Could a new letter change the UK’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war?

Could a new letter change the UK’s stance on the Israel-Hamas war?

Rishi Sunak is facing increasing pressure over the UK’s weapon supply to Israel (Picture: Getty/Rex/Reuters)

A new letter signed by hundreds of legal professionals has put further pressure on the government to change its stance on Israel.

The letter calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the UK’s supply of arms to Israel.

It’s significant because it’s signed by retired senior judges, who don’t usually get involved with politically sensitive issues.

The letter comes as some of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s own MPs have called on the government to stop UK arms sales to Israel.

So, what is this letter, and why is it important?

What does the letter say?

The 17-page long letter was sent to the Prime Minister on Wednesday evening.

The signatories say that they ‘share deep concern about the catastrophe unfolding in the Gaza strip’.

They warn the government of its obligations under international law.

At least 32,623 Palestinians have been killed since the conflict began (Picture: Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The letter says that the UK has obligations under the Genocide Convention to take ‘all measures to prevent genocide which were within its power’.

They add that failure to meet those obligations ‘would incur the UK state responsibility for the commission of an international wrong, for which full reparation must be made’.

What have the signatories asked for?

The letter’s signatories call for the government to take five actions.

Firstly, they ask the government to ‘work actively’ to secure a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

The government has so far called for a ‘sustainable ceasefire’ and temporary ‘humanitarian pauses’.

According to a YouGov poll, 66% of Brits think that Israel should stop and call a ceasefire, up from 59% in November.

A man pushes a bicycle along as he walks amid building rubble in the devastated area around Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

In their second demand, the signatories ask the government to take all measures to deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

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This includes restoring funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which delivers aid to Palestinians who have fled the conflict.

UNRWA withdrew its staff from Gaza after Israel alleged that 12 of its staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks.

The UK stopped funding UNRWA following the allegations. In the 2023/24 financial year, the UK contributed £35 million towards the agency.

Baroness Hale is one of the most important signatories of the letter (Picture: Roger Askew/The Oxford Union/REX/Shutterstock)

The letter’s third demand asks the government to impose sanctions on individuals and organisations who have made statements inciting genocide against Palestinians. 

In their fourth ask, the signatories call on the government to suspend the provision of weapons to Israel.

They say that the UK’s sale of weapons to Israel ‘fall significantly short of your government’s obligations under international law.’

Finally, the letter calls for the government to suspend a trade agreement between the UK and Israel.

Who has signed it? 

More than 600 lawyers, academics and retired senior judges have signed the letter.

Prominent signatories include Baroness Hale of Richmond, the former President of the Supreme Court, and Lord Sumption and Lord Wilson, both former Justices of the Supreme Court.

Why is it an important development?

This letter marks a significant change from earlier calls from legal professionals.

A letter sent on 26 October 2023 was signed by over 1,000 lawyers and legal academics. It warned the government to avoid complicity in breaches of humanitarian law in Gaza.

UK defence exports to Israel amounted to £42 million in 2022 (Picture: Jack Guez/ AFP)

However, not only does Wednesday’s letter go further in its demands than the October letter, it is also signed by senior retired judges.

Normally, senior retired judges do not publicly comment on politically sensitive issues. 

The letter comes at a time when Sunak is facing increasing pressure from his own MPs to stop arming Israel.

Conservative MPs David Jones, Paul Bristow and Flick Drummond have called for the suspension of arms exports to Israel.

Drummond said that she believes that Israel’s actions in Gaza have broken international law.

What weapons does the UK export to Israel?

The UK has licensed arms worth more than £574 million to Israel since 2008.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said that UK defence exports to Israel amounted to £42 million in 2022, which he called ‘relatively small’.

Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell said that the UK exports amount to 0.02% of Israel’s military imports.

An Israeli jet fighter launching flares over Palestinian territory (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP)

Sunak said the UK has a “very careful” arms licensing regime.

The US is Israel’s biggest arms supplier. Israel has received more US military aid than any country since World War Two.

In December 2023, the US approved the sale of weapons, including tank ammunition cartridges and artillery shells, worth $254 million, which is around £200.5 million.

The UK suspended arms sales to Israel in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon and it limited the sale of military equipment to Israel in 2002.

Is there a genocide in Gaza?

Genocide is defined as the act of killing a large number of people with the intent to destroy a particular national, ethnical, racial or religious group.

In January 2024, South Africa alleged that Israel was breaching its obligations under the Genocide Convention and brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The ICJ found that there is a plausible risk of genocide being committed and issued a preliminary ruling to Israel to do all in its power to prevent genocide against Palestinians. However, the case could take years to come to a full conclusion.

Under the terms of the Genocide Convention, the UK must take all actions within its powers to prevent genocide.

In March, UN human rights expert Francesca Albanese said that she believes that Israel had committed ‘acts of genocide’ in Gaza.

What’s the latest on the conflict between Israel and Palestine?

At least 32,623 Palestinians have been killed since the conflict began. 70% of those deaths have been women and children.

The UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillipe Lazzarini said that the number of children reported killed in the first four months of conflict in Gaza is higher than the number of children killed in four years of war around the world combined.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said that there is ‘nowhere safe for people to go’.

James Henderson, a British citizen, was one of seven aid workers who were killed in Gaza on Monday (Picture: World Central Kitchen/WCK.org via AP)

The World Bank Group said that more than half the population of Gaza is ‘on the brink of famine’.

Seven international aid workers, including three British citizens, were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Monday.

130 of the 253 people taken hostage by Hamas on October 7 remain unaccounted for.

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