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Tories Are Split Over Pressure To Halt Weapon Sales To Israel

Members of the Abu Draz family inspect their house after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike in Rafah (Alamy)

5 min read

A new divide has emerged in the Conservative party with a growing number of MPs expressing resistance to calls to suspend arms sales to Israel over intensified violence in Gaza.


The deaths of aid workers in airstrikes conducted by the Israeli military on Monday, including three British nationals, has heightened pressure on the UK to toughen its stance on Israel. While the government supports calls for some form of ceasefire in Gaza, there is a growing consensus among political figures that arms sales to Israel should be suspended if they are believed to have broken international law with military action in Gaza, which has killed around 32,000 civilians since last October. 

But while Labour and Lib Dems appear united in their call for the suspense of arms sales to Israel, the Conservative party appear to be deeply divided on the issue. 

On Thursday Conservative Campaign Headquarters confirmed former UK Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan was under investigation for comments he made to LBC that arms sales should be halted “immediately” and for security minister Tom Tugendhat and Conservative peers Lord Polak and Lord Pickles to face repercussions for their support of Israel. He also told Times Radio that former home secretary Suella Braverman, who is a strong supporter of Israel, should have the whip removed.

While many Tory MPs believe the majority of the party still backs Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza, foreign secretary Lord David Cameron is considered to be especially hawkish when it comes to Israel, leaving some Conservative MPs to believe that the UK could toughen its stance on the conflict, including with an arms embargo. 

One minister told PoliticsHome they believed that the bulk of the Tory Party was in favour of continuing to support Israel. 

“[David Cameron] seems to have moved the policy to the “left” on this issue. But my feeling is most MPs feel Israel needs to be supported. I’m very worried about the direction of travel,” they said. 

Stephen Crabb, chair of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), told PoliticsHome said the UK Government was “absolutely right” to continue its support for Israel and believed a call for an arms embargo on Israel is misguided.

“Such an embargo would simply embolden Hamas and its Iranian paymasters thereby prolonging the conflict, while also harming the well-being of thousands of British armed forces personnel who use Israeli-made equipment everyday as well as the livelihoods of many workers in the UK’s defence sector,” he said.

Since Hamas' terrorist attack in southern Israel on 7 October, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed, 32,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, with much of the region's schools and hospitals destroyed. More than 100 Israeli hostages are also currently being held in Gaza by Hamas.

Under its own laws, the UK would be required to halt the weapons exports to Israel if they are believed to have broken international law, or risk being seen as facilitating war crimes in a country it was exporting arms to. 

A handful of Conservatives in the Lords and the Commons in recent weeks and months had put pressure on the government to call for a ceasefire. They include Paul Bristow, Flick Drummond, David Jones and Mark Logan. Conservative peer Nicholas Soames, who is Winston Churchill's grandson, on Thursday called for the UK to suspend arms sales to Israel. 

His intervention followed a letter in the Guardian from 600 lawyers who suggested the UK Government could be breaching international law by supplying Israel with weapons. 

But Theresa Villiers, vice chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, insisted that the UK Government should continue to support Israel. She told PoliticsHome it was a “tragedy whenever civilians die in war” but Israel was making “huge efforts to try to minimise this”.

“We should not punish Israel because Hamas embeds itself amongst civilians. It is Hamas who are to blame for the loss of life in Gaza,” she said.

Andrew Percy, vice chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, said it was important the UK Government holds Israel to account over the war and pressure them where necessary. However, he said the UK Government should remain resolute in its support of Israel which he claimed had the right to defend itself. 

“It would be an act of immense stupidity and self-harm to seek to limit Israel's ability to fight this hate, especially when we know that no similar conversation is taking place in Tehran who will continue to arm, fund and support Hamas and their other murderous anti-western proxies," he said. 

“These groups are fairly open about their desire to bring this fight to the streets of Europe and North America too.

“The Iranian leadership and their Islamist terror proxies must not believe their luck that there are so many useful idiots in Western nations, and sadly among some of their elected representatives who seem so keen, unintentionally I'm sure, to assist them by hindering Israel's right to defend itself and destroy the terror network that raped, butchered and murdered their way across civilian communities on October 7th.”

Sir Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, said Israel was a key ally of the UK, and claimed imposing an arms embargo would be “self-defeating” for the country’s self-interest.

“Israel is a key ally of the UK, and the only democracy in the region, that is fighting a genocidal terror group in the most complex circumstances," he said. 

“Those calling for an arms embargo risk strengthening Hamas and thus dashing hopes for a lasting peace. Closer to home, an arms embargo would be self-defeating as the UK’s armed forces themselves rely greatly on Israeli-made defence equipment.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has previously said Israel "must explain" how three British aid workers were killed in Gaza, while Cameron said Israel must "make major changes to ensure safety of aid workers on the ground". 

 

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