UK cannot ignore chilling reports of human rights violations by Israel in Gaza – Stewart McDonald

Accounts of Palestinian children with single bullet wounds to the head or chest suggest Israeli soldiers may be deliberately targeting them

On Wednesday last week, former UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that Israel has gone “above and beyond the necessary requirements to ensure that civilian casualties are limited” in Gaza. On Thursday morning, David Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, told the BBC that he would refuse to answer any questions about Israel-Gaza.

On Thursday afternoon, Sir Alan Duncan – a Foreign Office minister under Theresa May and international development minister under Cameron – was put under investigation after he told a radio interviewer that the Conservative party is home to a number of “extremists… some of whom are at the very top of government”. What on Earth is going on inside the Conservative party?

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Trust in democratic politics, and the people and institutions which sustain it, has never been lower. Rishi Sunak, as he slowly lowers the Conservative party into its self-dug grave, seem not to care if these levels fall further still. Instead, we now find ourselves in a chaotic situation where senior Conservative politicians – from backbenchers and former MPs to Select Committee chairs – clamour for the airwaves to champion their own views on the war in Gaza. Only the tiniest handful of them – Alicia Kearns is one notable example, as she continues to emerge as a thought leader on foreign policy (full disclosure: Alicia is a friend) – seem in any way preoccupied with the impact that this war is having on the domestic institutions that Conservatives claim to so revere.

A Palestinian woman holds a child as they mourn relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment in Gaza City last month (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)A Palestinian woman holds a child as they mourn relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment in Gaza City last month (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
A Palestinian woman holds a child as they mourn relatives killed in an Israeli bombardment in Gaza City last month (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

UK’s own legal advice

Just last week, more than 600 judges, including three former Supreme Court justices, took the almost unprecedented step of writing to Sunak to warn that the UK Government is breaching international law by continuing to arm Israel. The Prime Minister knows this. As Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said earlier this week, the UK Government is widely reported to have received its own in-house legal advice stating that Israel is in breach of international humanitarian law.

Yet with the connivance of the Labour opposition, the UK Government has declined to act on the legal advice and has yet to say what the rest of us can see: that Israel’s war in Gaza has plainly lost all sense of proportion or responsible conduct and that there have been multiple, severe, and credible incidents where international humanitarian law has been ignored by Israeli troops. This represents a legal and democratic failure at the heart of the British state and a major blow to its supposed role as a defender of the rules-based international system.

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But the UK Government is not alone. Last week, in the United States, the White House national security communications advisor John Kirby told a press conference that the US Government had not found “any incidents where the Israelis have violated international humanitarian law”. This line was dubious only a few weeks into the war. Now it is simply absurd.

Kissinger-style international relations

It was almost 200 years ago that the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Politics has changed a lot since then. The system of liberal democracy that we prize and promote around the world is predicated on a degree of transparency, accountability and honesty that would be alien to governments of Clausewitz’s time. And yet, even as other domains of government activity have come to be characterised by a closer and more representative relationship between the interests of the state and its citizens, geopolitics has been an outlier.

Geopolitics is the last remaining pre-democratic space in modern politics. Think of Henry Kissinger, who treated foreign policy like chess – a game of strategy and competition framed only and always in terms of the raison d'état. His approach to foreign policy saw the United States achieve its geopolitical goals in Latin America and Southeast Asia, but only at great and long-lasting cost to its international reputation across the Global South – countries which in the coming decades will decide whether or not our international order will endure. The Kissinger style of international relations could only ever work when “geopolitics” was the domain of a few men in a few smoke-filled rooms in a few countries. That era is long gone.

A war of colonial conquest

Those of us who have followed this war on social media have seen images, videos and first-hand testimony of attacks on refugee camps and hospitals;