Arms Export Licences: Israel — [Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:23 am on 12 December 2023.

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[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 2:30, 12 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered arms export licences for sales to Israel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am pleased to have secured this timely debate and grateful to the House authorities for granting it. More than 18,000 Palestinians, including more than 7,000 children, have been killed. More than 80% of the population—1.8 million people—has been displaced. Almost 100 journalists have been killed—the highest number in any global conflict in more than 30 years. More than 100 UN aid workers have been killed— more than in any conflict in UN history. This weekend, the UN warned that half the population of Gaza is facing starvation. Behind those horrifying statistics are real people with names, hopes, dreams, families and friendships that are just as real as yours or mine, Sir Christopher.

I start this debate by talking about Nour, a 17-year-old student from a town just south of Gaza City who wanted to be a doctor when she left school. In a page recovered from her diary, Nour spoke of her hope to make her family proud. Nour was killed when an Israeli airstrike hit her home on 11 October. I will also talk about 26-year-old Safaa and her baby girl Elyana, who were killed in their sleep when an Israeli fighter jet bombed their house in the southern city of Rafah. Then, there is Reem, whose lifeless body was cradled by her grandfather after her family home in al-Nuseirat refugee camp was hit by a strike. Her grandfather Khaled stroked her hair and kissed her goodbye for the last time, pinning her earring to his jacket as a badge to remember her by. He said,

“She was the soul of my soul”.

The horror is so extreme that it would be impossible to talk about all the people who have been indiscriminately killed. Just listing the names of all those who have been killed, let alone telling their stories, would take nearly 20 hours. I say that because I want to remind colleagues and the whole House of the shared humanity of those being slaughtered in Gaza today. I say it because, whether we like it or not, this place is deeply complicit in the atrocities we see being inflicted on the Palestinian people. Not only do the British Government provide vital diplomatic support for Israel, most recently joining the US as the lone voices refusing to call for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council—a move the US shamefully vetoed—but we supply the Israeli military with hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of arms.

Actually, the true figure is shrouded in secrecy. Under open export licences, arms companies can export an unlimited quantity of specified equipment with no further monitoring and no tracking of their total value.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Rochdale

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and she is absolutely right to ask why the UK abstained in the vote at the United Nations. She makes the point that we can never find out what arms exports have left this country and gone to Israel. Is it not time we had transparency in the arms trade?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Absolutely, and I will go on to talk about the Bill I have presented to the House. This is what the debate is about: getting the Government to commit to ending these arms licences so that we are not complicit in war crimes.

We do track closed export licences, through which we know that the Government have handed arms licences to the Israeli Government worth £474 million since 2015.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this powerful debate. She mentioned that the UK Government have closed export licences with Israel. The criteria outlining who can receive arms export licences from the Government include strong wording in relation to violence against women and girls. Does my hon. Friend agree we need to ensure that any arms exported from this country are not used to facilitate unlawful military action?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

We have a licensing regime, but there are loopholes that are often exploited, which is what we are seeking to address.

Photo of Imran Hussain Imran Hussain Labour, Bradford East

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and she rightly highlights the humanitarian nightmare people in Gaza face. Does she agree that it is an absolute duty on our Government, as it is on other Governments, that where arms or components used in arms are used in violation of international law and to commit war crimes, there must be an immediate suspension of exports and a review?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Absolutely—I completely agree with that intervention.

Just to go back a little, we know that we have issued arms licences to the Israeli military worth £474 million since 2015. Included in those licences are parts for F-35 fighter jets—stealth aircraft that are currently unleashing hell on Gaza.

According to US arms company Lockheed Martin, which is the lead contractor for these jets, they are:

“ the most lethal...fighter jets in the world.”

Some 15% of the parts for these aircraft are made in British factories, including the Brighton factory that makes the weapon-release system on the jet, allowing it to unleash deadly airstrikes on the people below. We must ask whether it was a British-made release system that sent death screaming on to Safaa and her baby girl in Rafah? Was Nour robbed of her dream of becoming a doctor because a British-made weapon launched an airstrike on her home? And were British-made arms involved in robbing Khaled of his beautiful grand-daughter? The answer is that we do not know, although there is no doubt that British-made arms have been used in the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. Despite hollow protestations by Ministers, there is also no doubt that Israel has committed clear violations of international law, as the UN Secretary-General, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have said.

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for allowing us the opportunity to call for a halt to arms sales to Israel. Like many of us in the House, she will be alarmed at the stance of the UK Government, who say they believe Israel should adhere to international law and yet take no action and make no statement when the evidence mounts that Israel is not doing so. Does she agree that halting arms sales until it can be proven that these arms are not being used as part of war crimes would be a practical step that the Government could take and would increase their credibility when they mouth pious words about international law?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. British credibility has been damaged, especially by the vote at the UN Security Council. If we are to show true leadership—moral leadership—that is an important step, which I hope the Government will take.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful and important speech. I also want to put on the record the name of Professor Refaat Alareer, who was a colleague of my constituent Professor Alison Phipps. He was her Gazan link in her work with refugees from Gaza. Sadly, he lost his life in an airstrike.

The problem is that the UK is continuing to supply weapons to Israel. We have talked about breaches of international law, and the UK becomes complicit in those breaches of international law, which puts us in a difficult position.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Absolutely. To be true partners calling for peace, we cannot be arming one side of the conflict; we need to secure a political settlement to the crisis.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

We are often told by Ministers, and no doubt this Minister will make the point later, that we have one of the toughest arms export control regimes in the world, yet we hardly ever see evidence of how these tough rules are applied in practice. Does that leave the hon. Lady suspecting, as it leaves me suspecting, that this regime really is not what it is cracked up to be?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Later I will touch on how we halted arms sales to Israel when David Cameron led the Government. So it has happened in the past, and the fact that we are not seeing action now makes us question things.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Many hands are going up—I will give way to my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy

Photo of Bell Ribeiro-Addy Bell Ribeiro-Addy Labour, Streatham

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this extremely important debate. She has touched on the arms sales, which have continued over a number of years, and on the fact that the UK has continued to supply arms to Israel, which I believe makes us complicit in the occupation of the west bank and the use of arms to suppress people there. She said she was going to talk about the precedents we have had for suspending arms sales where it is clear that there are concerns about their benefiting human rights violations. Does my hon. Friend agree that this could be very much like the time the UK had an embargo on the sale of arms to Israel from 1982 to 1984, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Yes, I agree. In the past, we have shown that we can take leadership, and I mentioned the example of when David Cameron stopped arms sales, although we resumed them afterwards. On this occasion, we can see that clear violations of international law are taking place, and we cannot continue arms sales.

I will make a bit of progress. What makes the Government’s refusal to suspend arms sales even more horrifying is that Israeli officials have been quite open about their intent in Gaza. At the beginning of the assault, an Israeli military spokesperson said that “the emphasis” of bombing was on

“damage and not on accuracy”.

Another official promised to turn Gaza into a “city of tents”, while the former head of the Israeli National Security Council said that the aim was to make Gaza

“a place where no human being can exist.”

