Is the UK establishment turning against Israel's war on Gaza?

Is the UK establishment turning against Israel's war on Gaza?
After Israel killed three British aid workers in Gaza, The New Arab breaks down the backlash emanating from parts of the UK establishment.
4 min read
05 April, 2024
Though Sunak has supported Israel's war on Gaza, pressure is now mounting on Sunak after the WCK massacre [Getty]

The UK is one of Israel’s oldest and strongest allies, but could this be changing?

After Israel killed seven workers for the charity organisation World Central Kitchen (WCK), including three British citizens, in Gaza, ties between London and Tel Aviv are facing increasing strain.

Pressure is mounting on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to take a decisive stance, as he is faced with overwhelming evidence that Israel is breaching international humanitarian law (IHL). 

However, this time the pressure comes from sectors of UK society traditionally seen as the establishment, including members within Sunak's own Conservative Party.

The New Arab looks into what these elements are saying and whether or not the UK’s establishment is slowly abandoning Israel as it wages its devastating war on Gaza.

How has Rishi Sunak and the UK government reacted?

Following the WCK strike, Sunak held a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, during which he described the attack as “appalling” and demanded a “thorough and transparent independent investigation into what happened”.

However, Sunak also used the opportunity to criticise Israel’s war more widely, telling Netanyahu that “too many aid workers and ordinary civilians have lost their lives in Gaza and the situation is increasingly intolerable”.

According to Israel’s Channel 13 News, during the phone call, the prime minister also warned Netanyahu that if sufficient aid does not reach Gaza, enough to avert what he called a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the enclave, the UK would formally declare that Israel has breached IHL.

Live Story

This would mean that under the UK’s own law, which prohibits issuing licenses for arms sales used by states that are breaching IHL, Sunak would have to end weapons sales to Israel.

While Sunak has resisted this since Israel’s war on Gaza began, this what much of the pressure among some the UK’s political and judicial establishment is demanding.

This includes members of his own party.

Tory Party MPs call for Israeli arms embargo

Conservative members of the House of Lords and MPs are now openly advocating for the UK to stop selling arms to Israel.

Among them is Sir Nicholas Soames, a member of the House of Lords and Winston Churchill’s grandson, who has stated that Britain needs to send a “message” to Israel regarding its activities in Gaza. Additionally, Mark Logan MP, a parliamentary private secretary in the Department for Work and Pensions, is also calling for an arms embargo on Israel.

A total of six Tory MPs are now calling for an arms embargo, including David Jones, who thought that Netanyahu’s response to the WCK killings was “frankly shamefully inadequate”.

Live Story

Sir Alan Duncan, a former Tory MP and government minister, lambasted “pro-Israel extremists” within his party and the UK government, prompting an internal probe by the party into him.

It’s clear that the Tory Party is internally split over the government’s stance. With The Guardian reporting that the Foreign Secretary David Cameron is pushing for Sunak to take a harsher line on Israel, it’s possible that Sunak could be forced to act.

Ex-MI6 chief says Israel losing ‘moral purpose’ in Gaza

Former head of MI6, the UK’s top intelligence service, Sir Alex Younger said the WCK incident demonstrated that Israel was using “systematic targeting”, which risked slaughtering innocent people by mistake.

“My view is that what happened is essentially systematic - of an approach to targeting that has on occasion bordered on the reckless and therefore fundamentally undermines what must be Israel’s political objectives which is to sustain some moral high ground and moral purpose,” the ex-spy chief said.

Legal experts say UK must end Israeli arms sales or ‘violate’ law

Over 600 legal experts, including three former British Supreme Court justices, warned the UK government that by continuing to arm Israel it risks violating international law.

In a letter addressed to Sunak on Wednesday evening, the signatories — comprising former Court of Appeal judges and over 60 King’s Counsels (KCs) — describe the current conditions in Gaza as "catastrophic".

Live Story

They said the UK has a legal obligation to prevent genocide in Gaza, stemming from the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) interim ruling in January that Israel's actions could plausibly constitute genocide.

“The ICJ’s conclusion that there exists a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza has placed your government on notice that weapons might be used in its commission and that the suspension of their provision is thus a ‘means likely to deter’ and/or ‘a measure to prevent’ genocide,” the letter reads.

Opposition piles on the pressure

The official opposition Labour Party has refused to call for an end to arms sales to Israel. However, the Shadow Foreign Minister David Lammy has urged Sunak to publish any legal advice it had received on whether Israel had broken international law, and to suspend arms sales if Israel had violated international law.

In addition to this, Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has called for an immediate end to arms sales to Israel in a letter to Sunak, while the Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey also backed an immediate block of weapons sales to Tel Aviv.