UK considers restricting arms exports to Israel if it invades Rafah

Palestinians walk underneath the damaged ceiling of a mosque that was hit during an Israeli bombardment in Rafah on Friday
Palestinians walk underneath the damaged ceiling of a mosque that was hit during an Israeli bombardment in Rafah on Friday - Ismael Mohamad/UPI/Shutterstock

The UK is assessing whether to restrict some arms exports to Israel if Tel Aviv presses ahead with its invasion of Rafah, according to reports.

‌Israel could be in breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) if Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, launches a ground offensive in the densely populated southern Gazan city without attempting to protect civilians.

This could alter legal advice given to ministers on granting export licences, which may affect the sale of some weapons to the country, official sources told Bloomberg.

Israel has come under intense pressure from its allies to cancel its planned military operation in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, where some 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli cabinet, said last week the country would press ahead with the operation unless the more than 100 remaining hostages still held by Hamas are released by March 10, when Ramadan begins.

Although Britain is not one of Israel’s major arms suppliers, the mooted change in policy would pile pressure on Mr Netanyahu, who has so far refused to bow to diplomatic concerns.

Lord Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary, last week said he was “deeply concerned” over the planned military action.

‌He said the UK had been challenging Israel over its actions in Gaza and “will continue to do that as part of the very important process that we go through to judge whether they are compliant with international humanitarian law”.

‌The Foreign Office is understood to be reviewing its assessment that Israel is committed to, and capable of complying with, IHL.

Lord Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu held talks in Jerusalem in November last year
Lord Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu held talks in Jerusalem in November last year - Anadolu/Anadolu

‌Last year the UK Government granted 114 standard individual export licences for military goods valued at £42 million to Israel, according to a Commons briefing.

‌These exports have included components of combat aircraft, missiles and tanks, as well as small arms and ammunition, according to Human Rights Watch.

‌A December review of export licences found British exports to Israel had not been used to commit a serious violation of IHL and the UK decided not to “suspend or revoke extant licences,” Lord Cameron said this week in a Commons letter.

‌He added: “All licences, including those granted to Israel, are kept under careful and continuous review.”

‌The legal advice regarding British exports could also change if Israel makes it difficult for aid convoys to pass into Gaza, sources said.

‌The UK and its allies want Israel to let 500 aid trucks into Gaza each day.

‘Green light to slaughter’

‌It comes as China accused the US of giving a green light to “slaughter” after it vetoed a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian pause in Gaza at the UN Security Council.

‌The resolution, put forward by Algeria, was blocked on Tuesday. The US argued it was not the “right time for a general ceasefire that leaves Hamas in control”.

In a strongly worded response, China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun said: “Given the situation on the ground, the continued passive avoidance of an immediate ceasefire is nothing different from giving a green light to the continued slaughter.”

The comments represent the harshest criticism yet from China of US policy over Gaza.

An Israeli Air Force F-35I fighter jet
An Israeli Air Force F-35I fighter jet - Stocktrek Images/Riccardo Niccoli

Washington described the Algerian resolution, which did not link a ceasefire to the release of hostages, as “wishful and irresponsible”.

However, Mr Zhang said: “The spillover of the conflict is destabilising the entire Middle East region, leading to [the] rising risk of a wider war.

“Only by extinguishing the flames of war in Gaza can we prevent the fires of hell from engulfing the entire region.”

‘Too many’ killed

‌The US is preparing its own resolution, to be brought before the Security Council, which calls for a temporary ceasefire “as soon as practicable”, as well as the lifting of restrictions on humanitarian aid and the unconditional release of all hostages.

‌The Biden administration has argued it is vital to give the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas a chance, despite both parties refusing to compromise.

The Prince of Wales joined the calls for a ceasefire in Gaza on Tuesday, arguing that “too many” have been killed in the fighting.

Eylon Levy, an Israeli government spokesman, responded to Prince William’s comments by saying: “Israelis of course want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible, and that will be possible once the 134 hostages are released, and once the Hamas terror army threatening to repeat the Oct 7 atrocities is dismantled.

‌“We appreciate the Prince of Wales’s call for Hamas to free the hostages. We also recall with gratitude his statement from Oct 11 condemning Hamas’s terror attacks and reaffirming Israel’s right of self-defence against them.”

‌While the UK abstained from the Security Council vote on Algeria’s resolution, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has backed a lasting, permanent ceasefire which he said “must happen now”.

The Foreign Office declined to comment.