The National Security Minister said that the only thing that should enter Gaza is

“not a gram of humanitarian aid” but

“hundreds of tons of explosives”.

More recently, an Israeli Minister said that the war would be “Gaza’s Nakba”, which is a reference to the 1948 catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and never allowed to return. Given that stated intent, and actions to match it, UN experts have warned of a “genocide in the making”. Let us be clear: if this is a genocide in the making, British-made weapons are almost certainly part of making that genocide happen.

None of that is to deny or downplay Hamas’s appalling attack on 7 October, when 1,200 people—the majority civilians—were killed. I condemn that attack once again, as I have done repeatedly in the Chamber, and call again for the release of all hostages. As I have also said before, echoing the words of the UN Secretary-General, those crimes do not excuse what we have witnessed since.

Unlike those awful crimes, Israel’s assault on Gaza has been carried out with the Government’s unequivocal support and with British-made weapons. Disgracefully, selling arms for war crimes is not new for British Governments. Following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which human rights organisations said violated international law, the Conservative-led coalition Government undertook an investigation into arms sales to Israel, finding that those arms could have been used by the Israeli military in Gaza. That resulted in the Government committing to suspend sales if Israel resumed its military assault.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful speech, which is setting out the scale of this emergency. She is correct to say that, almost two years ago, a UK Minister said that UK export controls

“help ensure that controlled items are not used…in…serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Does she agree that the consolidated list is meaningless if arms continue to be exported to Israel in this context?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Absolutely. Those are hollow words if there is no action.

Following the 2008 to 2009 Gaza war, the Labour Government admitted that British-made arms had been used by Israel, prompting the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to apologise and to affirm that Israeli misuse of equipment would inform future licence applications.

The truth is that the current criteria for export licences should be enough to stop their sale. Under both UK and international law, the Government are required to prevent the transfer of military equipment to a state if there is a clear or overriding risk that it could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international law. That is what criteria 1 and 2 of the strategic export licensing criteria say. If those criteria were consistently applied, there would be a de facto arms embargo on Israel, since this military equipment is used to uphold Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories, including the infrastructure of the illegal west bank settlements—illegal, of course, under international law and according to UK policy—and in the transfer of prisoners from occupied territory into Israel, which the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has noted as being a violation of the Geneva convention.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee, Chair, Energy Security and Net Zero Committee

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She said that we do not know about the arms sales, and indeed we do not, but somebody does. Should we not be able to expect more of companies in the UK, and that they will not be like immoral drug dealers on the corner, selling to whoever, whenever, regardless of the consequences? The executives of those companies know and the companies themselves know. Should they not show us all exactly what they are doing? We expect companies that live among us in the UK not to be funding or aiding and abetting death in Gaza, as is happening at the moment.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

Amnesty International says the

“arms licensing system is not fit for purpose in assessing risk, is riddled with loopholes and is in…need of root-and-branch reform.”

That is why I introduced a Bill this week that would allow us to launch an inquiry into the use of arms sold to foreign states and to suspend arms to any state that might use them in violation of international law.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent speech and for all she is doing on this important issue. I associate my remarks with the personal approach she has taken, because I have a constituent whose partner is being bombed as he tries to evacuate from south Gaza. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to arm sales to Israel, we should think about arm sales to the US, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, and ensure that we tighten the licensing arrangements for arms manufacturers to those countries?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. This is a debate about arms sales to Israel.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

Thank you, Sir Christopher. Since being elected, I have raised the issue of arms licences for regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which used British-made weapons in Yemen, so I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill I presented would suspend sales to not just Israel but the likes of Saudi Arabia, whose war in Yemen led to the death of thousands of people with, again, clear and well-documented violations of international law. In another example of shameful disregard for human rights, that war was also facilitated by our Government and is therefore linked to this debate. Export licences to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war have been worth a staggering £6.8 million, which is why I have repeatedly called for the House to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is she aware that only two weeks ago in the House the Secretary of State for Defence claimed that arms sales to Israel in the past year were less than £50 million? The figures she has given suggest that he had misinformed himself before he made that statement. Does she have a credible figure for how much is sold to Israel, as well as for the value of Elbit Systems sales and how many of those sales are made internally within Elbit Systems back to Israel itself?

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

As I mentioned, a lot is shrouded in secrecy. We do have the figure of £474 million, but we believe that the figure is much higher. There needs to be true transparency, especially with the arms sales coming from the Government.

Ending this bloody exchange is one of the steps the Government must take to end their complicity in the massacre in Gaza. Even as countries across the globe, and figures from the Pope to the President of France, call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, the Government still refuse to heed that call, ignoring the 76% of the British public who back it. Beyond the immediate need to end the bloodshed, Britain has an historical responsibility to push for a just and lasting peace, having been the mandatory power in Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. As we witness a new and even more terrible Nakba, Britain must honour that duty by demanding an immediate ceasefire and ending arm sales today, and by insisting on ending the illegal occupation and on a free Palestine tomorrow.

Israel’s war on Gaza is not the first time British-made weapons have been used for war crimes, but it must be the last. I conclude with these questions to the Minister. Given the overwhelming evidence that Israel has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, what assessment have the Government made of Israel’s conformity with international law? Have they made any assessment of it? If they have not, will they commit to immediately making that assessment? Given the overwhelming evidence that Israel has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, what assessment have the Government made of Israel’s actions in the light of our export licensing criteria? Again, have they made any assessment of that? If they have not, will they assess whether Israel’s actions are consistent with our licensing criteria as they stand? Finally, will the Government uphold our export licensing rules, international law and basic principles of humanity by immediately suspending arms sales to Israel? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank everybody who has joined us for the debate.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 2:49, 12 December 2023

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Zarah Sultana for bringing the debate to this Chamber.

Hamas’s barbaric 7 October attack on Israel featured unspeakable acts of brutality and sexual violence. The attacks left 1,200 dead and thousands injured and the bodies of many victims remain unidentifiable due to the severity of the violence. Hamas chose to break an existing ceasefire the day it launched the heinous genocidal attack. Acts of terrorism have not ceased since and more than 12,000 rockets have been launched indiscriminately at Israel since 7 October.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Independent, Blackpool South

Israel is fighting a war that it did not want or start against an enemy that shows complete and utter disdain for its own civilian population by embedding its terrorist infrastructure in schools, hospitals and mosques. Does my hon. Friend agree that Israel has a legal right to defend itself and to remove the grave threat posed by a terrorist organisation whose stated aim is to wipe it completely from the world map?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is, of course, absolutely right: Israel does have the right to defend itself. I would argue that the biggest threat to the Palestinian people is not Israel, but Hamas. We must bear that in mind.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

It is very important when anybody takes any sort of action that civilians are protected. As with all wars, there are casualties. I wish Hamas had borne that in mind when they started this and broke the ceasefire in the first place. However, with any action that is taken, I would protect civilians and ensure that there are safe routes and humanitarian pauses so that we can ensure that we save as many lives as possible and prevent this from happening. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and it is important that we minimise casualties on both sides. We encourage that and we encourage a long-standing peace.

