The lawmakers have questioned what the UK government knows about how British weapons are being used and, consequently, what assessments have been made that the government is following its own arms export laws.
The government is obligated under those laws to suspend arms export licences if it determines that there is a clear risk that British weapons might be used in violations of international law.
According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), the UK government has licensed at least £472m worth of military exports to Israel since May 2015.
“Do the government know whether British weapons or military equipment are being used in Gaza or not?” said Labour MP John McDonnell, who also asked whether spare parts for F-16 and F-35 aircraft used in bombing had been shipped to Israel.
McDonnell stated he believed arms transfers should be suspended and a “complete review” undertaken, as the government had done during the wars in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, “to see exactly how what we have supplied is being used and whether it is being used in Gaza, because if it is, I am afraid we [have] become complicit in the war crime”.
McDonnell added that many of the questions he posed came from an 8 December letter sent by several UK-based civil society organisation to the government, calling for an immediate end to UK arms transfers to Israel.
McDonnell asked Trade Minister Greg Hands, who was present, if he had seen the letter. Hands said he hadn’t personally seen it, but would find it and see if there was a response.
“As a matter of course, we at DBT [the Department of Business and Trade] respond to letters from non-governmental organisations,” Hands stated.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana told the stories of Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza in recent weeks, including a teenager who wanted to be a doctor, a mother and baby killed in their sleep, and a child whose lifeless body was cradled by her grandfather after an air strike.
“I want to remind colleagues and the whole House of the shared humanity of those being slaughtered in Gaza today,” she said, adding, “Whether we like it or not, this place is deeply complicit in the atrocities we see being inflicted on the Palestinian people.”
Sultana, who called the debate, introduced a bill this week which she said would launch an investigation into UK arms sales and suspend them to any state where they might be used in violation of international law, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
She also noted that the true value of UK arms transfers to Israel is “shrouded in secrecy” because publicly disclosed figures don’t include items sold under opaque open licences which keep the value of arms and their quantities secret.
Independent MP Angus Brendan MacNeil said while MPs and the public might not know the true figure, he wondered if more transparency should be expected from UK companies.
“Should we not be able to expect more of companies in the UK, and that they will not be like immoral drug dealers on the corner, selling to whoever, whenever, regardless of the consequences?” he continued, adding, “We expect companies that live among us in the UK not to be funding or aiding and abetting death in Gaza, as is happening at the moment.”
The Palestinian Ministry of Health announced on Wednesday that the Gaza death toll since the start of the war on 7 October has now reached 18,600, including over 7,000 children.
Last week, the UK abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution, submitted by the United Arab Emirates, to halt fighting in Gaza. The US was the sole country to vote against.
The MPs’ comments also came as the UK’s leading arms export monitoring organisations raised concerns that the parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinising arms export policy has not been convened since early this year.
The organisations called on the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) to hold an inquiry into UK-made weapons used in Israel and Palestine “as a matter of urgency”.
“They have not met since March,” Liberal Democrat MP Richard Foord said, adding, “That is outrageous, and we need to do something about it.
“Frankly, we do not debate arms transfers very often. One reason for that is that we assume that select committees are all over this, but that is not the case.”
Several MPs who spoke defended UK arms transfers to Israel, including Democratic Unionist Party MP Jim Shannon, who said UK aerospace and defence company Thales employs 500 people and contributes £77m to the GDP of Northern Ireland.
Shannon said it is “right and proper” that the government ensure arms export licensing is in line with its international obligations, but that he believes Israel is operating under international law and so arms sales “can and should” continue.
“I know the benefit of arms deals to my local economy, I see the benefit of the product in the war in Ukraine, and I stand with Israel while they legally fight the war on terrorism within the realms of international law,” he added.
Hands, the trade minister, told the MPs that UK military exports to Israel are “relatively small”, representing 0.02 percent of Israel’s military imports overall, and that the situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories “is under constant review”.
“We can, and do, respond quickly and flexibly to change our fluid international circumstances, with all licences kept under careful and continual review as a standard,” he noted.
He also put the onus on Hamas to end the conflict: “The fact remains, however, that Hamas could end this conflict today, stopping the suffering of everybody, including the Palestinian people whom it continues to endanger.”
Conservative MP Jonathan Lord took Hands up on this point, saying he agreed but asking if Hands believed that “if there are war crimes on any scale, arms sales should cease immediately and there should be a full and immediate ceasefire”.
“We have set out in the criteria for the licences what the UK government policy and approach would be,” Hands said, adding, “If [Lord] has information in that regard, I am sure he will share that with the foreign secretary, the secretary of state for defence and us at DBT, and we would be happy to have a look at it.”