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Why a majority of Britons want the U.K. to halt arms exports to Israel

Members of the public join a walking vigil through the streets of Falmouth, England, for British aid worker James Henderson, organized by Palestine Solidarity Cornwall, April 3. Three British men working for World Central Kitchen were killed along with four colleagues when their clearly marked vehicles were targeted by Israeli military strikes.
Hugh Hastings
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Getty Images
Members of the public join a walking vigil through the streets of Falmouth, England, for British aid worker James Henderson, organized by Palestine Solidarity Cornwall, April 3. Three British men working for World Central Kitchen were killed along with four colleagues when their clearly marked vehicles were targeted by Israeli military strikes.

LONDON and BRIGHTON, England — With more than 33,000 Palestinians killed so far in Israel's military operation in Gaza, according to Gaza's health ministry, the deaths of three British aid workers there this week may be what ultimately changes the course of the United Kingdom's foreign policy.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing growing calls to halt his country's weapons exports to Israel, over concerns that Israel may be using British-made weapons in military actions that violate international law and that may have killed British citizens.

Three of the World Central Kitchen aid workers killed by Israeli airstrikes Mondayin Gaza were Britons: James Kirby, John Chapman and James Henderson. There were all U.K. military veterans working on WCK's security team.

WCK founder José Andrés told Reuters his staff were targeted "systematically, car by car" – a charge the Israeli military denies. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "tragic case of [Israeli] forces unintentionally hitting innocent people."

But Henderson's brother told The Times newspaper that while "accountability is the only hope of justice," he has little faith Sunak's government will "hold the correct people to account."

"I guarantee that our government will sell weapons to Israel, which may in turn be used to kill our fellow citizens. It's hard to comprehend that," said the brother, who declined to be named.

On Wednesday, more than 600 legal experts in the U.K. sent a 17-page letter to Sunak, urging him to halt British arms exports to Israel. The signatories include three retired U.K. Supreme Court judges, and their letter reads like a legal opinion, with footnotes and citations. It was first published by the Guardian newspaper.

The U.K. government is legally obliged to heed the International Court of Justice's conclusion that there is a "plausible risk of genocide" in Gaza, the letter says.

Israel vehemently denies allegations that its military operation in Gaza is genocidal. Instead, Netanyahu has accused Hamas-led militants of genocide for their Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed some 1,200 people, Israel says, and triggered the subsequent war. Israel also accuses Hamas of operating in built-up civilian areas and using Gaza's civilian population as a "human shield."

British jurists nevertheless wrote in their letter to Sunak: "The provision of military assistance and material to Israel may render the U.K. complicit in genocide as well as serious breaches of [International Humanitarian Law]."

Last month, the United Nations Security Councilpassed a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. In an NPR interview, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, said one way to enforce that is to halt weapons sales to Israel.

"The only way to stop the weapons from killing people, while a cease-fire is being negotiated, is to stop the supply of weapons," Lawlor said. "This has done long-term credibility damage to the West."

Palestinians living in al-Maghazi Refugee Camp collect usable items in the rubble of destroyed buildings following an Israeli attack in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on April 4.
Ashraf Amra / Anadolu via Getty Images
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Anadolu via Getty Images
Palestinians living in al-Maghazi Refugee Camp collect usable items in the rubble of destroyed buildings following an Israeli attack in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on April 4.

Last month, more than 100 British lawmakers signed a letter to the U.K. business and foreign secretaries calling for an arms embargo on Israel. Since then, a growing number of British politicians – from London Mayor Sadiq Khanto former U.K. Cabinet ministers and top officials in Sunak's own ruling Conservative Party – have made similar demands.

The U.K. is a staunch ally of Israel. But these calls for a suspension of arms sales are the latest example of how British-Israeli relations have been tested by Israel's military operation in Gaza, which is nearing the six-month mark.

In an interview with the Independent newspaper, a former U.K. minister of state from Sunak's Conservative Party, Alan Duncan, called the WCK attack "a tipping point in Israel's collapsing reputation." And he questioned whether the U.K. government should reconsider Israel as an ally.

Britain may be under-reporting the weapons it sends to Israel

The United States and Germany are Israel's biggest weapons suppliers. U.K. defense exports to Israel are "relatively small," amounting to $53 million in 2022,the country's defense secretary Grant Shapps has said. That's about 0.4% of Britain's total global defense sales for that year, the most recent one for which the government has published data.

Those exports include explosive devices, assault rifles and components of military aircraft. They're manufactured in Britain under a licensing scheme that allows different companies to export different weapons directly to Israel.

Altogether, the U.K. has licensed arms worth more than $725 million to Israel since 2008, according to U.K. Parliamentary estimates.

But experts say the U.K. government may be under-reporting the volume of weapons the country is sending to Israel, because they're exported by different companies — not by the government.

