I recently asked the Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell (because MPs can’t directly question the Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron) about investigating potential breaches of international humanitarian law. It is important that both sides in this situation abide by international law and to not engage in any activity which directly targets civilians. Where this does happen, it is right the International Criminal Court investigates and brings those responsible to justice. We have long called for the ICC to be involved in Gaza and it is a step forward that they are now involved.
We are all too aware of the cycles of conflict that plague the lives of innocent Palestinians and Israelis. The backdrop to this current escalation of hostilities is well known. The question we now find ourselves wrestling with is how we help reach the peaceful resolution we all so desperately want, and how to achieve the long-term aim of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
The horrors of recent months have been intolerable, and this resolution describes how we must work for a sustained ceasefire. The next humanitarian truce is beyond urgent, and in the space, it brings, intense diplomacy should begin to set new terms under which fighting does not restart and the risk of escalation is reduced.
Hamas must release all the remaining hostages, end all attacks on Israel and have no role in the future governance of Gaza. Israel must agree to end its bombing campaign, allow a humanitarian surge into Gaza, and end settler violence and displacement in the West Bank. Israel must also remove Netanyahu from power (which the Israelis want) and get to a process of permanent peace.
I do think it’s extremely difficult with a reactionary and desperate Netanyahu government on the one side and a terrorist organisation on the other. These are not actors who will negotiate or seek conclusions in good faith.
One of the key things we need to do is find a way to get the leaders of the future in both Israel and Palestine that will act in good faith to find peace and a permanent solution. That’s been lost in the current crisis and in the way in which Israel has responded to the Hamas attack on 7 October.
The next Labour government will be dedicated to working towards this. The international community must be spurred into action rather than shy away from the challenge. The future of Israelis and Palestinians depends on it.
I fully share the many concerns that have been raised by people across Edinburgh South and further afield. We have to find a pathway to getting this immediate crisis to end and use that as the platform towards a lasting peace.
The issue most constituents are contacting me about is on the issue of an immediate cessation of hostilities. We all want these hostilities to end – and now. That is unarguable.
However, sustained ceasefire is necessary, but not sufficient, for long term peace. It can only be used as a gateway to where we want things to progress to. The bottom line is that bloodshed must stop and now.
Over recent weeks, Keir Starmer has been in discussion with leaders from Europe, America and the Middle East, including Israel, Palestine, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt as the key players. There have been no serious peace talks in more than a decade. That’s why there must be a new political process that has the capacity, conviction and commitment to turn the rhetoric around two states living side by side in peace into reality.
As a matter of urgency however, Israel must change the way it is fighting this war by taking urgent and all steps to protect civilians, hospitals and children, and ensure humanitarian aid reaches the innocent people caught up in this war. I don’t think they are doing that, and this creates a huge and unnecessary death toll and a worsening humanitarian crisis. It also makes a ceasefire and peace less likely.
This is an ever-changing situation, and I am certain we will revisit this in the days and weeks ahead. Having visited Gaza a decade ago as part of an EU delegation, I have seen myself the issues on the ground and the impact of recent history, especially the blockade. Simply, we need a solution now.
The UK and partners must start work immediately to find a pathway to an enduring cessation of hostilities and a lasting political solution. We want to see the threat of Hamas removed, the end to illegal settlements and settler violence in the West Bank, and a plan for the reconstruction and renewal of Gaza.
Palestinians must be assured their future will not be like the past, that they and their children will be able to enjoy the security, opportunities and rights that we take for granted.
These are the essential steps if we are to deliver a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel, the only credible basis for long-term peace.
We have been demanding and getting a weekly debate on this issue in parliament to continue to press and scrutinise the government and get them to act in a more balanced and forthright way when parliament returns from recess on Monday, we will be continuing to do this.
We have certainly not been uncritical of Israel and have long called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to get involved in Gaza and what has been happening. We have also called for Israel to abide by international law, get their violent settlers out of the West Bank, and sanctions on Israeli individuals and organisations who are in breach of international law.
The bottom line is that we all crave the same thing – and end to this current crisis and a long-term plan for peace.
We need the conclusion of a process towards an immediate ceasefire and as quickly as possible but the recent proposals by Qatar and then Egypt have failed as both sides could not agree.
We have always backed the process towards a permanent ceasefire but its immediacy of when it can be achieved has always been a contentious issue as delivering such a ceasefire isn’t easy. We all want the same conclusion, a ceasefire long before now, a permanent ceasefire, and a process towards peace.
This is hugely complex and certainly the most difficult issue I have faced as an MP. As your MP, I have always been honest, straightforward, accessible and responsive to every single communication that I receive. I will continue to do that.
Beyond all the current efforts to end the violence and while the two-state solution may seem further away than ever, it is essential we do not lose sight of it. For far too long we have paid lip service to the notion of a two-state solution, and the world has failed to get the Palestinian people any closer to a sovereign state to call home. Peace must be more than just something we all hope for – it must become a reality for Palestinians and Israelis.
Lastly on the UK-Israeli arms trade, I’ve been doing some research into the subject recently and have acquired a House of Commons briefing on the matter which I detail below.
For the emails that are asking me to sign the EDMs I’m unable to do so by parliamentary rules as they are the preserve of the backbenches. Likewise, the debate itself is a backbench debate and, therefore, I would not be able to contribute but my colleagues in the Westminster Hall Debate. I look forward to the Minister being pressed on these issues and the response.
Before I respond to your concerns on the UK’s arms trade with Israel specifically, I also think it’s worth mentioning that my Labour Party colleagues and I also remain incredibly concerned about the reports of use of US supplied white phosphorus munitions. In Lebanon, Israel’s white phosphorus bombs have destroyed over 4.5 million sqm of forest in southern Lebanon with the economic losses being valued at nearly 20 million dollars. As a result, my colleagues and I have consistently called for the involvement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate these claims as it would be against international law.
