Banning arms exports to Israel would help Hamas, warns David Cameron

David Cameron warned on Sunday that banning arms exports to Israel would help Hamas, but the British foreign secretary continued to argue against a major offensive into Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah. He declined to set out any consequence for Israel if the advice from the US and UK was not heeded.

The Labour party set up a rare dividing line with the government on Gaza, saying that the UK should stop sending arms to Israel if it went ahead with a Rafah offensive, due to the risk of a breach of international humanitarian law. Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow paymaster general, told Sky News that the UK should pause arms sales to Israel, and said a full-scale offensive into Rafah would be “catastrophic beyond description”.

Cameron said: “For there to be a major offensive in Rafah, there would have to be an absolutely clear plan about how you save lives, how you move people out the way, how you make sure they’re fed, you make sure that they have medicine and shelter and everything. We have seen no such plan … so we don’t support an offensive in that way.” He said he had made these points in a call with Ron Dermer, a close adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Friday.

The Foreign Office continues to insist that the large-scale evacuation of Palestinians from Rafah does not yet represent the major offensive that it opposes. Photograph: Hatem Khaled/Reuters

Israel appears to regard the western warnings as insufficiently consequential to hold back from going after the final four Hamas battalions they believe are based in Rafah. But Cameron also framed the imminent offensive in the context of Hamas failing to accept a ceasefire deal, saying the real pressure should be on the militant group.

“Hamas have been offered a deal which would release hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails, that would provide a pause in the fighting to get desperately needed aid into Gaza, and they’re not taking that deal,” he told Sky News.

Hamas claims it had accepted the deal, but Israel counters that the group last week altered the terms of the deal in unacceptable ways, including by making it a permanent ceasefire.

The Foreign Office continues to insist that the large-scale evacuation of Palestinians from Rafah – largely prompted by threats from Israel – does not yet represent the major offensive that it opposes.

The UK’s self-imposed arms export licences are reviewed every six weeks, meaning that Cameron should be sending fresh advice to the business secretary on Wednesday, and would already have a legal assessment in front of him that for the first time that took into account Israel’s killing of three British aid workers on 1 April.

Cameron’s position of continuing to clear arms exports has been made more difficult by Joe Biden’s administration on Friday publishing a report to Congress that said it was reasonable to assess that US weapons were being used by Israel to commit breaches of international humanitarian law.

The US report did not propose a blanket ban on arms sales, but Biden, the US president, said he was pausing the supply of some bombs and artillery due to the attacks on civilian population centres. UK law states ministers should block arms exports if a risk existed that the weapons or components would lead to a serious breach of international humanitarian law.

More than 280,000 people have now left Rafah, according to a count by UN officials in the city on Saturday 11 May, with almost half leaving in the previous 24 hours. Photograph: Hatem Khaled/Reuters

In a round of broadcast interviews on Sunday, Cameron said in making decisions on allowing arms exports to continue, ministers had acted consistently with legal advice. The foreign secretary has so far avoided saying the legal advice had stated no risk existed of serious breaches of international humanitarian law.

One source had predicted privately that a ban on the sales of offensive weapons had been imminent, but was subject to debate with Downing Street. The government has rejected Labour requests for the advice to be published.

Cameron insisted the UK had not given Israel a clean bill of health. He said: “We had some big promises from Netanyahu a few weeks ago. And we’ve seen some changes that are positive, but not enough.”

He justified the UK taking a different decision to its close ally, the US, saying: “The United States is a massive, bulk, state supplier of weapons to Israel, including 1,000lb [454kg] bombs and all the rest of it. The UK provides less than 1% of Israel’s weapons and it’s not a state supplier.”

Pressed whether the source or scale of the arms was relevant to the application of the law, he said: “It’s a rolling process that looks at what Israel is doing, looks at humanitarian aid, looks at the treatment of detainees, and crucially looks at the behaviour of the Israeli defence forces.

“I asked that central question, is there a serious risk of a serious breach of international humanitarian law? The answer up to now has been that we’ve allowed the export licencing to continue.” He also said he was not interested in sending a political message by banning arms sales.

Cameron said he could give no updates on Hamas’s claim that the British-Israeli hostage Nadav Popplewell had died in Gaza.
“Like everyone else, I watched the video on Twitter, X, last night, put out by Hamas of Nadav answering a question as to who he was,” he said. “And I watched that video and you just think what callous people they [Hamas] are to do that, to play with the family’s emotions in that way.”

The Guardian

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