Of course, there will be casualties on both sides, and that is something that we want to avoid, but the intention to repeat the attack again and again has been boasted of very publicly. Some 137 hostages remain cruelly within Hamas control, and the group is using them as a sickening bargaining chip. No democratic state can be expected not to act in self-defence when faced with such an existential terror threat. I applaud the UK Government for resolutely supporting Israel’s duty to its citizens to remove the threat posed by Hamas but, like everyone in this place, I hope for a just and lasting peace in the region. That is why I believe that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, was right last week when he said:

“If we leave Hamas in charge of even a part of Gaza, there will never be a two-state solution because you can’t expect Israel to live next to a group of people that want to do October 7 all over again.”

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I will give way to the hon. Lady first and then to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. My hon. Friend Angus Brendan MacNeil asked whether those 18,000 civilians were defence. I would add, are 6,000 children defence? We now have a situation where 800 experts say that this could possibly be a genocide against the Palestinian people. How can we continue to support it, because, if we do continue to support Israel in their bombardment of Gaza, we are complicit in this genocide?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I think it is wrong to imply, as the debate appears to, that Israel alone is responsible for the current situation in Gaza. Hamas have ruthlessly controlled Gaza now for almost two decades, and have inflicted a great amount of suffering on the civilian population. They have also deliberately prioritised this genocidal terrorism with direct support from the Iranian regime. Israel did not seek this war. It hoped, wrongly, that Hamas was moderating itself and more interested in governing the Gaza strip, but that does not appear to be the case.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

Israel’s stated aim in this conflict is the destruction of Hamas, and the UK and US Governments have given it a blank cheque to achieve that aim. I have not met one serious expert who believes the destruction of Hamas is possible, so how many deaths will it take before the UK Government closes their cheque book to Israel?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that a blank cheque has been provided. If we look at the comments of the Foreign Secretary and the former Foreign Secretary, we know we have spoken with our international partners and are very keen to see that two-state solution, and that means working with Palestinians as well. As I said, the biggest enemy of the Palestinian people is Hamas; we want to work together to finish this conflict as soon as possible and move on.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman says that Hamas is the biggest threat to Israel, but will he not acknowledge that Hezbollah, located to the north of Israel with up to 130,000 rockets, is probably more of a threat? Will he also acknowledge that we have to look at the bigger geopolitics? This is a proxy war being fought with Hamas as one combatant, and many civilians as the poor, unfortunate victims of this war.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point; he is absolutely correct on the Hezbollah situation. This conflict involves several different sides—I mentioned Iranian involvement—and there are a number of people who simply do not want peace in the region as it is not in their interests, whether that involves funding groups such as Hezbollah or such as Hamas. Israel was looking at a deal on relations with Saudi Arabia, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the geopolitics are also important; we must not look at Israel and Gaza purely in isolation. I thank him for making that excellent point. I agree with him and we need to continue to focus on that.

The approach to Hamas has proved misguided and so far it has shown the world the true brutal face of the organisation. I believe that calls for an arms embargo against our democratic ally are deeply wrong, and all the more so in the absence of clear calls for Hamas—the instigator and belligerent in this situation—to surrender unconditionally.

The Minister will be aware that the UK has long benefited from the Israeli military’s technology. Every day it protects the lives of many British soldiers. For example, we have Israeli-made battlefield medical technology, techniques for dealing with suicide bombers, and technology to counter remotely detonated terrorist bombs. Those assets have all been used by the British Army to save lives.

Israeli drone technology such as the Watchkeeper WK45 has also been used by British forces in Afghanistan for intelligence collection, and the Sky Sabre missile defence system now protects the Falkland Islands—this uses the technology behind Israel’s Iron Dome system. It is worth noting that the Iron Dome has saved the lives of countless Israelis in recent weeks and has also played a major role in preventing the conflict from spiralling further, which of course we also want to do.

The 2030 road map signed by the UK and Israel is very welcome. It highlights further bilateral defence co-operation that will save the lives of British servicepeople for many years to come. Put simply, an arms embargo would jeopardise that invaluable co-operation. It is also worth noting at the outset that the UK already operates—as has been mentioned—the world’s most robust export licence controls. That is underpinned through strategic export license criteria that uphold the UK’s obligations under international law. It is worth bearing in mind that the UK’s defence exports to Israel are relatively small—just £42 million last year I believe—and many of its component parts are not used by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Calls for an arms embargo on Israel are part of the wider boycott campaign that the UK Government have resolutely rejected. It is harmful and divisive, and must be given no truck. I call on the Minister to restate that commitment today.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 2:59, 12 December 2023

Lots of people want to speak, so I will be as brief as possible. I want to ask a number of questions, but I will just say as a preface that when someone has been in this House long enough and sat through the discussions about the various wars taking place, they get an understanding of the nature of war and of war crimes legislation. Whatever Hamas did, whatever people think, it was a war crime, and we have condemned that absolutely, but we created legislation globally after the second world war to determine how states could legally react to war crimes like that. Article 8 of the Rome statute, which set up the International Criminal Court, specifically designated war crimes: first, the use of weapons that were indiscriminate in their impact—that is, that affected civilians—and, secondly, the denial of the basic resources to survive, for civilian populations in particular. That is food, water and heat. The third element of war crimes under article 8 was the forced displacement of people from their homelands. I am afraid that whatever people think about what is happening in Gaza at the moment, what we are seeing are war crimes, according to the Rome statute; that is the case by any definition, but certainly on those three points. That is how we guide our reaction to activities by any state, whether it is Israel, Saudi or whoever, and, in guiding our behaviour, we have to recognise that if we in any way aid or provide support to a state acting in that way, we become complicit in those war crimes. That is the reality of where we are at the moment. I feel for the reputation of our country in the future because of the current behaviour of our Government.

A letter was written from a number of key organisations, and I want to raise the questions in it. It was written by Asad Rehman, chief executive of War on Want; Katie Fallon, director of advocacy at the Campaign Against Arms Trade; Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK; and Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch. I want to raise some of the questions that they have asked. Has the Minister seen the letter? First, it calls for an immediate suspension of the extant licences and new export licences for Israel given the clear risk, in their view, that the component parts that are being transferred from the UK

“might be used to facilitate or commit…violations of international law”.

That includes actions that they believe are tantamount to war crimes. The question from those organisations is this: will the Government now suspend those licences?

Secondly, do the Government know whether British weapons or military equipment are being used in Gaza or not? We have heard from one Back Bencher that they are. The letter notes that in the past the UK admitted that it had supplied equipment and that that had been used by the Israel Defence Forces during hostilities in Gaza in 2009. Lord Cameron, as he now is, then introduced a procedure to suspend the operation, and there was a complete review of what was happening with the weapons that we had supplied. I think the minimum that we should be asking for now is for the Government to undertake a Lord Cameron-type review to see exactly how what we have supplied is being used and whether it is being used in Gaza, because if it is, I am afraid we become complicit in the war crime.