It is of great concern to us that the UK has licensed arms worth over £442 million to Israel between May 2015 and August 2022, according to analysis of Government export data by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).
My colleagues on the Labour Frontbench have raised concerns about arms exports to Israel both before and during the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. Ministers have responded to such concerns by referencing the UK’s strategic export licensing system, under which all applications for a licence to export weapons and related items are assessed against a set of criteria. These criteria reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law, and the potential for the goods to be used in the violation of human rights (for example, torture). The criteria is indeed correct but doesn’t not determine what is oppression etc and that is the issue here.
I’m glad the International Criminal Court is now involved in Gaza and Israel as that will be able to determine the use of arms for the purposes that are against any licensing criteria.
The consolidated criteria that the Committee for Arms and Export Controls uses is only as robust, though, as the implementation of the licensing system. It is correct for the UK Government to claim that we have one of the strictest licensing systems in the world but that misses the point as it is only robust if it is implemented properly and it is not.
During oral questions to the Department of Business and Trade on 30 November 2023, Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, said:
“Since the barbaric terrorist acts by Hamas against Israel on 7 October and the subsequent conflict in the region, the Government has been monitoring the situation very closely. The UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that that is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. Export licences are kept under careful and continual review as standard, and we are able to amend licences or refuse new licence applications if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.
Any company wanting to export military or dual-use (that could have military or civilian use) goods to other nations must apply for a licence from the Government to do so.”
A list of items which require a licence for export is set out in the UK Strategic Export Control Lists (also known as the consolidated list). This list includes equipment, software and technology.
The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) is responsible for processing licence applications. The unit sits within the Department for Business and Trade, and it draws together expertise from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State for Business and Trade is responsible for arms export controls.
The ECJU assesses licence applications against the Strategic Export Licencing Criteria. These reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law, and the potential for the goods to be used in the violation of human rights (such as torture). For example, a licence will not be granted if:
- There is a clear risk that the items might be used to “commit or facilitate” internal repression or a serious violation of international humanitarian law (Criteria 2a and 2c).
- There is a clear risk that the items would, overall, undermine internal peace and security (Criterion 3) or regional/international peace and security (Criterion 4).
- The items could be used to commit or facilitate an offence under international conventions or protocols to which the United Kingdom is party relating to terrorism or transnational organised crime (Criterion 6a).
- Existing licences will be revoked if they are “found to be no longer consistent with the Criteria.”
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) collates data on export licences published by the Government. According to CAAT analysis of Government export licence data, the UK licenced over £442 million worth of arms to Israel between May 2015 and August 2022. This included:
- £183 million worth of ML22 licences (military technology)
- £117 million worth of ML10 licences (aircraft, helicopters, drones)
- £22 million worth of ML4 licences (grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures)
- £4.6 million worth of ML6 licences (armoured vehicles, tanks)
- The amounts given above do not indicate the actual value of exports shipped, only the value of goods that licence holders are allowed to export.
On 20 November 2023, the Secretary of State for Defence, Grant Shapps, said that UK “defence exports to Israel are relatively small—just £42 million last year” but there have been long-standing concerns between the frontbench regarding arms exports to Israel.
For example, Early Day Motion 1305, signed by 73 MPs in 2018 including numerous members of our current frontbench, cited a risk that UK arms to Israel might “be used for internal repression or in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law” and may “adversely affect regional stability”.
Government responses to oral and written questions, often refer to the criteria used when assessing licence applications:
The UK Government says that it takes its defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operates some of the most robust export controls in the world. All applications for export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against strict criteria. They will not issue a licence if there is a clear risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression. The UK Government claims that they continue to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the OPTs [Occupied Palestinian Territories] and if extant licences are found to be no longer consistent with the criteria, those licences will be revoked.
That is all good and well saying it but what is happening in practice seems to be contrary to this stated aim by the UK government.
As some background, in 2014 the Coalition Government reviewed export licences granted to Israel following the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza previous. The Government said the review found the vast majority of exported currently licensed for Israel are “not for items that could be used by Israeli forces in operations in Gaza in response to attacks by Hamas.” However, the Government did suspend twelve licences for components which could be part of equipment used by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza. The same process needs to happen again.
In a report published in October 2022, the Committees on Arms Exports called on the Government to provide a detailed breakdown of licences granted for exports to Israel, including any end-use conditions. A breakdown of licences issued, refused, rejected and revoked between 1 July 2017 and 30 June 2022 was published.
It says in response that all applications for export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria. Before the current conflict, it said it monitors the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories closely and keeps relevant licences under review.
But we know the truth is that the Government has failed to address serious weaknesses in our arms export regime and a Labour government would establish a new arms export regime that is truly transparent, free from arbitrary judgements and committed to upholding international law.
I sat on the Committee on Arms and Export Control from 2016-2019 as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and it was clear that the regime was strict but government implementation was poor and that was always a great frustration to the Committee who were trying to do the job of ensuring there were no sales to Israel of any item that could be used in oppressing their neighbours but, in practice, it was never clear if the government implemented these decisions fully.
I completely and wholeheartedly agree with charities such as Oxfam who have warned that the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria announced in December 2021 will lessen transparency over arms exports and could see UK arms being used against civilians, which is the very real concern right now.
I will continue to ask the Government what steps it is taking to ensure that UK arms exports are not used to commit breaches of international humanitarian law and will write to the FCDO again to seek assurances, I will be back in touch once a response has been received.
That lip service includes claiming the Arms and Export Control system is robust enough to deal with these issues as we are seeing at the moment when we know that to not be the case.