Skip to main content

Pro-Israel advocates downplay Palestinian casualties at UK parliament hearing

UK Lawyers for Israel claims that Hamas itself puts death toll at 21,000 during meeting on UK arms exports to Israel
Natasha Hausdorff, director of UK Lawyers for Israel, at a committee hearing in the UK parliament, 24 April 2024 (Screenshot)

A British parliamentary hearing called to discuss UK arms exports to Israel became mired in controversy on Wednesday, as pro-Israel advocates attributed downwardly revised Palestinian casualty figures to Hamas. 

Natasha Hausdorff, director of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), a pro-Israel advocacy organisation that has urged the government to continue arms exports to Israel, told the business and trade committee meeting that the Palestinian death toll in Gaza is based on “very inaccurate information”.

“The continuous references to some 33,000 do not even accord with what Hamas, the internationally proscribed terrorist organisation, is claiming,” Hausdorff said.

“They have indicated that they do not have identifying information for about a third of those, so we are looking at a much lower figure,” she said, adding that this would be about 21,000. 

“These figures do not differentiate between civilians and combatants,” she told the hearing, chaired by Labour Party MP Liam Byrne. “Israel says it has killed 13,000 combatants.”

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


She went on to reference statistics from Abraham Wyner, a professor at the Wharton School, which were described by a London School of Economics professor as “one of the worst abuses of statistics I’ve ever seen”.

Later in the meeting, Richard Kemp, a former British army officer who has been a vocal supporter of Israel’s war against Hamas, said that based on this information, you could conclude that 9,000 Palestinian civilians had been killed.

'Conservative Friends of Israel has used the fact that there’s a Tory majority to promote the least suitable voices'

Gary Spedding, independent cross-party consultant on Israel-Palestine

Kemp described this as a “deeply impressive” figure. In November, he described the large numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza as “necessary”.

The former officer said that the Israeli army had been doing “far in excess of what most armies do” when it came to making sure that civilians were not targeted. Like Hausdorff, he said that it was not Israel, but Hamas, that was intent on committing genocide.

Hausdorff has previously disputed the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are occupied territory held under Israeli military rule, and disputed the status of settlements, claiming that they are not illegal under international law.

The International Committee of the Red Cross responded recently to an article by the lawyer, stating that disinformation has “very real consequences on people’s lives”.

At the hearing on Wednesday, Hausdorff argued that in bringing cases against Israel and Germany respectively, South Africa and Nicaragua were engaging in “lawfare practices that seek to wage politics through very poorly argued and unsubstantiated cases at the ICJ”. 

As of Wednesday, the Palestinian death toll in over six months of war is more than 34,262, according to the Palestinian health ministry. These figures are used by international organisations, including the United Nations, and Israel’s military has previously acknowledged that they are reliable. 

'Abhorrent approach'

“Israel always lies and misleads international public opinion about what is happening in Gaza,” a Hamas spokesperson told Middle East Eye, in reference to the 21,000-casualty figure mooted by Hausdorff.

“There are still hundreds of unidentified victims under the rubble, and every day new mass graves are discovered,” the spokesperson, who confirmed the accuracy of the latest health ministry figures, said.

“Playing around with fatality figures is an abhorrent approach to dealing with a situation, not least where Israel has brought about famine and starvation conditions as a matter of policy,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), told MEE.

Explained: ICJ begins historic hearings on Israel's occupation of Palestine
Read More »

“The UK should not be selling weapons in a situation where there is quite a blatant risk that those parts could be used in further breaches of international law, which have been seen not just in the last six months but in the last five wars Israel has waged in Gaza.”

Gary Spedding, an independent cross-party consultant on Israel-Palestine, said that the committee had been “hijacked and redirected with the promotion of Israeli talking points that divert from the topic of UK arms exports to Israel and our own licensing criteria”.

While the committee is chaired by Byrne, it is made up of six Conservative MPs and five Labour, giving the ruling party a majority. 

Spedding said that this accounted for a situation in which Hausdorff and Kemp had been put forward as reliable witnesses.

The other two witnesses were Lord Sumption, one of three former Supreme Court judges to have said in a letter - described by UKLFI as “Hamas propaganda” - that they believe the British government is breaching international law by continuing to permit arms exports to Israel, and Lord Ricketts, a former senior diplomat.

“Conservative Friends of Israel has used the fact that there’s a Tory majority to promote the least suitable voices, when the purpose of the hearing was to scrutinise UK arms sales to Israel,” Spedding told MEE. 

“In redirecting the conversation away from scrutiny of UK policy and our supposedly robust criteria, the answers guided the discussion away from the primary purpose of the session by repeating anti-Palestinian propaganda,” he said.

Ministers absent

After the meeting ended, Byrne said that he was “extremely disappointed” that ministers from the foreign office and the business and trade department, which is responsible for issuing arms export licences, had not attended the meeting. He said that the committee had agreed to “fresh hearings for ministers and civil society groups”. 

The hearing came after it was revealed for the first time on Tuesday that the British government had decided on 8 April to continue arms sales to Israel, the day before Foreign Secretary David Cameron told reporters about it during a press conference in Washington, DC. 

MPs scrutinising UK-Israel arms sales to hear from ex-soldier who said Gaza deaths 'necessary'
Read More »

But evidence discussed during Wednesday’s hearing suggests that this decision was taken without consideration of the three Israeli drone strikes that killed seven World Central Kitchen (WCK) aid workers, three of whom had previously served in Britain’s armed forces. 

This is because the foreign office’s assessment of Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law dealt with a timeframe that ran from 18 December to 29 February. 

In his evidence, Lord Sumption emphasised that the UK is compelled to act on arms sales if there is a “serious risk” of genocide.

“One needs to do what one can, even if that is not a great deal,” he said. 

“There has been a lack of discrimination in the Israeli response that is profoundly troubling,” the former supreme court judge said. 

At one point, Hausdorff said Iran’s “unprecedented direct attack” had been encouraged by rhetoric from the US and UK.

Responding, Lord Ricketts said: “It seems to be a rather strange argument to make that Iran decided to attack Israel because of arguments made in the UK and US about potential suspension of arms sales. I think the much more likely reason Iran attacked Israel is because Israel attacked the Iranian consulate in Damascus and killed 13 people.”

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.