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UK: MPs press foreign office minister for answers on Israel arms exports and Unrwa funding

MPs repeated calls for information about the government's assessment of Israel's compliance with international law and timing on Unrwa funding decision
Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell answers questions in parliament, on 26 March (Parliament TV)

British MPs have again called on the UK government to say whether it believes Israel is complying with international humanitarian law in Gaza - without getting an answer.

Facing questions in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Foreign Office Minister Andrew Mitchell was asked by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy to give "a simple yes or no answer" in response to the question of whether the foreign office had been advised that British weapons might be used to commit or facilitate war crimes.

"Has the foreign secretary received legal advice saying there is a clear risk that items licensed by the UK might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law?" Lammy asked.

Mitchell, who was grilled by MPs on the same matter one week ago, replied that the UK has a robust arms exports licensing regime and said that Israel's adherence to international humanitarian law is regularly assessed. 

"UK exports are very small. They amounted to 0.02 percent of Israel's military imports," Mitchell added, then said that the foreign office would not publish any legal advice.

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"No government does that. [Lammy] will recall I think at the time of the Iraq war and the highly contentious position then that the legal advice was not published," Mitchell said.

"For a party that aspires possibly in the future to be in government, I'm sure they will see the merit of these conventions."

Mitchell was grilled by MPs after making a statement about the UK's vote in favour of a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Monday, with several lawmakers asking him to clarify when the government will make a decision about UK funding for Unrwa.

Mitchell had hailed the resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the remainder of Ramadan as "a tremendous success for British diplomacy". It marked the first time the UN Security Council on Gaza had passed without a US veto.

"It now means that the European Union, the United Nations and the United States now take our positions on the priorities," Mitchell said.

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The resolution also called for the unconditional release of all hostages and the lifting of all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance.

While a group of Conservative MPs said the resolution would make it harder to secure the release of Israeli hostages from Hamas, most MPs greeted the resolution positively.

However, as Israel bombed Rafah and Hamas reportedly rejected the latest offer at the negotiation table, many also questioned how the UK could ensure that the resolution was implemented.

"How are we going to ensure that on both sides - the return of hostages and the ceasefire during Ramadan - are enacted?" said Conservative MP and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Alicia Kearns. 

"If they are not, I fear the security council will face an existential crisis."

Lammy said the resolution was "incredibly welcome and overdue" and "must now be a turning point".

Unrwa funding decision

Lammy and several other MPs also asked Mitchell whether the UK would resume funding for Unrwa, which it suspended in late January following Israeli allegations that Unrwa staff participated in the Hamas-led 7 October attacks on southern Israel. 

Earlier this month, Mitchell said the UK government would decide whether to resume funding to Unrwa after it received interim reports of two investigations - one by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services and another by former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna - looking into Israeli allegations against the agency.

On Tuesday, Mitchell said the government was waiting "to learn more" about the interim report from the investigation being led by Colonna. The final report on Colonna's investigation is not due until 20 April, he said.

"The interim report is now with the [UN] secretary general in New York. We hope to learn more about it today from New York," Mitchell said.

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He said additional British funding for Unrwa was not due until the end of April and hoped "the position will be clarified as a result of these two reports" by then.

At the very end of proceedings, after Mitchell had answered questions for over an hour, Scottish National Party MP Brendan O'Hara sought last-minute clarity about whether he had seen or was in possession of Colonna's interim report.

"Could he clarify if he or his officials are in receipt of the interim report? Have they seen it? Have he or his officials had a readout of this report?" O'Hara asked.

"If any of the above is true, why has this not been delivered to this house, particularly given that this is the last sitting day before recess and this financial year?"

Mitchell said he believed the interim report had been received by the secretary general's office on Monday.

"It is my hope and expectation that the British permanent representative at the United Nations in New York may be able to have sight of it today," he said.

"But neither I, nor officials in London, have had sight of that report as things stand."

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