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'Seriously inaccurate opinion' - CEO of UK Lawyers for Israel responds to new British attorney general appointment

Richard Hermer strongly opposed the anti-BDS bill and was among Jewish lawyers urging Israel to respect international law in Gaza

Richard Hermer (Photo: Lauren Hurley/No 10 Downing Street)

Newly-elected British Prime Minister Keir Starmer appointed an attorney general who previously advised the Labour Party that it cannot legally prevent public bodies from boycotting Israel.

“Richard Hermer KC provided a seriously inaccurate opinion to the Labour Party on the last government’s Bill to ban BDS by public authorities and refused to correct it even after I pointed out the inaccuracies,” commented the chief executive of UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), Jonathan Turner KC.

“I view his appointment with great misgiving.” he added.

Former Conservative government minister, Michael Gove, introduced the anti-BDS legislation last year, after several local councils backed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The bill was promised in the December 2019 Conservative Party election manifesto.

Regarding the bill, Hermer cited historical instances, such as South African apartheid, where local authorities played an important part. He wrote at the time: “The implications for local democracy, for the proud history in our regions of campaigning for global human rights, for using our economic clout for the promotion of human rights, for free speech in this country and for compliance with our international law obligations are potentially profound.”

Hermer also criticized the wording of the bill that included the 'OPT' (Occupied Palestinian Territories) as requiring the same protection as Israel proper. He believed this designation would undermine the British Foreign Office's policy of supporting a two-state solution.

After Hermer was, himself, criticized by those in the UK who supported Gove’s bill, he clarified: “The values of the independent Bar require that I [give my objective assessment of the legality…] without ‘fear or favour’ and without regard to my own personal views.”

However, in May 2023, Hermer took a stance with other ‘Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights,’ even before the events of Oct. 7, Middle East Eye reported. The lawyers were calling on the British government to take a more active role in an advisory opinion given by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

“The Israeli government is led by a coalition of far-right parties whose common goal is the formal annexation of the West Bank and the extension of a one-state reality of unequal rights over more than five million Palestinians under occupation,” the letter signed by Hermer stated.

The theme of apartheid was also raised, this time in relation to Israel.

“It is perfectly possible that the court will consider aspects of that situation to amount to apartheid.”

In order to appoint Hermer, Starmer had to bypass his shadow justice secretary, Emily Thornberry, and create a life peerage for Hermer in the House of Lords. A similar action was taken in order for former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to be able to make Lord David Cameron the UK’s foreign secretary, following the Hamas invasion of Israel on Oct. 7.

Hermer's appointment is now the third unelected appointee that Starmer has added to his Cabinet since becoming prime minister on Friday. Hermer (55) joins Sir Patrick Vallance, the new science minister – who advised the Boris Johnson government during the COVID-19 pandemic – and James Timpson, the new prisons minister.

Hermer was one of eight prominent UK Jewish lawyers who wrote an open letter criticizing Israel’s military response just 10 days after the brutal Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

The letter, which was published in the Financial Times, stated that though the “vile crimes perpetrated by Hamas in Israel have shaken us to our core,” the laws of war “apply irrespective of the level of outrageous conduct of an enemy”. 

Of the civilian population in Gaza, they wrote: “It would be a grave violation of international law to hold them under siege and whilst doing so deprive them of basic necessities such as food and water,” adding that “collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war.”

The eight lawyers did, however, strongly condemn the “despicable actions” of Hamas, describing them as an “egregious violation of all norms of international law” and “crimes against humanity” that amounted to the “most grave” breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

They wrote that there was “no room for legal, let alone moral, equivocation when it comes to (for example) the slaughter of hundreds of young people enjoying a party,” adding that Israel has a “clear right” in international law to respond in self-defense.

Hermer is a barrister at Matrix chambers, which was co-founded by Cherie Blair, the wife of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. Prior to that, Hermer was a partner at Doughty Street Chambers, where Starmer worked until becoming public prosecutions director in 2008.

Hermer represented Gerry Adams last year when the former Sinn Fein leader was being sued by victims of IRA bomb attacks.

The Daily Telegraph noted that Hermer’s appointment comes as at least one prominent Labour MP lost his seat to an Independent candidate who, like other Independents, basically campaigned on the issue of Israel and Gaza. 

“This is for the people of Gaza,” declared Shockat Adam after the result was announced, while brandishing a keffiyeh (traditional Arab headdress). 

Hamas supporter and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was finally ousted by Starmer after the party image had been tainted by antisemitism, was also re-elected last Thursday as an Independent.

In addition to appointing Hermer as attorney general, Starmer has named Shabana Mahmood, who has a history of supporting BDS and pro-Palestinian marches, as his lord chancellor and justice secretary.

In April, UKLFI responded to another open letter and refuted allegations that Israel has been committing genocide in Gaza. This followed South Africa’s case against Israel that was presented to the ICJ.

The UKLFI letter, telling then-Prime Minister Sunak he had no legal obligation to sanction Israel, has so far been signed by over 1,300 UK lawyers. In the end, the ICJ president, herself, was forced to state publicly that the UKLFI correction was the truth.

Read more: UK | BDS

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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