UK government faces legal challenge over arms exports to Israel

The high court has been urged to intervene and suspend UK arms sales to Israel in a legal challenge launched on Wednesday.

The Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq and the UK-based Global Legal Action Network (Glan) have applied for a judicial review of the government’s export licences for the sale of British weapons capable of being used in Israel’s action in Gaza, which has killed more than 16,000 people – mostly civilians – since 7 October, according to Gaza’s health authorities. Israel’s invasion of Gaza followed Hamas’s attack on southern Israel, in which it killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

Ahmed Abofoul, a lawyer at Al-Haq, said: “The UK has a legal and moral obligation to not grant licences for the sale of British weapons to regimes that commit atrocity crimes.”

The legal challenge argues the government has granted licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel under a wide range of categories in recent years, including components for military radars and targeting equipment, components for military support, combat aircraft, naval vessels and more.

Since 2015 there have been £472m in limited value “standard” licence grants and 58 unlimited value “open” licences to Israel, according to the organisations, which argue that open licences lack transparency and allow for unlimited quantities.

“All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licence criteria. This government will not use any export licences to any destination where applications are not consistent with the criteria,” the defence secretary, Grant Shapps, told the House of Commons on 20 November. “Our defence exports to Israel are relatively small – just £42m last year,” he said.

The legal challenge comes as the international criminal court investigates Israel and Hamas for alleged war crimes, and after US rights groups sued the US president, Joe Biden, for “failure to prevent genocide” in Gaza last month. Since 7 October, campaigners have blockaded arms factories in Kent and elsewhere in protest amid growing calls for a permanent ceasefire.

Existing UK arms export criteria say that if there is a “clear risk” a weapon might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) then an arms export should not be licensed. The grounds for the judicial review include obligations under the IHL and the Genocide Convention, which says states have a responsibility to prevent and punish genocide.

The 40-page letter seen by the Guardian details allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, starvation, forced displacement, and the serious risk of genocide, including statements from members of the Knesset and military leaders.

Dearbhla Minogue, a senior lawyer at Glan, said: “There is a credible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and that the government could be in breach of the Genocide Convention by not addressing it.”

The legal challenge, supported by the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), comes after written requests to the international trade secretary to suspend arms sales were repeatedly ignored, according to the organisations.

A UK Department for Business and Trade spokesperson said: “The UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided it is within the bounds of international humanitarian law.

“All our export licences are kept under careful and continual review and we are able to amend, suspend or revoke extant licences, or refuse new licence applications, where they are inconsistent with the UK’s strategic export licensing criteria.”

A spokesperson from the Israeli embassy in London said: “Al-Haq is part of a network of organisations that operate on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK, EU, US and others. The PFLP is a group known for its support and carrying out of suicide bombings, aircraft-hijackings as well as for its active endorsement of the October 7th massacres.”

In 2021, Israel accused six prominent Palestinian human rights groups, including Al Haq, of being terrorist organisations, arguing the groups had ties to the PFLP, a secular political movement with an armed wing that in the past carried out attacks against Israel. In 2022, Israeli forces raided the organisations’ offices in a move that raised concern from Washington and the EU.

A classified CIA report showed the agency was unable to find any evidence to support Israel’s decision to label the organisations as terrorist groups. Al-Haq has denied it has links to the PFLP.