Another question that the organisations have asked is just what monitoring is taking place by the Government—what mechanism is in place that effectively to monitor what is going on? The further question that is asked is this: on what basis do the Government consider that there is no clear risk that arms licensed to Israel will be used in prohibited conduct as identified, as my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana said, in the strategic export licensing criteria. This goes back to the fact that the Government have warned in the past that if any of these weapons are used in this way, they will suspend the licence overall. Again, have the Government even taken that into consideration?

One question that we have asked consistently as the provision of £474 million of exports to Israel have gone on is whether the Government applied the restrictions that we had called for to prevent their use in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or against Palestinians. At least there are instances in which we could accept that we have been providing sufficient support to Israel to defend itself from external attack, but to allow these weapons to be used in the occupied territories means that they will be used against Palestinians or, indeed, some of the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as well.

My final question is to ask the Government whether there have been any shipments of spare parts from the UK to Israel of UK-supplied components for Israeli F-16 and/or F-35 aircraft. As has been said, those are the aircraft that have been used in the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinians in Gaza and have caused such civilian loss of life.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

Does my right hon. Friend think an additional question might be what is carried in the RAF planes that are leaving RAF Akrotiri and apparently flying directly to Israel?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

That is why I am asking the question: the key components of those planes could be being used in the bombing of Gaza and the huge loss of life.

I reiterate what others have said: I find it difficult to participate in these debates without becoming extremely angry or emotional on all sides—both because I want the release of the hostages and because 7,000 children have now died. That cannot be right, and I believe it is a war crime. Anything that we are doing to give aid or comfort in this direction will ensure that we will be condemned in the future.

Finally, a number of us met Yachad today. We met with heroes and heroines from Palestine, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. They are trying to campaign for peace. As part of their heroic campaign, one of their clear demands is for a ceasefire, so that we can release the hostages and at least plan for the future in peace.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Before I call the next speaker, I must tell hon. Members that the wind-ups will start at 3.30 pm. That means that the demand exceeds the supply, and I will impose a three-minute time limit. I call Apsana Begum.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 3:06, 12 December 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana for securing the debate and for everything she does, and is doing, in the pursuit of justice and human rights.

As my hon. Friend laid out, not only is Israel a major recipient of UK weapons, but UK weapons manufacturers are seeing enormous increases in stock prices. For example, BAE Systems’ stock increased by 11.7% just between 7 and 24 October. In addition to the value of official UK arms exports to Israel, commentators have noted a number of other forms of less public UK military assistance, which include broader trade that exploits the incorporation guidelines loophole.

Why is that significant? As has been mentioned, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 18,825 Palestinians have been killed since the outbreak in October. In fact, we know that the real number is much higher. To put that into perspective, Ukraine and Sudan are both widely understood by the international community to have unacceptable levels of civilian deaths, and the levels of slaughter have rightly been condemned as horrendous and horrific. On 21 November this year, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said in a press release that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022:

“At least 10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, have been killed”.

The United Nations also reports that more than 10,400 people have been killed in Sudan since April 2023. I repeat that those are disgracefully high levels of civilian deaths and should be condemned outright. I also repeat that, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 18,825 Palestinians have been killed since the outbreak in October—around 20,000 in around two months, and the vast majority are not combatants.

Israel is increasingly using its acceptable collateral damage threshold in such a way that hundreds of civilian casualties are acceptable to eliminate a single target. That is one of the simplest ways to explain the fact that the death toll includes such frightening numbers of children. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, Gaza is “graveyard for children”—what a terrible, terrible thing. Within weeks of the outbreak, Save the Children highlighted that the number of children killed in Gaza has surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019. As we know, there are widespread concerns that war crimes, crimes against humanity and breaches of international law are continuing to take place.

Photo of Marsha de Cordova Marsha de Cordova Labour, Battersea

My hon. Friend is making an exceptional speech. Given the humanitarian catastrophe—as we have highlighted, over 18,000 people have died, including thousands of children—does she agree that if the UK is found to be arming Israel and not ceasing to do so, it would be complicit in this war crime?

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are bearing witness to this unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It is there before us, so we have a right to know how many Palestinians were slaughtered using UK-made weapons; how many children were dispatched using UK-traded armaments; how many women have been slain by ammunition from the UK; how many schools, hospitals and refugee camps have been annihilated with the help of UK engineering; and how much profit is being made from death, destruction and war crimes. What is the Government’s price tag for humanity?

We are told that the UK’s arms export system is based on the principle of avoiding a clear risk of British weapons being used to commit serious violations of international law—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. We must move on, I am afraid. I call Richard Foord.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 3:10, 12 December 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I want to talk about parliamentary scrutiny of these arms transfers to Israel because the current system is lacking. There is a good attendance today and it is excellent that lots of right hon. and hon. Members wanted to come to this debate but, frankly, we do not debate arms transfers very often. One reason for that is that we assume that Select Committees are all over this, but that is not the case.

My contribution is shaped by having worked at the University of Oxford, immediately before being elected last year, on export controls and preventing Oxford research from falling into the hands of adversaries. As well as being shaped by that and constituents’ opinions, my view is also shaped by having been bombarded by Iranian rockets. The difference between my personal experience and that of many Gazans at this time is that I had sufficient protection afforded to me by a counter-rocket system, not dissimilar to the iron dome. That is clearly not the case right now with the air and artillery attacks going on in Gaza today.

Liberal Democrat policy in this area is quite straightforward. We believe that arms exports should not take place to countries designated human rights priority countries by the FCDO. In 2021, the FCDO named Israel as one of those countries, but in the 2022 report on human rights and democracy, Israel slipped from the list and appeared instead under the Occupied Palestinian Territories entry in the register. None the less, I am of the opinion that, as a state named in that list in 2022, Israel should not be in receipt of UK arms.

Briefly, the Committees on Arms Export Controls are made up of members of four Select Committees—International Trade, Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development—but they have not met since March. That is outrageous, and we need to do something about it.

I am pleased to say that Committee Chairs—three Conservative, one SNP and one Labour—wrote to the Leader of the House to say that the system cannot continue, and that we need a Standing Committee to examine arms transfers, including to places such as Israel. In her response, the Leader of the House said, essentially, that there is no requirement for that, but I am certain that it is required; otherwise, we will continue to find ourselves in situations where the Government are caught out for transferring arms to a country that is clearly in breach of human rights.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford 3:14, 12 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana for securing this important debate.

A number of my constituents have written asking me to speak in this debate and to use my influence to stop UK arms and military equipment being exported to Israel, as they may be used to facilitate or commit serious violations of international law, including war crimes.

Although the temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas was welcome, it is now over. Fighting and killing have resumed and innocent Palestinians have been targeted the most, with brutality, bloodshed and war crimes. That is utterly condemnable and in clear violation of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both reported on Israel’s breaches and war crimes. The International Criminal Court has echoed their concerns about the disregard for human life and the rule of law. More than 21,000 Palestinians have been killed—40% of them children. Some 1.9 million people have been forcibly displaced—more than half of the population. The conflict is having a disproportionate effect on children and babies, and there is now a threat of starvation. We have to call that out now.

