ethnic cleansing — these are war crimes under international law. As well as the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others have said as much. 

And making Britain’s continued arms sales to Israel even more horrifying is that Israeli officials have been quite open about their aims. At the beginning of the assault, an Israeli military spokesperson said the emphasis in bombing was on “damage, not accuracy.” Another official promised to turn Gaza “into a city of tents,” while the former head of the National Security Council said the aim was to make Gaza “a place where no human being can exist.” And an Israeli minister said the war would be “Gaza’s Nakba,” a reference to the 1948 catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their home and never allowed to return. 

This is also far from the first time British-made arms have been used by Israel in violation of international law in Gaza. Back in 2014, for example, Israel’s Operation Protective Edge resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,500 Palestinians and widespread destruction in Gaza, with human rights organizations again raising the alarm of serious violations of international law. 

This prompted the Conservative-led coalition government to investigate arms sales to Israel, finding that British-made arms could have been used by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza. The government even committed to suspend arms sales if Israel resumed military activity.  

But it is not just arms sales to Israel that need to be suspended. The Saudi-led war on Yemen has killed hundreds of thousands of people, triggering what was then described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Yet this war was facilitated by our government, with British export licenses worth a staggering £6.8 billion granted to the Saudis since the beginning of the war. This is why I have repeatedly called in the House of Commons for an end to arms sales to the Saudi government. 

Campaigners have valiantly fought against our government’s arming of brutal militaries, but existing laws on arms exports are riddled with loopholes and are too easily ignored. This is seen in the simple fact that both UK and international law should prohibit arms sales where there is a clear or overriding risk that they might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international law, and yet, in spite of what we are witnessing in Gaza, arms sales are still permitted to Israel. 

My bill would end this travesty by establishing an independent inquiry into the use of arms sold to foreign states, immediately suspending sales to any country where they might be used in violation of international law. 

Ending this bloody exchange is just one of the steps the government must take to end its complicity in the massacre in Gaza. The most urgent call is for Britain to demand a permanent cease-fire, using all its weight to pressure Israel to end its bombardment of Gaza. And beyond the immediate need to end the bloodshed, Britain has a historic responsibility to push for a just and lasting peace, having been the Mandatory Power in Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. 

As a new and even more terrible Nakba takes place before our eyes, Britain must honor this duty: demanding an immediate cease-fire and ending arms sales for Israeli war crimes today, and insisting on an end to the illegal occupation and for a free Palestine tomorrow. 

Israel’s war on Gaza is not the first time British-made weapons have been used for war crimes, but it must be the last. If MPs got behind my bill, it would be.