By Anna Stavrianakis 

Abstract: The British government's response to the genocidal Israeli assault on Gaza and to the war in Yemen illustrate the reflexive support for and recourse to violence on the part of the British state. Politicians pay lip service to international law while gaslighting the country about the causes and consequences of violence, supplementing this with absurd but chilling attempts at suppressing dissent. This article explores the similarities in support and justification for Israel and the Saudi-led coalition and notes some of the civil society-led resistance to this.  

The question, “Who are the Houthis?” has been all over the news in recent months as missile and drone attacks in the Red Sea disrupt international shipping. Yet the newfound British media and political interest in the Houthis rings hollow. It is now nine years into the UK’s support for the Saudi- and Emirati-led assault on Yemen in the name of defeating the group, which has used attacks on shipping as a tactic since the early months of the war.

By the end of 2021, the UN Development Programme estimated the war had killed 377,000 people in Yemen. These deaths happened directly through armed violence and indirectly through starvation, dehydration, and preventable disease. Two thirds of the population require humanitarian assistance. Yet the war and the fate of the Yemeni population have been nigh invisible in British public discourse since 2015. A handful of missiles lobbed at international shipping and Yemen is headline news, in the name of national defence no less. Yemenis only register on the British political radar when they disrupt the elite’s understanding of what global order should look like.

The western response has been resorting to military force and airstrikes, which literally nobody thinks is going to work, even Joe Biden: “Are they stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes.” The recent deaths of two Filipino and one Thai seafarer after the Houthi attack on and sinking of the Barbados-flagged, Greek-owned cargo ship True Confidence prompted an outcry not normally extended to the largely invisibilised seafarers responsible for keeping international seaborne trade running. The US, French, and British navies are intercepting missiles and drones, but the Houthis say they “have more surprises” in store. 

Rishi Sunak has been at pains to deny any links between Houthi attacks and Israel’s assault on Gaza, which the International Court of Justice says provides prima facie evidence of genocide. “Those who make that link do the Houthis’ work for them,” he told MPs. This attempt at ideological blackmail is both absurd and chilling. It’s absurd because the Houthis are explicitly saying that they are attacking ships in response to Israel’s assault on Gaza. They admit that they will continue until Israel stops, and until food, fuel, and medicine are allowed to reach the population. It’s chilling because it signals an effort to silence dissent that’s critical of the reflexive recourse to violence on the part of the British state. State violence is only growing, both abroad - in the form of support for the Israelis and the Saudis and participation in military action against the Houthis – and at home, with increasingly authoritarian policing and surveillance of protests.

Support for Palestine is central to Houthi ideology. There is widespread support for Palestinians among the Yemeni population. Simultaneously, the uptick in attacks on shipping signal an effort by the Houthis to garner domestic political support, paper over the cracks in their (mis)rule, and suppress criticism. The two dynamics are not mutually exclusive. The Houthis are enacting the most significant military intervention against Israel’s war machine seen so far. And the military retribution being visited on them – which they no doubt expected, indeed likely welcome - adds further misery to the Yemeni population while pushing a meaningful peace settlement in Yemen even further away. 

Paying lip service to international law 

The current conjuncture indicates that the gloves are off. Not only in the ferocity and genocidal clarity of intent in Israel’s actions in Gaza, but also the contemptuous disregard of the British state for international law. The FCDO calls the South African ICJ case “unhelpful” and notes its “considerable concerns,” given its view that “Israel’s actions in Gaza cannot be described as genocide.” In Parliament after the ICJ ruling, Andrew Mitchell MP paid lip service to the government’s respect for court. While spelling out its finding – that it is plausible Israel is committing genocide and provisional measures are required – he said their conclusion “is not the understanding of the British Government.”

On top of this disagreement on points of fact and law, Mitchell doubled down on the ideological stakes: “Throwing accusations of genocide across the Chamber, in respect of Israel’s activities in Gaza, is extraordinarily offensive and, in my view, totally wrong.” Institutional gaslighting, from Sunak to Mitchell, is a feature of this government’s style of rule. This has been accompanied more recently with classic “shooting while crying” tropes, such as the reinstatement of financial support for UNWRA. This came after deciding the decision to withdraw funding was “too hasty” and the UK government “didn’t want to assist Israel in destroying the organisation.” Although they seem perfectly happy to assist Israel in destroying Gaza.  

A key problem for the UK government is that FCDO lawyers have been worried about Israeli compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) since 10 November, even before the ICJ ruling. Palestinian organisation Al Haq and the Global Legal Action Network filed a legal action against the UK government to halt weapons sales to Israel. Documents released during the process  show FCDO lawyers confirming Israel has the capacity to comply with IHL and a public and private commitment to do so that is undermined by government statements. In addition, the volume of strikes, total death toll, and proportion of those who are children raise serious concerns. The lawyers say they have been unable to make a case-by-case assessment on Israel’s compliance with IHL for specific strikes or ground operations and have insufficient information to assess whether these are breaches of IHL. 