I am very concerned about our complicity in these horrors. I have already joined the calls for the supply of arms to the Israeli Government to be suspended, given that serious violations amounting to crimes under international law are being committed. The suspension should come urgently because we do not want our weapons to be used against innocent Palestinians any more.

I also repeat my calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire by all parties to end this unprecedented civilian suffering, alongside the immediate release of all civilians and hostages.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Labour, Manchester, Gorton

This week we marked the 75th anniversary of the UN’s universal declaration of human rights. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that we are speaking about the need to champion human rights while sending the very arms that are violating the human rights of millions of Palestinians?

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I agree with him. I will finish on this point. A ceasefire is the only way to prevent deepening the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza and give the space and time needed for us all to work towards a real, fair and enduring peace in the region.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:17, 12 December 2023

I thank Zarah Sultana for raising this topic. It is right and proper that we scrutinise our licensing procedures in line with our international obligations. We have a strong product in arms sales. Thales, on the border of my constituency, with a strong Strangford workforce, is world renowned for its tremendous products. Its input into the local economy cannot be emphasised enough. With a 30-year heritage and world class engineering, Thales employs 500 people and contributes £77 million to Northern Ireland’s GDP. There is also an ecosystem of suppliers, and 91% of our local procurement in Northern Ireland is with small and medium-sized enterprises. That is the background for the arms sales and the importance of it, which the Minister understands.

Belfast has developed into a centre of excellence for Thales’s air defence and surface attack solutions. Thales has made a real difference in the war in Ukraine, and its product has been mentioned positively in this House as a tool for Ukraine to beat back the Russian invasion. The sale of the products has been essential to the war effort in Ukraine.

Israel was attacked on 7 October and its war against terror is ongoing. It is my belief that it is operating under international law and as such our arms sales can and should continue. Daisy Cooper asked a question and a Government Minister responded:

“The UK Government 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…The UK Government continues to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the OPTs and if extant licences are found to be no longer consistent with the criteria, those licences will be revoked.”

On 30 November 2023, 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 have 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.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2023;
Vol. 741, c. 1049.]

The Government clearly set the course.

I support the Government in that view. I know the benefit of arms deals to my local economy, I see the benefit of the product in the war in Ukraine, and I stand with Israel while they legally fight the war on terrorism within the realms of international law.

Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton 3:19, 12 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana for securing this important debate and for her powerful opening speech.

I will start by paying tribute to my constituents who have been calling for a peaceful settlement in Gaza. More than 2,000 of them have contacted me since the war began, and many of them are families who have been out in support of those suffering in Palestine. Sadly, I believe that the UK Government are instead complicit in the mass slaughter in Gaza, as well as the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the west bank. The Government are aware that MPs have raised concerns about arms exports before and during the current conflict. Only on 30 November 2023, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade said in response:

“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.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2023;
Vol. 741, c. 1049.]

To my understanding, if there is a risk that arms exports may be used in internal repression or breaches of international law, or the arms may threaten regional peace and security, those licences can be revoked. It is quite clear that those benchmarks have been met.

The Secretary of State has it within her power to instruct the export control joint unit, which is responsible for processing licence applications. For clarity, that unit sits within the Department for Business and Trade, and it draws expertise from the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence to look at clear breaches. Why is that not being acted upon?

Only this week, Omer Bartov, an Israeli-born historian and professor of holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, warned that

“Israel now has been conducting a war for weeks and weeks in which it has killed thousands and thousands of Palestinians. It has moved them to a very small part of the Gaza Strip. It has destroyed their property and not even made a commitment to allow them to return.”

That has been done with the support of the US and UK supplies.

We need a peaceful solution. We need the Government to stop being complicit in the murder and the movement of people away from their homes into a space where there is no humanitarian hope, no space for them to live, and they are dying. The numbers have been quoted, and loads of children have died. We need to stand up and be critical of the UK Government’s friendship with Israel, and point out where they are clearly in breach of international law.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian 3:21, 12 December 2023

I endorse everything that the mover, Zarah Sultana, very eloquently said. Equally, in the limited time left, I want to comment on the issues raised by others around complicity. That can be direct or indirect, and the mover, as I say, very eloquently dealt with the direct. The indirect has obviously been touched upon by Jeremy Corbyn. If we are facilitating the supply of weaponry to Israel by the Americans flying out of RAF Akrotiri, that is simply unacceptable and we are complicit. Not only do the Republic of Cyprus Government have a right to know what is happening at a sovereign UK airbase—so do the citizens of the United Kingdom. We need to know that there is no complicity there.

Secondly—I am conscious of time and others coming in—we have, according to a parliamentary question, been giving military aid to Israel, but it has been restricted to medical supplies. Now, that on its own sounds very grand: we have only given medical supplies since 7 October. However, that does not mean vaccinations for children or hip replacements for the elderly. It can only be described as medical aid for combat trauma. The equipment that is itemised in parliamentary answer 5416 is not going into an Israeli sitcom-version of “M*A*S*H”. It is not for something funny. It is being used by Israeli soldiers who are killed or injured in the Gaza strip.

I wish no one ill—not an Israeli soldier, nor indeed a Palestinian civilian—but we should not be supplying equipment that can only be described as for combat. That, by the broadest sense of the imagination, cannot be described as humanitarian aid. It is aid to the Israeli military; it is aid to comfort their soldiers. They require comfort, but they should not be doing this and we should not be supplying it.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green 3:23, 12 December 2023

I thank my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana for securing this debate. The Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, alongside the Global Legal Action Network, has recently applied for a judicial review of the Government’s export licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel. According to those organisations, since 2015 the value of British arms exports to Israel, as part of the standard licence grants, stands at around £474 million, with 58 open licences for the arms trade with Israel.

Existing criteria for assessing the suitability of arms exports states that where there is a clear risk that any weapon may be used in violation of international humanitarian law, no licence should be granted. It is abundantly clear to me and many others—hundreds of thousands of people across the UK—that there is more than a clear risk that Israel is using the weapons provided by the UK to commit atrocious crimes against the Palestinian people. Many people in this country and around the world suggest, and I agree, that it is both clear and certain that Israel is using weapons to commit war crimes against Palestinian civilians, and that the UK, in providing such weapons, is complicit.

It should bring shame on us all that our Government, in providing arms, have been complicit in such horrendous acts of violence and cruelty. Therefore I am here to echo the demands of my constituents that Israel should receive no weapons or arms of any kind from the UK Government, and that the Government should act to stop the conflict and work to restart the peace process now.

Photo of Tahir Ali Tahir Ali Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

No, I will not—many other Members are still waiting to speak. Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for the UK Government abstaining at the Security Council? Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for this Government not recognising Palestine as a state? Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for not demanding a ceasefire? Can the Minister explain?

