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UK could halt arms sales to Israel next week, says head of foreign affairs committee

Alicia Kearns' comments come amid reports UK foreign secretary has warned Israel that arms supplies will be cut if prisoners denied Red Cross visits
UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron warned of devestating consequences if Israeli invades Rafah during a visit to Australia on Thursday (Michael Errey/AFP)

The UK could halt arms sales to Israel next week, the head of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee has said, amid reports David Cameron, the foreign secretary, warned Israel that sales will stop if detained Palestinian suspects are denied access to the Red Cross.

Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP who chairs the influential parliamentary committee, told LBC Radio on Thursday evening she would "be very surprised" if the government did not make a public determination within the week of Israel's commitment to international humanitarian law.

"If that assessment has changed - the last one was in December - 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," Kearns said.

UK government is obligated to suspend licences for arms exports if it determines that there is a clear risk that British weapons could be used in serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Israeli news outlet Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Thursday that the UK government had conditioned the continuation of UK arms sales on imprisoned Palestinians suspected of being involved in the 7 October receiving visits from diplomats or the Red Cross.

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The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office did not deny the report when asked about it on Friday.

'It is of enormous frustration that UK aid for Gaza has been routinely held up waiting for Israeli permissions'

- David Cameron, letter

Israeli officials, according to Yedioth Ahronoth, are concerned that the UK will follow Canada which announced it was halting arms sales to Israel earlier this week.

While the US is by far the major arms supplier to Israel, a UK suspension of arms sales would be significant both materially and symbolically.

According to Campaign Against the Arms Trade (Caat), the British government has licensed at least £472m worth of military exports to Israel since May 2015, including around 15 percent of the components of the F35 stealth combat aircraft which Israel has used to bomb Gaza.

Yedioth Ahronoth noted that Israeli officials were concerned that Canada’s decision to halt sales would create “a domino effect”. A UK suspension would confirm that fear.

'Enormous frustration'

It has also come to light that Cameron has expressed further frustration over Israel holding up the delivery of aid into Gaza, saying he was aware that UK-funded aid had been stuck at the border "for just under three weeks".

"It is of enormous frustration that UK aid for Gaza has been routinely held up waiting for Israeli permissions," the foreign secretary said in a 15 March letter to Kearns which was made public on Thursday.

UK won't say if arms export licences to Israel flagged over concerns were revoked
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Kearns was among nearly a dozen MPs who pressed Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell in parliament this week to say whether it had updated its assessment of Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law.

The last publicly known assessment occurred in December when Cameron, following advice he received from foreign office lawyers, advised Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, not to suspend arms export licences to Israel.

An affidavit filed at the High Court in January by the Department for Business and Trade revealed that after the Hamas-led 7 October attacks, the government identified 28 licences and 28 pending applications for licences for the export of UK-made equipment as “most likely to be used by the IDF in an offensive operations in Gaza”.

The affadavit also revealed there were concerns within the foreign office as early as 10 November that Israel had breached international humanitarian law in Gaza.

The Department for Business and Trade declined earlier this month to say whether the licences and applications flagged had been revoked or reviewed, or if UK companies holding those licences had actually sent any items to Israel, including components for combat aircraft, since 7 October.

Kearns told LBC it was possible "there may not have been many sales going on at present".

"It may be that they just haven't formally suspended. I just do not have that detail," she said.

Jonathan Purcell, senior public affairs officer at the UK-based International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, said on Friday that the UK should not make "half-baked conditional threats" but end arms exports to Israel immediately.

"Its all very well using it as a bargaining chip but when the government themselves are complicit, its hard to see this as taking the moral high ground," Purcell said.

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