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We have helped open the door to terrible suffering in Gaza by being an uncritical friend to Israel

3 min read

Britain’s security and prosperity are founded on an open, rules-based international order – a world in which we can trade with confidence, where competition and conflict are managed, and we can co-operate to find solutions to global challenges such as climate change, AI and international terrorism.

But by allowing the appearance of double standards that undermine or depart from international law, through our words and actions, we undermine the rules-based order which is the bedrock of our economy and our security.

The challenges we face would be easier to address in a world where international law was widely respected. Yet over the past three years, we have sought – at times openly – to avoid complying with our international agreements and obligations. In 2020 Brandon Lewis, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said that the Internal Market Bill “does break international law”. Last year, the House of Lords Constitution Committee stated that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would “clearly breach the UK’s international obligations”. This year, UNHCR warned that the Illegal Migration Bill was inconsistent with three separate international conventions, which past British governments helped write.

This carries direct risk for Britain. We have little chance of persuading other states to follow international law – or to honour the agreements which we have negotiated with them for our own benefit – when we show ourselves willing to ignore our own obligations. Human rights and international law are fundamental building blocks of stable and prosperous societies. We know that human rights abuses and violent repression can only contain conflict for so long before it bursts open – and that they can drive radicalisation. We know, too, that wars which feature war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law last longer, and are harder to settle.

This should be a significant concern when it comes to our response to the war in Gaza. On 7 October, Hamas committed a despicable act of terror. There is no justification for the murder of civilians, for hostage taking, sexual violence and mutilation of civilians. These are unacceptable crimes. Israel has a right to defend itself. But it also has a responsibility to do so in accordance with international humanitarian law. This is what distinguishes democratic nations from the actions of terrorist groups like Hamas.

Lasting security for Israelis and Palestinians can only come through peace – a two-state solution. Unconstrained military action and a casual regard for international law pushes peace further into the unknown. The humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza has seen thousands of civilians killed – two thirds of them women and children – and has left two million Palestinians without homes, food, water or basic necessities of life. The sick and wounded die in hospitals because there is no electricity to operate crucial life support equipment. None of this makes Israel or the United Kingdom safer.

Israel is a friend and ally but collectively both the government and the opposition should have been much more vocal about the need to observe international law and the rules of war. We learnt slowly and painfully, in Afghanistan and Iraq, the danger of sacrificing our values for short-term expediency. Our support for Israel’s security should be whole-hearted – but not for any action in pursuit of that security, and not for disregard of civilians’ lives.

By being an uncritical friend, we have helped open the door to terrible human suffering, with long-term implications for peace in the region and around the world. It is a failure of our obligation as a friend to Israel. It is a failure of our responsibility to uphold international law. It is a failure of our duty to keep the British people safe.

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