UK govt lawyers say Israel is breaking international law, senior Tory claims in leak

The British government has failed to make public legal advice that states Israel is breaking international humanitarian law in Gaza.

Senior Tory MP Alicia Kearns made the comments at a Tory fundraising event on 13 March, according to a leaked recording obtained by the Observer.

The news prompted calls for the government to publish its legal advice, with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary David Lammy urging Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to “come clean.”

The revelations pile enormous pressure on the government as any such legal assessment would mean the UK has to halt arms sales and intelligence sharing with Israel to avoid potentially aiding and abetting war crimes, according to legal experts.

Kearns, the Tory chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee who has repeatedly pressed ministers to reveal the legal advice, stood by her leaked comments and urged the government to be transparent.

 “I remain convinced the government has completed its updated assessment on whether Israel is demonstrating a commitment to international humanitarian law, and that it has concluded that Israel is not demonstrating this commitment, which is the legal determination it has to make,” she told the Observer. 

“Transparency at this point is paramount, not least to uphold the international rules-based order.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We keep advice on Israel’s adherence to international humanitarian law under review and ministers act in accordance with that advice, for example when considering export licences.

“The content of the Government’s advice is confidential.”

Leaked recording

In the leaked recording from a drinks reception hosted at West Hampstead and Fortune Green Conservatives in London, Kearns said: “The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law but the government has not announced it.

“They have not said it, they haven’t stopped arms exports. They have done a few very small sanctions on Israeli settlers and everyone internationally is agreed that settlers are illegal, that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, and the ways in which they have continued and the money that’s been put in.”

Kearns added that the right to self-defence has a limit in law and went on to suggest that Israel’s actions put its and the UK’s long-term security at risk.

“Some of the ways in which Israel is prosecuting this is making their long-term security less certain. It is making our long-term security less certain. I’m amazed that our national threat level has not gone up. And it breaks my heart because I know it could be done differently,” she added. 

Following the Observer’s report, Lammy said he has not been getting answers from the government on whether the “items licensed by the UK” could be used to facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

“This raises serious questions about whether the government is complying with its own law,” he said on X. “David Cameron and Rishi Sunak must now [come] clean and publish the legal advice they have received.”

Labour MP Zarah Sultana said the “shocking revelation” shows why arms sales to Israel must be banned. She also said Lord Cameron should resign as the revelations make his position “untenable.” 

Tayab Ali, a solicitor advocate and director at the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, warned that if ministers were aware of Israel violating the law yet continued arms supplies, “they have accessory liability for war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act and Rome Statute.”

Pressure mounts on government 

MPs, including Kearns, have repeatedly urged the government to disclose any legal advice received on whether Israel is breaching international humanitarian law in Gaza.

Lord Cameron has acknowledged Israel’s responsibilities as “the occupying power” to ensure aid gets to civilians. 

When grilled by Kearns in front of the committee in January on what legal advice he received, Lord Cameron said he “cannot recall every single bit of paper that has been put in front of me.”

Separately, over 50 cross-party MPs and peers have pressed Cameron to immediately reinstate UK funding for the UN’s Palestinian relief agency UNRWA after it was paused.

It follows two other letters this week that ratchet up the pressure on the government to alter its policies on the Gaza war. 

On Friday, 115 parliamentarians demanded the UK urge Israel not to use starvation as a weapon of war against Palestinians as Gaza faces famine.

Earlier in the week, over 108 MPs and 27 members of the House of Lords pressed for an immediate ceasefire and the cessation of all arms sales to Israel.

Image source: Richard Townshend, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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