Ex-MI6 chief blames Israel’s ‘systematic targeting’ for death of aid workers in Gaza

Sir Alex Younger says Israel risks losing its claim of ‘moral purpose’ in Gaza war

Zoe Grunewald
Thursday 04 April 2024 12:04 BST
Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected pleas for restraint in Gaza

Pressure on Rishi Sunak to act against Israel after the death of seven aid workers has grown after a former British spy chief condemned the “reckless” way they were killed.

Sir Alex Younger, ex-head of M16, said the incident showed Israel was using “systematic targeting” that risked slaughtering innocent people by mistake.

It was in danger of losing its right to claim a “moral purpose” in the war with Hamas, he claimed in an outspoken intervention.

Sir Alex said: “My view is that what happened is essentially systematic - of an approach to targeting that has on occasion bordered on the reckless and therefore fundamentally undermines what must be Israel’s political objectives which is to sustain some moral high ground and moral purpose.”

Sir Alex, who ran MI6 from 2014 to 2020, was asked if he thought the seven aid workers, including three Britons, died because Israel was prepared to “risk blowing up the wrong people if it thinks there is just a chance there is a bad guy among them”.

Sir Alex Younger said the incident showed Israel was using ‘systematic targeting’
Sir Alex Younger said the incident showed Israel was using ‘systematic targeting’ (Crown)

He replied: “It is hard not to conclude that insufficient care is being paid to the collateral risk of these operations one way or another.

“It really hits home because these people are from our country,” Sir Alex, the longest serving Chief - or ‘C’ - of the intelligence service for 50 years, told the BBC Radio Four Today Podcast.

He added: “It is a reminder of how many thousands of innocent people have been caught up in this conflict.

Sir Alex said Britain must use its influence with the US to force Israel to change its military tactics.“We want to look at ways we can achieve leverage and creative incentives for more focus on collateral damage - killing innocent civilians.

“A lot depends on whether we conclude Israel understands the risks of its approach - not just in ethical and legal terms - but also in a way that likely undermines its own objectives and shows a willingness to change course”.

He added that the UK should consider how it could “influence the US and make this a point of leverage that changes stuff on the ground.”

Rishi Sunak said the situation in Gaza is growing “increasingly intolerable”
Rishi Sunak said the situation in Gaza is growing “increasingly intolerable” (AP)

The former MI6 chief’s comments come amid growing calls for Britain and other countries to respond to the attack by a range of measures including stopping arms sales to Israel. More than 600 lawyers, including former Supreme Court President Lady Hale, have signed a letter to the prime minister warning that the government risks breaching international law by continuing to export weapons to Israel.

The signatories said the worsening situation in Gaza and the International Court of Justice’s conclusion that there was a “plausible risk of genocide” obliged the UK to suspend arms sales to the country.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, urged the government to publish any legal advice it had received on whether Israel had broken international law, and to suspend arms sales if there was a risk weapons could be used in “a serious breach of international humanitarian law”. The SNP and the Liberal Democrats have also called for arms exports to be suspended.

Sir Alan Duncan, who served as a minister between 2010 and 2019, joined concerns from Conservative ranks to strongly condemn Israel’s killing of seven aid workers - three of whom were British - as “merciless”. Conservative MPs Flick Drummond and David Jones also called on the government to suspend arms.

A vehicle damaged in an Israeli airstrike in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza
A vehicle damaged in an Israeli airstrike in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza (REUTERS)

On Tuesday, Downing Street declined to say whether it believed Israel was operating within international humanitarian law, saying it would not comment on legal advice but added ministers acted in accordance with any advice.

But Mr Sunak told the Sun’s Never Mind The Ballots show that he had warned Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s war in Gaza is growing “increasingly intolerable” and maintained he had been “consistently clear” with the prime minister since the start of this conflict that “while, of course, we defend Israel’s right to defend itself and its people against attacks from Hamas, they have to do that in accordance with international humanitarian law, protect civilian lives and, sadly, too many civilians have already lost their lives.”

Meanwhile, the World Central Kitchen charity has said it is calling for an “independent investigation into the IDF strikes that killed seven members” of its team in Gaza on Monday.

The Israeli government has denied targeting the World Central Kitchen food convoy.

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