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 3:26, 12 December 2023

The Israeli Government’s assault on Gaza has endured for over two months, and there is no end in sight. The atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October were truly horrifying, and I know that I speak for every Member of this House when I say that such appalling acts cannot be justified, but they do not give the Israeli military licence to indiscriminately kill Palestinian civilians in retaliation. The IDF admits that civilians constitute two thirds of its victims, but the real proportion is likely to be much higher, given that around 70% of those killed are women and children.

Gaza has become a graveyard of children and parents, infants and elderly people, doctors, journalists and poets—thousands upon thousands of innocent people who simply wanted to get on with their lives in peace.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend has quite rightly focused on the horrific situation in Gaza, like many other Members. However, when I visited the west bank earlier this year, the rate of murders, violent attacks and intimidation by illegal settlers was already on the rise, with the IDF too often either refusing to intervene or even protecting the attackers. Since the heinous attack on 7 October by Hamas, the death toll has reached intolerable levels in Gaza and the west bank. Labour Members are very clear that arms export licences should be granted only where there is no risk that they could be used in contravention of international law. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that Ministers—

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons)

Apologies, Sir Christopher. Does my hon. Friend agree—

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East

I completely agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. It is not only bombs causing death and despair in the strip: nine in 10 people in northern Gaza have gone a full day and night without eating; doctors are heroically battling to save lives with no anaesthetics, antiseptics or even clean water for their patients. The World Health Organisation has warned that untreated diseases caused by the siege and the resulting collapse of healthcare could claim even more lives than airstrikes.

This humanitarian catastrophe is not a result of some natural disaster, but the intended consequence of the actions of the Israeli authorities—actions that our Government still cannot bring themselves to condemn. Not only that: while Israeli Ministers call openly for a second Nakba, our Government continue to license arms sales to the Israeli Government.

Last night, I was honoured to host in Parliament representatives of Standing Together, a movement of Israeli Jews and Palestinians united for peace, justice and human rights. One of its organisers, Uri Weltmann, wanted to send this message to our Prime Minister: standing with the Israeli people is not the same as standing with this violent, hard-right Israeli Government. Bombing hospitals and starving children will not bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We must immediately suspend the sales of arms to the IDF and end the UK’s complicity with the Israeli Government’s war crimes. I called for that in 2021, when Gaza was once again under attack, and it is even more urgent now.

We must demand an immediate ceasefire, the unconditional release of hostages and for the siege to be lifted. We must push for a proper peace process, working towards a just, lasting solution that protects the safety, rights and self-determination of the people of both nations.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. I am afraid that we cannot take any more Back-Bench speeches, so I call Martin Docherty-Hughes, please, to wind up.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 3:30, 12 December 2023

Thank you, Sir Christopher; it is good to see you.

Let me be clear: the barbarous attacks on 7 October have no justification whatsoever, and Hamas are a terrorist organisation and a death cult. They should release all the hostages immediately before being prosecuted as the war criminals they are. Furthermore, the Scottish National party agrees wholeheartedly with the right of Israel to defend itself. That is the very basis of sovereignty and of international relations. What should not have to be said, however, is that that right to self-defence should be in accordance with international law, or even with the most basic aspects of our common humanity.

Concepts around collective punishment and the treatment of prisoners in wartime are not what those on the Government Benches might speak about on GB News as the preserve of the Islington set; rather, they have been central to the very idea of human rights and the correct prosecution of a just war for as long as those concepts have existed. It will therefore be no surprise, I hope, to hear that those of us in the SNP have no compunction about supporting the aims of today’s debate, and we thank Zarah Sultana for securing it

Before going on to the substantive reasons for that, I would like to briefly touch on the most underexamined aspects of this conflict: its intersection with the tedious and self-defeating debate on immigration in this political state, on which the Government seem intent on taking up more time today. We have had months of confected rage from those on the Government Benches about desperate people trying to cross the channel in flimsy boats, without really interrogating the many reasons why those people find themselves in that position.

If we consider the numbers of global conflicts that have caused instability and forced large numbers of people to flee, be they those in Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine, and how these flows of people present opportunities for people traffickers ready to profit from human misery or indeed, on a broader level, for our geopolitical opponents to gain potential leverage by destabilising our democracies, we might expect one factor in this Government’s thinking to be how to avoid facilitating the sort of actions that set those population movements in motion.

As far as the people of Gaza actually having somewhere to go to escape the bombing, it is to Egypt and, within Egypt, to a part of the Sinai peninsula that has only recently come back under the full control of the Egyptian Government after Islamist insurrection. This is the first potential domino to fall, in a series that could see the return of the sort of instability that we saw in that country just over a decade ago. If this Government—and others, I must say, across Europe—found the prospect of 20 million Syrians on the move across the Med problematic, just wait until we see that happening with 100 million Egyptians.

Furthermore, these events do not take place in a vacuum. I would beseech both the Government and the Opposition spokespeople who follow me to take proper cognisance of the fact that our inability to ensure that our allies abide by international law in this instance will have a direct effect on how other states choose to approach their own obligations to international law in the future. We may not like the results, because we know that, while history may not always repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme.

I had not realised myself, until recently, the juxtaposition of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman patiently, and I was hoping that he was going to start talking about arms exports to Israel. We have had to cut the Back-Bench speeches short because more people wanted to talk about that subject, so I would be grateful if he now concentrated on the subject at hand.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is part of the narrative, Sir Christopher, and, as an Opposition spokesperson, I do believe that I have 10 minutes.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. If you are challenging the Chair, I am going to order you to resume your seat.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

I am not challenging you, Sir Christopher; I am only trying to explore my own thinking on the very matter that you have asked me to come to, because I think it is critically important for the debate, which the hon. Member for Coventry South has brought today.

The reason that I mention that in relation to the Government’s decisions, in terms of the debate, is because the then Government were desperate to accrue international support for their invasion of the canal zone—which we have all seen the repercussions of—as opposed to actually supporting the people of Hungary. The difference between then and now, and this is what is important Sir Christopher, is that, I am afraid to say, unlike in 1956, there is no serious difference of opinion between the Government and the leadership of the Opposition—although that does not include some of the Opposition Members I see here today, I have to say.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Order. I will order the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat if he carries on about the Hungarian revolution. I was at school with somebody whose father served in the diplomatic service in 1956 in Budapest, and I would love to talk about that, but it is not the subject of today’s debate. I will give the hon. Gentleman one more chance.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

Well, Chair, let me—sadly—move on, because clearly I am not being allowed to make the point that I wanted to make. However, I am sure that many Members can see the problems in which the Government and the leadership of the official Opposition find themselves.

Let me, sadly, bring my points to a close by reiterating my and my party’s position on these arms licences—I will be delighted to send my full speech on to any of my constituents, many hundreds of whom have emailed me about this issue, if they want to see it. Most of it will be of no surprise to anyone here today. The United Kingdom Government must do more than merely call on Israel to abide by international humanitarian law; they must be proactive in ensuring that no more innocent civilian lives are lost. The Israeli Government’s use of force has surpassed being legal and proportionate. There is a serious and pressing concern among the international community that states contributing to Israel’s military front may be complicit in the breach of international law and the death of over 15,000 innocent Palestinian civilians.

