Court cases pile up in Europe in bid to halt weapons exports to Israel over Gaza war

NGOs have taken the unprecedented step of suing governments in The Netherlands, Denmark, France and the UK

An Israeli tank crew prepare to enter the Gaza Strip. The International Court of Justice found in January 26 that there was a 'plausible' risk of genocide in the enclave. Getty Images
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Court cases are piling up in Europe as many NGOs take the unprecedented step of suing governments over weapons exports to Israel and accusations that it may have committed war crimes in Gaza or perpetrated genocide – claims Israel refutes.

A recent decision by a Dutch court to order the government to cease the export of F-35 parts to Israel prompted similar lawsuits in Denmark last month and in France this week.

The Dutch government has appealed against the decision, which will be heard by the Supreme Court this year.

“We are very much inspired by the Dutch court case,” said Lars Koch, secretary general of Oxfam Denmark, one of the four NGOs involved in the lawsuit filed against the Danish police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We hope for a further copycat effect,” Mr Koch told The National.

France promptly followed suit as eight NGOs, including Amnesty International, on Thursday filed a summon for urgent proceedings at the administrative court of Paris.

The judge has 48 hours to respond to their request to cancel weapons exports to Israel over the risk that the Israeli military might use them to commit war crimes in Gaza.

Aymeric Elluin, arms transfers advocacy officer at Amnesty International France, said he expects an answer early next week.

“It's an unprecedented request, so the response from the judge is really uncertain at this stage,” Mr Elluin told The National.

“The idea is to create a domino effect. If a country responds positively, judges in other countries will be watching closely.”

Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu has sought to play down the importance of French weapons exports to Israel.

In 2022, they represented €15 million ($16 million) – the equivalent of 0.2 per cent of all of France's weapons sales abroad that year.

“No licence will be granted to Israel for weapons of war that would be used in ground operations in Gaza,” Mr Lecornu said last month.

In the Danish legal system, the judge will take three to six months to decide whether exports of arms to Israel must be immediately suspended due to risks of war crimes and breaches of international humanitarian law.

It is likely that no suspension will be ordered while the court case is running, Mr Koch said.

More oversight

The world's highest court, the International Court of Justice, found on January 26 that there was a “plausible” risk of genocide in the enclave, where at least 33,634 Palestinians have been killed and 76,214 injured since October 7.

The Israeli military operation on Gaza was sparked by a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and 253 taken hostage. About 130 are still held in Gaza, according to Israel.

In Denmark and France, court cases could take years. But for those involved, the result is less important than encouraging a public debate on the issue of arms transfers to Israel as soon as the lawsuit is filed.

Other initiatives to increase pressure on Israel at European level include an Irish and Spanish request to the EU Commission, the bloc's executive arm, to review a trade agreement due to fears that the human rights clause has been violated.

There has been so far no response to the request made in February. The bloc is divided over the conflict, which reduces its diplomatic influence.

UN expert says Israel has committed genocide in Gaza – video

UN expert says Israel has committed genocide in Gaza

UN expert says Israel has committed genocide in Gaza

Germany, the largest weapons exporter to Israel after the US, is a leading EU state and an ally of Israel.

But court cases have also piled up in Berlin as human rights lawyers on Friday filed a lawsuit against a German government decision to approve the export of 3,000 anti-tank weapons to Israel, the second case of its kind this month.

For activists, it is important that small EU countries like Denmark contribute to upholding the rules-based order.

“We are also using the court case for our continuing campaigning for a ceasefire and immediately end arms exports to Israel,” said Mr Koch.

“We have seen some progress in this,” added Mr Koch, pointing at a March 15 parliamentary committee hearing in which the Foreign Affairs Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said that the ministry's analysis of whether it would accept licences for weapons export would become more stringent.

Oxfam Denmark launched a crowdfunding campaign on the same day it announced the lawsuit on March 3 to cover its legal costs. It has so far raised 1.5 million DKK ($210,000) from private donors.

Some 15 Danish companies supply components for F-35 fighter jets that are exported to the US and then onwards to third countries including Israel. “We claim that you cannot export your responsibility over the end use of the weapons,” said Mr Koch.

In the UK, the high court dismissed in February a legal challenge against the UK department for Business and Trade launched over similar concerns of possible involvement in breaches of international humanitarian law.

The lawsuit was filed by two NGOs including Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq, which is also involved in the Danish case.

But activists hope the dismissal might be reversed at a hearing later this month, allowing the case to go forward.

“It is fairly standard in British courts that judges turn a case down, and then another judge lets it go ahead,” said Martin Butcher, policy adviser on arms and conflict with Oxfam International.

Updated: April 13, 2024, 11:21 AM