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In the U.K., calls to stop the export of weapons to Israel are growing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The killing of three British aid workers in Gaza this week has sparked outrage about U.K. arms sales to Israel. More than 600 judges, legal scholars and lawyers have signed a letter sent to the prime minister warning him to abide by international humanitarian laws. The media are asking questions, too. Here's Nick Ferrari, host of the popular daily radio program LBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "LBC")

NICK FERRARI: It's possible the missiles that we sell to Israel have just killed three of our own citizens. I would suggest now is the time that we suspend, temporarily suspend the sale of arms to Israel.

FADEL: Across the country, protests against the war are ongoing, as NPR's Fatima Al-Kassab reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Singing) If you fund Israeli bombs, we'll shut you down.

FATIMA AL-KASSAB, BYLINE: In the past weeks, in towns and cities across the U.K., protests have sprung up outside factories making components for fighter jets being sold to Israel. Katie Fallon, an activist with the organization Campaign Against Arms Trade, points out all the locations where weapons are being manufactured for Israel.

KATIE FALLON: The map we have on our website specifically covers all of the different components for the F-35 jets.

AL-KASSAB: F-35 jets are being used by Israel to drop bombs on Gaza right now.

FALLON: The rear fuselage for every jet is made in Lancashire, for instance. The active interceptor system is made in Kent. These are both BAE Systems factories. The ejector seat is made in Buckinghamshire.

AL-KASSAB: The U.K. produces 15% of the components for these F-35 jets.

FALLON: It's not like you can take away that 15% and the jet will still work. Even 10% or 5% could be what gets the jet up into the air.

AL-KASSAB: I meet Anna Stavrianakis, a professor researching British arms exports, on a university campus in the seaside town of Brighton. Brighton has a tradition of anti-war protests, but she says there's one thing that even many locals might be shocked to learn.

ANNA STAVRIANAKIS: It is a cog in the war machine.

AL-KASSAB: The town happens to be home to a factory making parts for the F-35.

STAVRIANAKIS: They make the bomb-release mechanisms that allow the planes to drop the bombs.

AL-KASSAB: The factory is a discreet, gray building on the outskirts of town.

STAVRIANAKIS: This isn't some small local factory employing local people with good local jobs. It's a branch of a major multinational. So this involves the world's largest arms companies, the British state, the American state, the American military.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

AL-KASSAB: Drivers honk in support as they pass the protest camp in Brighton. The banners say this way to the bomb factory. This protestor didn't want to give her name out of fear of arrest. Activists have been detained for trespassing at similar protests around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: That something is being produced in Brighton that goes into those bombs and goes into that suffering, I don't want Brighton to be participating in that.

AL-KASSAB: The British public may not be getting the full picture on arms exports to Israel, says Fallon from the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

FALLON: It's very murky, and it's secretive for a reason.

AL-KASSAB: She says these weapons are made by private companies under licenses granted by the U.K. government.

FALLON: The licensing system makes it look like much less than it is. The open licenses allow for unlimited quantities to be exported, and the companies don't have to tell the government what's been sent.

AL-KASSAB: The British government says it will suspend exports if the weapons violate international law. But behind closed doors, a senior politician in the ruling Conservative Party suggested it was getting alarming guidance from its own lawyers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALICIA KEARNS: The Foreign Office has received official legal advice that Israel has broken international humanitarian law, but the government has not announced it.

AL-KASSAB: That's lawmaker Alicia Kearns caught on tape at a private fundraiser. In the tape, shared by The Observer newspaper, she says the British government is not being transparent about what legal advice it is getting about its possible complicity in war crimes. Israel has not been convicted of war crimes, though the International Court of Justice has called on Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza. Israel says Hamas started the war with cross-border attacks on October the 7 that killed 1,200 people inside Israel. Now, with three British aid workers killed in Gaza, might come a turning point. Peter Ricketts, former U.K. national security adviser, told the BBC that the time had come to stop arming Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER RICKETTS: A country that gets arms from the U.K. has to comply with international humanitarian law.

AL-KASSAB: The leader of the U.K.'s third-biggest party, the Liberal Democrats, called on Wednesday for an end to arms exports, joining over a hundred lawmakers who urged the same thing in a letter last week. A senior Labour politician, John McDonnell, tweeted that the U.K. could now face what he called a charge of complicity in illegally killing its own citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AL-KASSAB: In Brighton, protesters are sitting around a campfire.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) No bombs from Brighton no more.

AL-KASSAB: For months, the protesters' demands rarely made it into the national discussion. It now looks like they're going mainstream. A poll released on Wednesday suggests that 56% of Britons want a ban on weapons exports to Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) No bombs from Brighton no more.

AL-KASSAB: Fatima Al-Kassab, NPR News, Brighton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatima Al-Kassab