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Former Supreme Court President among 600 lawyers to sign letter calling on UK to stop arms sales to Israel

More than 600 lawyers, including former Supreme Court President Lady Hale, have signed a letter to the prime minister warning that the government risks breaching international law by continuing to export weapons to Israel.

The calls come as wider pressure mounts on Rishi Sunak to suspend arms sales to Israel following the deaths of three British aid workers in an airstrike in Gaza.

Signatories said the worsening situation in Gaza and the International Court of Justice’s conclusion that there was a “plausible risk of genocide” obliged to UK to suspend arms sales to the country.

The 17-page letter, which also amounts to a legal opinion, said: “While we welcome the increasingly robust calls by your government for a cessation of fighting and the unobstructed entry to Gaza of humanitarian assistance, simultaneously to continue (to take two striking examples) the sale of weapons and weapons systems to Israel and to maintain threats of suspending UK aid to Unwra [United Nations Relief and Works Agency] falls significantly short of your government’s obligations under international law.”

Other signatories included former Supreme Court justices Lord Sumption and Lord Wilson, along with nine other judges and 69 top barristers.

Baroness Hale of Richmond became known for the Supreme Court’s finding in 2019 that Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament was unlawful (PA Media)
Baroness Hale of Richmond became known for the Supreme Court’s finding in 2019 that Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament was unlawful (PA Media)

The letter came at the end of a day of cross-party calls for the suspension of arms exports to Israel. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, urged the Government to publish any legal advice it had received on whether Israel had broken international law, and to suspend arms sales if there was a risk weapons could be used in “a serious breach of international humanitarian law”.

Sir Alan Duncan, who served as a minister between 2010 and 2019, joined calls from Conservative ranks to strongly condemn Israel’s killing of seven aid workers - three of whom were British - as “merciless”. Conservative MPs Flick Drummond and David Jones also called on the government to suspend arms sales.

Writing a hard-hitting piece for The Independent, Sir Alan said: “By annexing the West Bank, breaking international law, and now appearing to want to destroy Gaza as a place fit for humans, it is betraying the enlightened principles of its founders, and is not in any way behaving as a democracy should.

“We should salute our aid heroes by devoting our efforts to securing a Palestinian state. In the meantime, all responsible governments must urgently assess whether they can any longer regard Israel as an ally.”

On Tuesday, Downing Street declined to say whether it believed Israel was operating within international humanitarian law, saying it would not comment on legal advice but added ministers acted in accordance with any advice.

But Mr Sunak warned Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s war in Gaza is growing “increasingly intolerable”.

Speaking to The Sun newspaper, the prime minister said: “There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we’ll always follow, and I have been consistently clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu since the start of this conflict that while, of course, we defend Israel’s right to defend itself and its people against attacks from Hamas, they have to do that in accordance with international humanitarian law, protect civilian lives and, sadly, too many civilians have already lost their lives.”

Rishi Sunak said he had been ‘clear’ with the Israeli Prime Minister that his actions must remain within the bounds of international law (AP)
Rishi Sunak said he had been ‘clear’ with the Israeli Prime Minister that his actions must remain within the bounds of international law (AP)

The SNP and the Liberal Democrats have also called for arms exports to be suspended, as have following a similar plea from Lord Ricketts, the former national security adviser to now-Foreign Secretary David Cameron.

The government does not directly supply Israel with weapons, but does grant export licences for British companies to sell arms to the country and can block those sales by suspending the licences.

The UK has taken this course twice before. Margaret Thatcher’s government suspended arms exports following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, while Tony Blair’s government blocked sales of some military equipment in 2002.

A former head of MI6 said Israel’s actions “bordered on reckless”. Speaking to BBC’s Today podcast, Sir Alex Younger said: “My view is that what happened is essentially systematic of an approach to targeting that has, on occasion, bordered on the reckless.

“[It] fundamentally undermines, therefore, what must be Israel’s political objectives, which is to sustain some moral high ground and some moral purpose.”

Meanwhile, the World Central Kitchen charity has said it is calling for an “independent investigation into the IDF strikes that killed seven members” of its team in Gaza.

It said in a statement: “We have asked the governments of Australia, Canada, the United States of America, Poland, and the United Kingdom to join us in demanding an independent, third-party investigation into these attacks, including whether they were carried out intentionally or otherwise violated international law.”

They added: “An independent investigation is the only way to determine the truth of what happened, ensure transparency and accountability for those responsible, and prevent future attacks on humanitarian aid workers.”