UK threat to withhold Israel arms sales is a show of Western weakness

Article published by,  24 March 2024. © Richard Kemp

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s recent threats will not directly harm or constrain Israel but they will undoubtedly strengthen Hamas. He has been striking a distinctly belligerent stance towards Israel since he came into office in November, in contrast to his predecessor James Cleverly and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Now he seems to be on the verge of making a grand gesture by cutting off weapons supplies in the midst of war as well as supporting an arms embargo across Europe. He justifies his threatened betrayal of one of Britain’s most important allies by the demand that Israel should allow the ICRC access to captured Hamas terrorists which he claims is required under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). That may well be his opinion, but it is far from clear cut; international legal opinions vary and Israel claims exemption to such visits on security grounds.

Cameron now seems to be bolstering his case by the claim in a recent letter to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that Israel is deliberately and unnecessarily holding up humanitarian aid deliveries into Gaza. This is patent nonsense. I recently visited the Kerem Shalom Crossing and witnessed a highly efficient operation in which staff were working round the clock to get aid into the Strip.

That of course is only one part of the picture. But multiple reports, first-hand accounts and video evidence show that the blockage is not on the Israeli side but lies with an inadequate UN distribution system as well as extensive hijacking by Hamas strong-men who divert much of the aid for their own use and sell the rest of it off at inflated prices.

Cameron’s insinuations that Israel is breaching IHL are also contradicted by his own government. On Wednesday the prime minister’s spokesman confirmed that No 10 continues to assess that Israel’s actions conform with international law. It’s difficult to fathom exactly what’s happening with these conflicting messages. Of course Cameron’s position is firmly in line with many decades of Foreign Office ‘Camel Corps’ thinking so maybe he is just reading his briefs with an uncritical eye.

Or perhaps it is coordinated with No 10 to show both of the government’s faces, one to the Israel-supporting majority in Britain and the other to the vocal minority who are opposed, with some of their number taking loudly to the streets every week. After all, there is a general election in the offing. Or it may be an element of the White House campaign to get allies to pile the pressure onto Israel as an offensive in Rafah draws closer, again as part of their own electoral calculations. Or both.

Whatever the reasoning behind Cameron’s threat, it is extremely dangerous. Not in a direct material sense for Jerusalem. Britain’s supplies to Israel are very small, less than 0.9% of its total arms imports. Of those, most are technical components, a large proportion for non-military dual use or items exported onwards to third countries. But while the effect on Israel would be negligible, a reciprocal move against Britain would be operationally more significant. Arms imports from Israel represent 2.7% of the UK total, including some extremely important systems, notably UAVs, anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicle defences. In the context of Cameron looking to cut off supplies in the middle of this war, it’s also worth noting that arms sales from Israel increased substantially from 2006, a time of great military need for the UK, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cameron’s threatened support for a Europe-wide arms embargo, when he should be arguing the opposite, would have more impact, with Germany, Italy and France all larger suppliers than the UK. Nevertheless, even this would have limited direct effect given that the combined total reflects only a very small proportion of Israel’s overall capabilities.

The greater danger is that even Israel’s closest allies would be seen to turn on it at a time when its defensive operations are under such a concerted storm of worldwide vilification including in international bodies like the UN, International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court as well as any others that can find an excuse to lash out, such as the World Health Organization. This would strengthen Hamas, whose entire strategy is based on Israel being ultimately constrained by the international community.

We have seen the IDF destroy substantial elements of the terror army in Gaza, with hundreds surrendering only at Al Shifa Hospital in the last few days. This is a time when the civilised world should be putting its energies into demoralising Hamas not giving them hope that Israel will be pressured into halting at the final stages of its offensive against them. It is also a particularly critical moment, with delicate negotiations underway over a potential pause and hostage release. Cameron’s move — even if it only amounts to grandstanding — could therefore jeopardise the lives of the hostages and increase the bloodshed in Gaza. The opposite of what he thinks he is trying to do.

His threats also spell grave danger at home. There has been an unprecedented rise in antisemitic attacks in Britain, as well as elsewhere in Europe and the West since Hamas’ war on Israel began. These have been fuelled by a campaign of lies and distortions, falsely accusing the IDF of multiple war crimes, including indiscriminate killing, wanton destruction and deliberate starvation. For the British government to embargo Israel, or even threaten it, will be used by the anti-Israel activists as absolute confirmation that their lies are true, and deployed to incite even greater Jew hate on our streets.

This show of Western weakness has wider implications beyond their immediate unintended consequences as well. At a time of increasing danger from the despotic axis of China, Russia and Iran, we are seen to be afraid to stand by our allies when the going gets tough. What kind of message does that send to both our friends and our enemies?

Image: FCDO/Flickr