This legal reasoning has echoes of the judicial review of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to the war in Yemen brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade. In that case, the government’s position ultimately relied on a position of manufactured ignorance. It claimed that insufficient evidence as to whether the Saudi coalition was breaching IHL meant there was no “clear risk” of a serious violation – and, hence, no reason to deny arms export licences. Even when found to have failed on its own terms by the Court of Appeal, the government concluded that any potential past breaches were “isolated incidents” that did not constitute a pattern. It remains to be seen how the government will articulate a legal defence of its support for Israel.  

Another echo is the awkward dance between law and politics. The Yemen legal case demonstrated the extent of judicial deference to executive discretion. What we see in the Israel case is a clear statement from FCDO lawyers that the assessment of Israeli commitment to IHL is subject to Ministerial decision. The most they can conclude is that HMG’s current inability to come to a clear assessment on Israel’s record of compliance with IHL poses significant policy risks. The availability of subsequent options rests on the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of whether there is a clear risk that items would be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of IHL. This is right and proper: the legal advisers’ job is to set out the legal framework and provide the evidence on which an elected politician is to make a decision. 

On 12 December 2023, Foreign Secretary David Cameron decided that he was satisfied that there was good evidence to support a judgment that Israel is committed to comply with IHL. As such, he decided not to recommend suspending or revoking extant arms export licences, but instead to keep them under “careful review.” When grilled about this on 9 January 2024 by Alicia Kearns at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Cameron’s response was to plead, four times in a two-hour evidence session, “I’m not a lawyer.” FCDO lawyers must have been fuming as he both mobilised them in his defence and deferred taking responsibility for his decision. 

We’ve seen this sort of manoeuvring before. In 2020, former FCO lawyer Molly Mulready went on record about then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude to civilian harm in Yemen. This included the government’s persistence in allowing arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite the mounting civilian harm. She decried “a dangerous cultural shift towards a government which considers itself above the law.” That shift has a well-worn playbook where arms exports are concerned. After the ICJ ruling, Andrew Mitchell trotted out the “robust regime” mantra. The claim that the UK has one of the most rigorous and robust arms export control regimes in the world is used whenever anybody asks anything about arms exports in Parliament or elsewhere. Not even a legal finding of prima facie evidence of genocide is enough to change the tune. 

This fact cannot be lost on Andrew Mitchell, who has often spoken publicly against arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and against arms sales to Israel in the past. Ten years ago, after Israel killed more than 2,300 Palestinians in its invasion of Gaza, he warned that the level of misery and carnage in Gaza was likely to poison the remaining goodwill in the region for generations. His words ought to be haunting him now. 2014 was, at the time, the deadliest year for Palestinians since the 1948 Nakba, or Catastrophe. The current war’s official death toll of over 30,200 is more than ten times that figure – but does not include the uncountable dead, buried under the rubble, which increases each time I check it for this piece. Yet the most Mitchell can bring himself to say is that, “[w]e have said that they [Israelis] must take greater care to avoid harming civilians and civilian infrastructure.” This is despite the government’s decision in 2000 to stop accepting Israeli assurances about the uses to which they were putting UK-supplied weapons because they had “proved to be unsound.”  

The official government line is that no offensive military equipment has been delivered to Israel since 7 October. The reassurance offered by such a position is undermined by the fact that the UK government does not actually know what weapons are being delivered by industry to any recipient: it does not collect data on deliveries. Beyond this, Israel already possesses the major weapons platforms that use UK-supplied components, such as F-16 and F-35 planes. It turns out that the government was playing with words: the statement that “the UK has provided no lethal or military equipment” was later corrected to read, “the UK Government has provided no lethal or military equipment.” But typically, it is not the UK government that provides weapons to foreign states: it is arms companies, who are licensed to do by the state. The original formulation should thus be read as a misleading attempt to assuage concern and deflect criticism that was later, quietly, changed. And the government has form on this front:  during the Arab Spring, the government allowed sniper rifles to be exported to North African and Middle Eastern states under the classification of “crowd control goods.” Reports from Declassified have documented RAF flights from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to Tel Aviv delivering US and UK military aid. The government has blocked all parliamentary questions from MPs on the topic of RAF Akrotiri. 

The risk of complicity 

Set against this official clampdown on debate and increase in military and diplomatic support for Israel are the ICJ provisional measures. These create legal obligations for Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent “killing members of the group” referring to Palestinians in Gaza. The statement goes on to inform them they must “ensure with immediate effect that its military does not commit” the killing of Palestinians. The measures by extension also create obligations for the UK as a state party to the Genocide Convention: Article III prohibits complicity in genocide. In one sense, then, it does not matter that the UK government disagrees with the ICJ. Its very public disagreement with the ICJ may risk generating a dispute with another state that is party to the Genocide Convention, thus unintentionally opening up space for proceedings against the UK. Indeed, Nicaragua has instituted proceedings at the ICT against Germany due to its military, political and financial support for Israel. In addition, the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians has lodged a complaint with Scotland Yard’s war crimes team in relation to named UK Ministers for complicity in war crimes via supply of weapons.    

