UK 'could cut off arms to Israel in a week', Tory foreign affairs committee chief says, amid fears for civilians

22 March 2024, 07:49

UK cut 'could off weapons supply to Israel', Tory MP tells LBC

By Kit Heren

The head of the foreign affairs committee has told LBC that the UK could cease arms exports to Israel within a week, amid growing fears for civilians in Gaza.

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Alicia Kearns told LBC's Ben Kentish that it was "quite possible" that British weapons sales could stop if a government assessment found that Israel had failed to uphold international law.

The UK exported £42 million worth of arms to Israel in 2022, Grant Shapps has said, although Ms Kearns said she is unsure what the "current flow" of weapons between the two countries is. It has been reported that Israel buys components for combat planes, missiles and tanks from the UK.

Israel has come under international pressure not to move into the southern Gaza area of Rafah where over a million people are taking shelter from the war in the rest of the territory, amid fears for civilians.

But the Israeli government has vowed that it will extend the conflict into Rafah in an effort to wipe out Hamas, even if it means rowing with the US and other key allies.

Read more: Israel 'blocking aid getting into Gaza', Tory foreign affairs committee chief claims, as food begins to run out

Read more: David Cameron accuses Israel of ‘arbitrary denials’ as UK aid to Gaza ‘stuck at border for weeks’

People gather to get food relief in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafa
A child gathers to get food relief in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafa. Picture: Alamy

Ms Kearns said that the UK is assessing whether Israel is still operating within international law. The last such assessment was in December.

She said that if the assessment had changed "then there would be a duty upon the government to suspend arms exports, because it would know that there was a risk that they weren't being used appropriately."

Ms Kearns added: "If we don't hear that within the week, I would be very surprised. So this could move quite quickly."

Asked if by the end of next week the UK could have ceased arms sales to Israel, Ms Kearns said: "Quite possibly."

Palestinians look at a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah
Palestinians look at a residential building destroyed in an Israeli strike in Rafah. Picture: Alamy

There would be recent precedent for such a move. The UK stopped arms exports to Israel in a conflict with Gaza in 2014-15, Ms Kearns noted.

But she also said that she didn't know the extent to which the UK was currently exporting weapons to Israel.

"For all we know there may not have been many sales going on at present," she said. "It may be that they just haven't formally suspended. I just do not have that detail to hand.

"But yes, this is an evolving situation situation could change at any time."

Alicia Kearns
Alicia Kearns. Picture: Alamy

It comes amid a dispute between Israel and Foreign Secretary David Cameron, who has said it is "an enormous frustration” that British humanitarian aid to Gaza had been “routinely held up waiting for Israeli permissions”.

Israel previously claimed that the UN is failing to distribute aid to Gaza, adding that the crossing had been closed “by agreement with the UN”.

Ms Kearns told Ben: "This is a very very serious issue, and the reality is that the majority of the problem sits on the Israeli side of the border where they are not opening the gates for long enough."

She added: "On a day-to-day basis, the rules of what can and can’t go in are being changed. They are not open for enough days and they are not open for enough hours."

Ms Kearns said: "This is not a game - people are starving on the ground, and there are issues within Gaza, there is aid being stolen, there is not enough vehicles to be able to move aid around, and again Israel is not allowing many humanitarians to have their visas approved so they can go in."

Lord Cameron said the delays were an 'enormous frustration'.
Lord Cameron said the delays were an 'enormous frustration'. Picture: Alamy

Mr Cameron wrote in a letter to Ms Kearns: “The main blockers remain arbitrary denials by the government of Israel and lengthy clearance procedures, including multiple screenings and narrow opening windows in daylight hours.

“I agree with the committee that increasing the number of trucks going into Gaza is vital. I remain gravely concerned that any aid — including UK aid — has been stalled, delayed or rejected at the border with Israel.

“The prime minister and I have raised this consistently with the government of Israel and continue to press this point.

“You cite claims — that I have heard elsewhere — that international donors should send as much aid as they wish and Israel will facilitate its entry. I wish this were the case. It is of enormous frustration that UK aid for Gaza has been routinely held up waiting for Israeli permissions.”

He also said that some aid has been stuck at the border for as much as three weeks.

Gaza is facing an 'imminent famine'.
Gaza is facing an 'imminent famine'. Picture: Alamy

He also contradicted previous claims made by suspended Israeli government spokesman, Eylon Levy, that the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south of Gaza had been closed on Saturdays at the request of the UN.

Lord Cameron continued: “I can confirm that the UN has not requested that the Kerem Shalom crossing is closed on Saturdays. It is our understanding that Israel closes it due to the Sabbath.”

Ms Kearns said she was “grateful” to the Foreign Secretary for his letter, as she said in response: “Today’s letter confirms what we saw and heard on our visit to the border area — that Israel’s arbitrary denials and lengthy clearance processes are key factors in holding up the delivery of aid.

“It also confirms that Israel has the ability and power to turn the water back on in Gaza, and so far has chosen not to do so.

“If the famine continues along its current trajectory, thousands of Gazans will lose their lives. This is suffering on an unimaginable scale.”

Following Lord Camerons’ letter, COGAT, the Israeli body which coordinates humanitarian aid to Gaza, invited Ms Kearns to meet with the body and “hear the full scale of Israel's humanitarian efforts towards the Gaza Strip”.

Despite Lord Cameron’s outspoken criticism of the Israeli authorities, Downing Street maintained that it still believes Israel is acting within international humanitarian law.

A spokeswoman for Downing Street said: “Our assessment hasn’t changed. We do keep it under constant review and act in accordance with that advice.”

Asked about the British government’s relationship with the Israeli administration, she said: “I wouldn’t comment on reports around private conversations that may or may not happen.

“While we continue to support Israel and its right to defend itself from Hamas, we continue to be very clear that there needs to be much further action taken to protect civilian lives and get more aid into Gaza … we are very open and frank in our discussions about that."

The UK has provided food to 275,000 people in Gaza as warnings grow of an “imminent famine” in the region.

COGAT said on Thursday that 155 humanitarian aid trucks were distributed by UN aid agencies to the region.

Lord Cameron said of aid sent to Gaza: "Before the conflict, around 500 trucks (of both aid and commercial items) entered Gaza each day. The daily average for the first part of March has been around 165 trucks a day, although there is significant fluctuation from day to day.

"This is an improvement over January and February, but still more urgent progress is needed."

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