As such, Sir Christopher, we are asking the UK Government to cease extending arms licences to the state of Israel and to immediately halt the export of weapons or components, as has been mentioned, to the state of Israel, alongside our calls for an immediate ceasefire, the recognition of the Palestinian state and the support of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into potential war crimes.

But let us be clear: the United Kingdom will pay dearly for the moral equivalence that its current policy entails. While even the Labour leadership might not want to say it, we in the SNP are more than happy to remind the Government of this fact: violating international law may be a great wheeze to try and impress Daily Mail readers, but it has a habit of eating away at the state’s international reputation like acid. In this case, it is a great tragedy that the people of Gaza and others now involved in this conflict have to suffer so.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa) 3:37, 12 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Christopher.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana for securing this undoubtedly important debate. Like many other Members, I have received many emails from concerned constituents about this issue. As we all recognise, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire in the extreme. Following the horrific attacks of 7 October, more than 18,000 people have been killed in Israel’s operation and nearly 2 million people have been displaced. The scale of death and destruction seen over the last two months has been intolerable and truly appalling. Like so many Members in all parts of the House, I am particularly heartbroken by the death of so many children.

I have said many times that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas’s attacks, but the right to defence is not an unqualified right; it is not a blank cheque. At all times, Labour has demanded that Israel act in accordance with international law. That requires acting in line with the principles of necessity, distinction, proportionality and precaution. Labour also supports the independence of the International Criminal Court and recognises the court’s jurisdiction over the conduct of all parties in Gaza. The international community can and must push for a renewed cessation of violence, and use that to make political progress towards what we all want to reach: an end to this conflict and a permanent ceasefire.

Let me turn to the specific issue of defence exports. It is important to state clearly what an incredibly important role the UK defence industry plays in our economy. Our defence industry is rightly a source of pride across many communities in Britain. It helps to grow the economy, it creates jobs and it helps to keep our country safe. Let us remember that the UK defence industry supports 133,000 jobs in the UK. Many of those jobs are well paid and highly skilled. In my view, it is vital that we retain and develop a domestic defence capability, a sovereign capability, rather than become over-reliant on others. The defence industry is vital to our national security and to equipping our armed forces and those of many of our NATO allies. It is only because of that defence that we can contribute weapons to Ukraine so that it is able to defend itself against aggression.

At the same time, however, it is essential that the defence industry is subject to a robust set of export controls, and Labour is equally clear on this point. That is the reasonable thing to do. Export controls help the UK to ensure compliance with our international obligations under the arms trade treaty, for example. They also help to retain confidence in the UK’s world-leading industry. Indeed, we believe that the arms export regime should be strengthened, with the aim of ensuring that it is transparent and fully committed to upholding international law, and I agree that the role of Parliament should be much stronger in that function.

Photo of Claudia Webbe Claudia Webbe Independent, Leicester East

Does the hon. Member recognise that the UK has licensed over £470 million in arms sales to Israel since 2015, and that the real number could be far higher because much of the sales volume is hidden behind open licences that allow unlimited exports that are not included in reported numbers? Indeed, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the value of defined-value arms licences since 2015 is £560 million. When he talks about transparency, does he agree that the Government need to be more transparent and clear about the extent of arms licensing?

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Shadow Minister (Middle East and North Africa)

The hon. Lady makes her point extremely well. That is why we need transparency. I cannot honestly respond to her question because I do not know; I do not think anybody knows, apart from the Government. Transparency is vital, and it is imperative that we have the scrutiny of Parliament in the future.

These rules should apply consistently and equally to all countries. Specifically with regard to Israel, I note that the Government have said that no offensive military equipment has been delivered to Israel since 7 October. They previously said that they keep relevant licences under review and will not grant an export licence because to do so would be inconsistent with strategic export licensing criteria.

As the criteria state, UK arms exports should not be allowed if there is a serious risk that those arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression. Not only is this a moral issue, but it reflects the legal requirements that the Government are obliged to follow. The criteria include—as they should—stringent requirements in relation to international law. Under the export criteria, a licence should 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”.

It is there in black and white. The Government have also stated that they will take account of the risk that weapons might be used to commit or facilitate serious acts of violence against women or children.

We have all seen our television screens. The concerns about Israel’s conduct in this military operation are widespread across all parts of this House. Israel has faced serious allegations from bodies including the United Nations and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. I believe that this raises serious questions about Israel’s compliance with the license criteria, which the Government have a duty to assess and address as part of any export process, should that be sought.

I therefore ask the Government for a guarantee that the export criteria will be applied vigorously and robustly to Israel in the light of the conduct of the conflict in Gaza. Labour supports our defence industry, but we also want it to be subject to vigorous export controls. Those should apply to Israel as they do to any other country. Those export controls must be vigorously applied, particularly in the light of the conflict in Gaza, about which all of us have such grave and profound concerns.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade) 3:45, 12 December 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Sir Christopher. I thank Zarah Sultana for bringing the debate to this Chamber. I also thank other Members for their contributions. I will respond to as many of their points as I can in the time available.

It may be helpful first to outline the Government’s approach to this issue. I think we have all been deeply moved by the scenes we have seen from Israel and Gaza over the past nine weeks or so. At the same time, we must not forget how this conflict started. To do so would be a great injustice to the 1,200 victims of the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October. It was a massacre that rightly appalled the world. Barbarism, brutality and inhumanity are not words that we should use lightly but, as more detail and witness accounts of the events of that day emerge, it is increasingly clear that they are apt descriptors of Hamas’s wicked acts.

Terrorism of this magnitude must be defeated. Israel has a clear right to defend itself, while of course complying with international law. None the less, it is only right that we continue to engage with Israel to ensure that its campaign is targeted against Hamas combatants and military infrastructure. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stand alongside the international community in calling on Israel to ensure that its actions in defence are necessary and proportionate.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

The Minister will have heard hon. Members detail the horrors rained down upon Gaza in the past few weeks, but can he answer this: how many of the people who have been killed in Gaza were killed by arms supplied by Britain and how many of the tens of thousands of bombs that have rained down on Gaza were supplied by Britain or dropped from planes with parts provided by Britain? If the Minister says that he cannot answer those questions, that itself surely reveals why we need to suspend arms sales to Israel.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

It is not for me as a Minister in the Department for Business and Trade to give a commentary on deaths or destruction, up-to-date figures on Gaza or those kind of things. That is rightly a matter for the Foreign Office. I think that Foreign Office questions was today, which is when the hon. Member could have availed himself of the opportunity to ask exactly those questions.