The UK government position as set out in its defence in the Al Haq judicial review case – which the High Court dismissed last month - is that genocide must actually occur for there to be a violation of the obligation to prevent it. This means the UK government is willing to risk facilitating genocide, taking its chances on being found failing to prevent it, or being complicit in it, later on. Future historians will likely treat the current assault soberly. As Palestinian scholar Rabea Eghbariah puts it, “if the Holocaust is the paradigmatic case for the crime of genocide and South Africa for that of apartheid, then the crime against the Palestinian people must be called the Nakba.”

The deferral of accountability on the part of the government as a whole notwithstanding, the wording of the ICJ ruling ought to be concentrating the minds of individual ministers, not to mention arms company CEOs. It’s clear the Israeli state has no intention of stopping its assault on Gaza just because the ICJ ruled against it. Israel says it’s not committing genocide and it thinks it’s above the law. However, the Genocide Convention also creates obligations for those supporting Israel. Supplying the weapons that Israel is using comes under any commonsense definition of complicity, being implicated in another’s wrongdoing. If it is plausible to the ICJ that Israel is committing genocide, then by extension it is plausible the UK is complicit for supplying the weapons that facilitate it. 

Contrast British steadfast military support for Israel with what is happening elsewhere. Spain has suspended arms export licences to Israel after 7 October and has called for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. The Walloon regional government in Belgium suspended an export licence for explosive powder to Israel after civil society organisations threatened legal action based on the ICJ ruling. A Dutch court has ordered the government to halt the delivery of components for Israeli F-35 jets after NGOs issued proceedings against it. In Japan, Itochu has announced the end of its collaboration with Israeli arms company Elbit because of the ICJ ruling. All these states are smaller players in the arms trade and more minor suppliers to Israel than the UK and certainly the US. But the threat of legal action seems to be concentrating policymakers’ minds elsewhere. 

Meanwhile, in Parliament, the Business and Trade Committee has decided to dissolve the Committees on Arms Exports Controls (CAEC) and take the lead on parliamentary scrutiny itself. The CAEC is made up of the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development, and Business and Trade Committees and takes the form of a “super-committee” where members of each are delegated to scrutinise arms exports. The CAEC’s record has become dismal. For the past eight years there has been no meaningful or effective scrutiny of UK arms export policy. In that time, the war in Yemen has been kept off the CAEC agenda despite ongoing allegations of violations of the laws of war; the war in Ukraine has provoked a step-change in UK arms exports; and the Israeli assault on Gaza has now been found to plausibly be genocidal. The last time the CAEC tried to do something meaningful, it didn’t end well. The Yemen inquiry opened in 2016 and ended in disarray when disagreement over whether to recommend a suspension of arms export licensing to the Saudi-led coalition led to a split in the committees and a leak of the draft report to Newsnight. No wonder they can’t stomach an Israel inquiry. 

The rightward shift in British politics is such that Labour have thrown their lot in with the Conservative, pro-Israel, pro-arms exports, pro-militarist stance. When in the past figures such as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry have seemed strong on the importance of arms export controls. Starmer himself is familiar with the demands of the Genocide Convention, or at least ought to be, having argued at the ICJ that the 1991 Serbian siege of Vukovar constituted genocide. Yet he has hurriedly backtracked on his October 2023 claim that Israel has the right to cut off water and electricity in Gaza. In a debate in Parliament brought by Zarah Sultana, Business and Trade Minister Greg Hands welcomed Labour’s support for British defence contractors and for arms exports, calling it “a helpful development from the current generation of Labour Front Benchers.” They say foreign policy doesn’t win elections, but the prospect of a Labour government after the autumn general election doesn’t bode well for British internationalism. 

Where the Government and Parliament are failing to act, civil society has stepped in. Palestinian trade unions and professional associations have reiterated their call for an end to military cooperation and the arms trade with Israel - a longstanding demand of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. There has been a wide-ranging response to the call since October: trade unions have called for a ceasefire and dockers have refused to dock ships and load weapons, continuing a long tradition of dockworker solidarity. In the UK, a range of communities have protested and taken direct action at the BAE Systems factories in Leeds, Rochester, Kent and Glascoed; at the L3 Harris factory in Brighton; at Elbit and Leonardo factories in Bristol, at the Palantir offices in London, against Meggitt in Birmingham, and elsewhere. While the overweening military power of Israel, supported by the US and UK, attempts to destroy Gaza, international solidarity is flexing.

Anna Stavrianakis is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex and Director of Research and Strategy at Shadow World Investigations, where she researches the international arms trade, militarism and global (in)securities. She can be contacted at

Article or Event Link
Mar 22, 2024
Public Policy


Public Policy

Join Our Newsletter and Get the Latest
Posts to Your Inbox

No spam ever. Read our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.