Sun, 19 May 2024

Newsletter sign-up

Subscribe now
The House Live All
Press releases

Britain cannot turn a blind eye if Israel is committing war crimes


4 min read

In the middle of the Second World War, John Betjeman wrote his caustic poem In Westminster Abbey.

His subject, a lady residing at 189 Cadogan Square, says her prayers for Britain’s victory: “Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans, spare their women for Thy sake, and if that is not too easy, we will pardon Thy mistake. But gracious Lord, whate’er shall be, don’t let anyone bomb me.”

I found the poem in my mind as the death toll inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza continues to mount, as Israel pursues its military campaign against the terrorists who mounted their depraved attack on Israeli civilians last October. Israel’s right to self-defence is not in question and the attack perpetrated by Hamas had no lawful justification, even if there can be much legitimate criticism of Israel’s wider policies in its long-standing confrontation with its Palestinian neighbours.

Supplying weapons to, or sharing intelligence with, a state that is not observing proper humanitarian standards and is therefore deliberately committing war crimes undermines our own principles

The issue is squarely one of proportionality in the use of force in self-defence, and Israel’s behaviour towards the civilian population of Gaza. The dreadful consequences for civilians on all sides of the Second World War provides the clearest obligation on us all to try not to allow them to be repeated. We need look no further than Russia’s actions in Ukraine to see their gross violation.

But Israel and the United Kingdom are both signatories to the Geneva Conventions and bound by their terms. Contrary to the words of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of this conflict, “vengeance” is not a legitimate war aim, even if the neutralisation of Hamas’ capacity to commit further terrorist outrages and the recovery of the hostages taken by Hamas is. 

Israel is, in relation to Gaza, an occupying power with clear duties to the civilian population who need to be sheltered as far as is possible from the conflict taking place around them. Collective punishment of the civilian population is a war crime.

It was clear some time before the recent killing of foreign aid workers by the Israel Defense Forces that the UK and the United States have a growing sense of unease over the way Israel is meeting its obligations. Comments from a member of the Israeli cabinet at the start of this conflict that they believed in the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt, which would be a very serious war crime indeed, provides a disturbing reference point as to the underlying intent and behaviour of the Israeli government. 

To this has now been added the scale of civilian deaths, as collateral damage to the military operation and the widespread destruction of the buildings and infrastructure of Gaza, so as to make much of it uninhabitable. But most worrying and impossible to defend are the persistent delays in providing and facilitating the provision of the civilian population with the level of food, water and essential supplies for their survival at a time of great suffering and vulnerability for them.

As a country committed to upholding the international rules-based system and particularly humanitarian law, the UK cannot be seen to turn a blind eye to these issues because there is political inconvenience in facing up to them. 

Armed conflict is often chaotic with unintended tragic consequences. But that cannot explain or excuse deliberate failure to meet international obligations. 

There will be plenty of intelligence available to the UK government on which to make a factual judgment on Israel’s behaviour. Both the Foreign Office lawyers and the law officers are perfectly capable of advising on which side of the line of acceptability Israeli actions lie. Supplying weapons to, or sharing intelligence with, a state that is not observing proper humanitarian standards and is therefore deliberately committing war crimes, undermines our own principles and our duty to promote the standards we say we believe in. 


Dominic Grieve KC, former attorney general 

PoliticsHome Newsletters

Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.


Foreign affairs