We urge all parties to ensure that aid continues to enter Gaza, to end settler violence and to work with international bodies such as the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

Richard Burgon has asked about the number of deaths that can be linked to UK arms sales. Does the fact that there is not a Minister who can talk to this subject, which concerns four Departments, point to the fact that the Committees on Arms Export Controls are not functioning as they should?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the hon. Member for that; I heard his point earlier about the Committees. Of course, the Government strongly supports good parliamentary scrutiny of our defence export systems. However, my understanding is that, since the machinery of government change back in February, it has not been possible for the Committees to meet since, I think, March. That, and the organisation of the scrutiny of the Government, is most principally a matter for Parliament. The Government stand strongly in support of the scrutiny of defence exports. We have always been supportive of there being such a regime.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I am going to make a little progress.

We heard points about the situation on the ground from the hon. Members for Coventry South, for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and many others. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that Israel’s actions must comply with international humanitarian law and that it must take every step possible to minimise harm towards civilians.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The Minister referenced the Government repeatedly saying that Israel must conform to international law. What assessment have the Government made of Israel’s compliance and conformity with international law? Has any assessment been made? In light of Israel’s actions, which consist of crimes against humanity, and which are not consistent with our arms export criteria, what will the Government do? These things are not matching up.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Obviously we are monitoring the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories very closely and we will take any action that the Government consider appropriate as the situation develops. The hon. Lady mentioned the Export Control Joint Unit. The ECJU has in place an established process for responding, at pace, to changing conditions in a country where the UK has previously granted export licences and where those licences remain extant. That situation is under constant review. The fact remains, however, that Hamas could end this conflict today, stopping the suffering of everybody, including the Palestinian people whom it continues to endanger.

I will now explore some of the points raised in this debate in greater depth. First, it is correct that the UK’s defence businesses have a trading relationship with Israel. I welcome the official Opposition’s support for that, for our defence contractors and for our defence exports industry—Wayne David rightly pointed that out, and I think that was a helpful development from the current generation of Labour Front Benchers. We should, however, put that trading relationship in perspective. In fact, our military exports to Israel are relatively small, representing just 0.02% of Israel’s military imports overall. The £42 million figure, quoted by Jeremy Corbyn, was released by the Secretary of State for Defence. We stand by that figure; it is from 114 standard individual licences, and the total, accumulated from those licences, is indeed £42 million.

As Members may be aware, a company wanting to export military or dual-use goods must apply for a licence from the Government. The applications for those licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licensing criteria—a system that is among the most rigorous and transparent in the world, and which provides a thorough risk assessment—

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I am going to make a bit more progress. I have a lot of points to respond to.

Sir Stephen Timms is no longer in his seat, but you can see that work in practice. It is a searchable database, with data being released every quarter. The UK is actually at the forefront of providing transparency in our defence export and dual-use licences. These reflect—

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I am going to make some more progress.

Those reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law and the potential for the goods to be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law. The final decision on a licence lies with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, who takes advice from officials in the ECJU. The ECJU is a combined unit—it has already been referred to. It is made up of subject matter experts and officials from the Department for Business and Trade, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. It examines every application in great detail. The process requires the examination of a range of factors, including the political and security conditions in the destination country and the nature of the equipment to be exported. The ECJU comes to its conclusion by consulting both its UK experts and those in overseas posts.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I am going to make a bit more progress to respond to some of the points that have been made.

The ECJU also takes into account reports from non-governmental organisations, the media and others.

I must point out that the Government take the principles of responsible export control, which are set out in the strategic export licensing criteria, incredibly seriously. We can, and do, respond quickly and flexibly to change our fluid international circumstances, with all licences kept under careful and continual review as a standard.

Photo of Apsana Begum Apsana Begum Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I thank the Minister for giving way. The Government set their own precedent for pausing export licences in response to reports that the criteria might have been breached. In 2019, the Foreign Secretary did that; they suspended arms exports to NATO-allied Turkey following its invasion of Syria. Why can this Government not do the same now?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

The hon. Lady raises the exact point I am coming on to, which is that the system is designed so that a change in circumstances, with a proper assessment, can lead to a change in policy. She mentioned Turkey, but it has also happened in relation to Russia, Burma, Afghanistan and other countries. That is exactly why the policy is in place. We must be able to respond quickly and flexibly to changing circumstances.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

My right hon. Friend makes a good point that Hamas could solve this by removing themselves from their disastrous control of Gaza. However, does he agree that if there are war crimes on any scale, arms sales should cease immediately and there should be a full and immediate ceasefire?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course, we have set out in the criteria for the licences what the UK Government policy and approach would be. If he has information in that regard, I am sure he will share that with the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and us at DBT, and we would be happy to have a look at it. We take our obligations in this space exceptionally seriously. As I have shown before, we have acted to change policy in relation to changing circumstances on the ground.

I will move forward to deal with some of the points raised in the debate. I should add that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advises DBT on the situation in-country and the risks posed with respect to the UK’s export control responsibility.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

No; I will respond to the points already raised.

DBT then decides whether to amend, suspend or revoke any relevant licence, or to refuse new applications for licences. The private Member’s Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Coventry South, if I have understood it correctly, seeks to do exactly that, but it can already happen. I would also say in response to the point raised by the hon. Lady that the Foreign Secretary announced the doubling of aid from £30 million to £60 million, which is a tripling overall. My hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith made a strong defence of Israel’s right to self-defence and our wider co-operation with Israel. He and Jim Shannon asked me to restate our commitment to Israel, which I do.

John McDonnell had some praise for Lord Cameron. We have all performed some gymnastics over the years, but it was good to hear that praise from him. I have not personally seen the letter that he referred to, but our officials in the ECJU and the relevant Ministers engage with those groups all the time. In answer to the suggestion made by him and Mohammad Yasin, we continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories very closely, and will take any action that we consider appropriate.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

This is a simple request. There are specific questions in that letter from War on Want and the other agencies. Could the Minister write to us on the detail of the Government’s responses?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I am happy to find that letter and see whether there has been a response. As a matter of course, we at DBT respond to letters from non-governmental organisations. I will find out whether a response has already been sent. [Interruption.] If it is appropriate; I am not sure whether it was private correspondence. I might have to find the original letter, but I will make sure that it is responded to.

Apsana Begum rightly highlighted the suffering of the civilian populations in Gaza, which is of course under Hamas control. Richard Foord raised a point about re-establishing the Committees; I think I have already answered that. He claimed that there were some tough Liberal Democrat policies in this space, but when the Liberal Democrats ran this Department for five years in the coalition, I do not recall those tough policies actually being implemented.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands Party Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

No; I am going to finish. I have already taken an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for East Lothian asked a question about medical supplies. As I understand it, those are defibrillators and boxes for blood supplies—pure medical supplies—to Israel, but he is welcome to ask further questions if he needs more detail on that. To respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, our position is to be supportive of Israel, not due to defence exports—which, as I have pointed out, are a small quantity from this country—but due to our support for Israel’s right to self-defend.

Finally, in the position of the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I did not detect any real difference from mine, so I welcome the official Opposition’s support for the UK defence industry. He said it is world leading, and I agree; he asked that we apply export criteria vigorously and robustly, and that is exactly what we do.

Finally, let me end by saying that our hearts go out to everybody affected by the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).