"Arms companies don't want it to be known to their commercial rivals what they're making," says Anna Stavrianakis, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Sussex who researches the U.K. arms industry. "But more importantly, they don't want civil society to know, because they know this is controversial."

The government's licensing scheme is "very murky and secretive," says Katie Fallon, an activist with the group Campaign Against Arms Trade, which opposes these exports.

"The licensing system makes it look like much less than it is," she says. "The open licenses allow for unlimited quantities to be exported and the companies don't have to tell the government what's been sent."

Campaigners with CAATsay those exports include about 15% of components for Israel's F-35 combat aircraft, which have been dropping bombs over Gaza during the current war there.

"The rear fuselage for every jet is made in Lancashire. The active interceptor system is made in Kent. The ejector seat is made in Buckinghamshire," explains Fallon.

What are the chances the U.K. might halt arms sales to Israel?

A YouGov poll conducted last week, before the killing of WCK aid workers in Gaza, showed a majority of respondents (56%) wanted the U.K. government to halt these exports. A somewhat larger majority (59%) said they believe Israel's actions in Gaza violate human rights.

Sunak has called for a humanitarian pause in Gaza fighting, but has so far resisted calls for a U.K. arms embargo on Israel. In an interview published Wednesday in The Sun newspaper, he defended his government's weapons licensing scheme.

"We have always had a very careful export licensing regime that we adhere to. There are a set of rules, regulations and procedures that we'll always follow," Sunak said. "And I've been consistently clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu since the start of this conflict that whilst 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 humanitarian law, protect civilian lives, get more aid into Gaza."

But behind closed doors, a senior politician in Sunak's party was caught on tape suggesting the government has already received alarming guidance from its own lawyers.

"The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law, but the government has not announced it," lawmaker Alicia Kearns was recorded saying at a private fundraiser. The audio was published last weekend by The Observer newspaper.

Kearns suggested Sunak's government has already sought legal advice on Israel's use of British weapons in Gaza — but has not been transparent about it with the public.

The Foreign Office acknowledged Thursday that it has reviewed Israel's adherence to the law, but that the content of government advice is confidential.

If Sunak were to halt U.K. arms exports to Israel, it wouldn't be the first time – nor would Britain be the first Israeli ally to do so. The British government briefly restricted all such sales in 1982, after Israel's invasion of Lebanon. In 2009, it also revoked some licenses.

In recent months, Canada, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands have all announced they're suspending arms exports to Israel. Israel's biggest weapons suppliers, the United States and Germany, have not done so.

There were calls for a U.K. arms embargo on Israel even before the World Central Kitchen attack

In towns and cities across the U.K., protests have sprung up in recent weeks and months, outside factories where components for Israeli F-35 fighter jets are made. At least one factory near Birmingham chose to shut down after having to pay for increased security amid protests.

On the outskirts of England's seaside city of Brighton, protesters have set up an encampment near the L3 Harris factory, which makes components for F-35 jets. Cars beep their horns in solidarity with demonstrators, who've hung signs that read: "This way to the bomb factory" and "Genocide in Gaza, Made in Brighton."

Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen, wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, April 2. A series of airstrikes killed seven aid workers from the international charity, leading it to suspend delivery Tuesday of vital food aid to Gaza.
Ismael Abu Dayyah / AP
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AP
Palestinians inspect a vehicle with the logo of the World Central Kitchen, wrecked by an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, April 2. A series of airstrikes killed seven aid workers from the international charity, leading it to suspend delivery Tuesday of vital food aid to Gaza.

Israel has not been convicted of war crimes, though the International Court of Justice has called on Israelto take greater measures to protect civilians in Gaza.

"That something is being produced in Brighton that goes into those bombs and goes into that suffering – I don't want Brighton to be participating in that," says one of the protesters who didn't want to give her name out of fear of arrest.

Several people have been arrested for trespassing while protesting at similar factories across Britain in recent months.

Before the WCK deaths, these protesters' demands rarely made it into the national discussion. Now they are at the forefront.

"It's possible the missiles that we sell to Israel have just killed three of our own citizens," Nick Ferrari, one of the country's most listened-to talk radio hosts, said Wednesday on LBC Radio. "I would suggest that now is the time to temporarily suspend the sale of arms to Israel."

On Friday, the United Nations' Human Rights Council is scheduled to consider a draft resolution calling for a global arms embargo on Israel, citing the "plausible risk of genocide in Gaza."

The resolution would likely be vetoed by Israel's biggest ally, Washington. But it's unclear how Britain would vote.

Because behind closed doors, the U.K. government may be weighing a similar arms embargo of its own.

Frayer reported from London. Al-Kassab reported from London and Brighton, England.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.