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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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UK Ban On Arms Sales To Israel Could Signal "Enough Is Enough", Former Senior Diplomat Says

Pressure is mounting on the UK government to end arms sales to Israel (Alamy)

5 min read

A former UK ambassador to the Middle East has said that a ban on arms sales to Israel would be “symbolic” rather than effective in cutting off Israel's weapons supply, but could “give cover” for the US to implement their own sales ban.

The UK government is facing growing calls to end British arms sales to Israel, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary David Cameron believed to be discussing the move following the killing of seven aid workers, including three British nationals, in Gaza last week. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) claim the air strikes that killed the men were a mistake, as operators mistook an aid worker for a gunman, and have now fired two senior officers involved in the incident.

With US President Joe Biden now joining calls for an “immediate ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, there are increasing signs that the West is toughening its stance on Israel as the death toll of civilians in Gaza continues to climb. 

Sir William Patey was the former British Ambassador to multiple Middle East countries including Afghanistan (2010-2012), Saudi Arabia (2007-2010), Iraq (2005-2006) and Sudan (2002-2005), as well as Head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1999-2002. He recently became co-chair of the Labour Middle East Council (LMEC), launched in January to "turn a new page" on relations between a potential future Labour government and countries across the Middle East. 

The former diplomat told PoliticsHome that an arms sale ban would be “more symbolic than effective” at hindering Israel’s ability to continue the conflict, but that it would be an important move to put further pressure on the US to do the same. The US has previously paused arms sales to Israel during multiple conflicts. 

“I think the demands for a ban in arms sales, which in terms of Britain is more symbolic than effective, because we're not big suppliers, might put pressure on the Americans to again restrict sales to Israel until Israel stands living up to its obligations under international law and adheres to the calls of the International Court of Justice (ICJ),” Patey said.

“It would be symbolic in terms of what impact it would have on Israel's ability to conduct the war, but symbolism is not without importance in this context.”

Sir William Patey
Sir William Patey previously held a number of senior diplomatic roles in the Middle East (Alamy)

According to Patey, if the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) does decide to prevent future arms sales to Israel, it could have an immediate but limited effect in the region by refusing to issue licences.

“But its main impact would be to send a clear signal to Israel that enough is enough,” Patey explained. 

“And it might give the US some cover, it might make it more difficult for the US to sell F15 (jets) which are on the cards, which are the planes that are very active over Gaza and directly involved in some of the military action.”

On Friday, Israel announced it had approved the reopening of the Erez crossing in northern Gaza to allow more aid through, as well as opening Ashdod Port for humanitarian deliveries. But Patey insisted that multiple events had shown that Israel was restricting the flow of aid into Gaza, despite its claims that it is allowing sufficient aid to pass safely through.

“When it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck, so the idea that Israel isn't restricting humanitarian assistance is belied by what's happening on the ground,” he said.

“I was in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was quite a lot of death and destruction going on, but it does concentrate the government's mind when it's your own people [dying] because then you get the backstory, their relatives are on television, you see them as human beings, not just as casualties, so that makes a big point. 

“And in this case, it is particularly poignant that these people were working for an organisation which the Israelis had praised, the World Central Kitchen, who were doing a fantastic job in the face of Israeli restrictions on the UN. So it may be a tipping point, because it's not an isolated incident.

“An already dire humanitarian situation with imminent famine is likely to get worse unless Israel heeds the international calls to let the aid flow, which they claim to be doing.”

Patey said that while there was little difference between the Conservatives and Labour in their positions on the conflict, he welcomed Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy’s call for the publication of the legal advice the government is receiving regarding arms sales to Israel. 

Much of the UK’s response hinges on whether the government receives advice that Israel is breaking international law, and officials from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have accused the UK government of forcing civil servants to act in breach of domestic and international legal obligations.

“We have a huge interest in the business of international law because when you don't have a rule of law, the heaviest armed who are willing to use force are the people who rule the day, you see that in Haiti and other places where armed groups don't follow the rule of law,” Patey said.

“So that's why it's so important to uphold it and to not be on the side of breaking international law. If by continuing to supply arms to Israel we become complicit in breaches of international humanitarian law, then we need to take that very seriously.”

Previously writing in The House magazine to announce the launch of LMEC, Patey said that "a paradigm shift in British foreign policy is imminent" and that he hoped a potential future Labour government would initiate more of a focus on partnerships across the Middle East region, rather than only on conflict resolution and short-term responses to international crises.

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