Israeli 'double-counting' of aid deliveries to Gaza threatens UK arms exports deal

British government to conduct re-examination of weapon exports following World Central Kitchen worker deaths, The National can reveal

A lorry carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza near the Rafah border crossing. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest on Israel-Gaza

Israel’s alleged double-counting of aid lorries entering Gaza could affect Britain’s decision to continue arms exports to the country, The National can reveal.

Following the air strikes that killed three British aid workers on April 1, it is understood that Israel has promised to increase the number of aid convoys entering Gaza, which is on the brink of famine.

However, UK government is re-examining its arms export licences that provide key parts for Israeli fighter jets with a view to banning them if food supplies remain inadequate.

Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to several Middle East countries, has also told The National that foreign office legal advice is likely to suggest the possibility that Israeli attacks “fall foul of international law”.

Disputed numbers

Britain’s angry reaction to the drone strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy, which killed seven in total, most of them westerners, led to a pledge by Israel to increase aid convoy access to 500 lorries a day.

But on Tuesday, the Israelis said 419 lorries crossed into Gaza whereas the UN put it at 238.

Seven aid workers killed in Israeli air strike on Gaza

Seven aid workers killed in Israeli air strike on Gaza

After further investigation it was found that the Israelis had arrived at the figure after they allegedly included lorries that had been barred from entering the Palestinian territory.

They also allegedly counted one vehicle as three when supplies from three were mounted on to a single vehicle to make a 20 tonne load and also to make up shortfalls of drivers who have visas.

Further questions have also been raised on Israel’s commitment to reopen the Erez crossing in northern Gaza, Ashdod port and the Kerem Shalom crossing around the clock.

Withdraw arms licences?

The British government is coming under increasing pressure to re-examine its arms exports licences and three sources have told The National that Foreign Secretary David Cameron is weighing up whether to withdraw them.

There is a very strict formula for licences in which the government has to be convinced that there is “no clear risk” that they are going to be used in a serious breach of international humanitarian law.

It is understood that the latest British legal advice is based on an assessment made well before the World Central Kitchen attack making it significantly out of date.

Whitehall is now rapidly re-examining the process and whether it is fulfilling its duties on the export licence criteria.

There is said to be a “pressure and appetite” to moves things quickly and re-examine the licences in “a robust fashion” although imposing a ban in the short term has been ruled out.

Britain’s reputation

Senior officials from the ruling Conservative Party have suggested that the WCK attack was a “turning point” in how the government reviewed arms exports.

“I get the impression that Lord Cameron has read the tea leaves on how this is going to affect Britain's reputation in the world,” one said.

“The public’s view of Israel is certainly changing, regarding their actions as inhumane and that it’s certainly not it's an electoral asset to be supporting unconditionally what Israel is doing. It’s now quite possible that there's a change in export licences.”

The source also suggested that Lord Cameron, a former prime minister, had the political clout to stand up to the “UK branch of the Likud party” in the Tories. “He's big enough to take it”.

Sir William, who was UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, said that given UK components for aircraft might have been used to attack civilian areas

“there's a case to answer, but the government has so far resisted it”.

Foreign Office lawyers’ legal opinion would likely have argued that supplying arms that “may be used in breaches of international law is possible”.

“I don't think international law would accept the Israeli rules of engagement, which seem to be that 100 civilians dead is a permissible price to pay killing one Hamas fighter,” he added.

The former diplomat, who passed dozens of arms licences during his time in the Foreign Office, suggested that the updated legal advice might lead to a departmental official refusing to agree an export licence.

“You could get a civil servant saying ‘I'm not going to sign this because of the legal advice that says that I could be implicated’.”

Sir William also said that an attack on Rafah where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering, would potentially be a “tipping point” for Britain.

If Britain did withdraw arms support it would carry the symbolic value of a major Israeli ally saying “enough is enough on the humanitarian side”, he added.

It would also increase pressure on the US although Washington was “worried that the Iranians might take some signal of diminished American military support for Israel as a sign that they could attack with impunity”.

Suspend arms

The Campaign Against the Arms Trade stated that Britain should immediately halt all arms exports.

“Under our own export guidelines, if there's a clear risk that equipment transferred could be used in the commission of war crimes operations then it has to be suspended,” said Emily Apple, spokeswoman for the pressure group.

The UK supplied 15 per cent of the F-35 fighter parts and the heads-up-display units for F-16s, with both aircraft active over Gaza.

If Britain withdrew the licences it would “send a very, very clear message that the UK will not be complicit in violations of international humanitarian law” she added.

“It will also put pressure on other countries, particularly the US over their own exports and also on Israel in terms of their conduct in this war.”

Updated: April 13, 2024, 5:36 AM