UK Warns It Could Restrict Arms Sales To Israel If Rafah Offensive Proceeds

Fresh headlines Wednesday say the United Kingdom is mulling restricting arms sales to Israel if it goes ahead with its planned major offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which is packed with over a million Palestinian refugees who've been forcibly relocated from other parts of the Strip.

"Further escalation of Israel’s military action in Gaza without more effort to protect civilians could put it in breach of international humanitarian law, depending on how it conducts the operation, UK officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity about internal assessments," Bloomberg reports.

Not only has London's High Court recently dealt with petitions from legal advocacy groups alleging British arms sent to Israel are being used to commit war crimes (petitions which thus far have been rejected), but the UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron has just issued a letter to Netanyahu's office calling for Israel to "stop and think seriously about the repercussions of a military offensive" on Rafah.

AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week Israeli defense officials for the first time said that the offensive would likely be launched by Ramadan, which begins on March 10 this year. The military has said Hamas can avoid this by releasing all of the hostages. At the UN Security Council, the UK abstained from a Tuesday vote on a resolution calling for immediate humanitarian ceasefire. It failed due to veto from the United States.

The UK Foreign Secretary's letter said further, "we do not underestimate the devastating humanitarian impacts that a full ground offensive, if enacted, would have in these circumstances."

Israel has vowed to allow Palestinian civilians to leave Rafah ahead of the ground offensive; however, there's the practical matter of where they would go from there. A massive fence separates Gaza from Egypt, and the Egyptians have erected a large walled-in refugee camp while anticipating that many civilians will flee into the Sinai desert regardless. But Egyptian authorities have said the camp can handle only up to 100,000 people.

The Foreign Secretary's office wrote that "we continue to urge Israel to ensure that it limits its operations to military targets and take all possible steps to avoid harming civilians and destroying homes." Importantly that's when the letter emphasized that in the case of a military assault on Rafah "it is difficult to see how this could be achieved."

This official and rare warning to Israel does indeed strongly suggest that the UK's next step could be to block or at least place restrictions on arms sales to Israel. The White House has also been pressured to place 'conditions' on US arms, but has refused thus far.

This is a movement that is growing, which Tel Aviv has condemned. Al Jazeera has listed a summary of the following countries which have banned or restricted weapons transfers to Israel:

  • In the Netherlands, a court on Monday gave the government one week to block all exports of parts for the F-35 fighter jet, which Israel is using to bomb the Gaza Strip. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by Dutch humanitarian organisations Oxfam Novib, PAX Netherlands Peace Movement Foundation and The Rights Forum against the government. The concerns laid out in this lawsuit overlap with the issues the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is considering in South Africa’s apartheid case against Israel. “It is undeniable that there is a clear risk the exported F-35 parts are used in serious violations of international humanitarian law,” the court ruling stated.
  • In Belgium, a regional government said it suspended two licences for the export of gunpowder to Israel on February 6. It was reported that the regional government cited the ICJ interim ruling which found Israel may “plausibly” be committing genocide in Gaza.
  • Japanese company Itochu Corporation announced on February 5 that it will end its partnership with Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems by the end of February. Itochu chief financial officer Tsuyoshi Hachimura told a news conference that the suspension of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Elbit Systems was based on a request from Japan’s Ministry of Defense and “not in any way related to the current conflict between Israel and Palestine”. However, he added: “Taking into consideration the International Court of Justice’s order on January 26, and that the Japanese government supports the role of the Court, we have already suspended new activities related to the MOU, and plan to end the MOU by the end of February.”
  • Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on January 20 that Italy had suspended all shipments of weapons systems or military material to Israel since the outbreak of the war on October 7. This was in response to Democratic Party leader Elly Schlein’s calls on the government to halt the supply of weapons to Israel.
  • Spain’s foreign minister said in January the country has not sold any arms to Israel since the start of the war and that there is now an embargo on weapon sales. However, on Monday, the Spanish daily El Diario released a report showing that Spain had exported ammunition worth about $1.1m to Israel in November. Spain’s secretary of state for trade justified selling the ammo, telling El Diario that the “material was for tests or demonstrations” and “corresponds to licences granted before October 7″.

This list will likely grow if Israel does proceed with a full-on military operation in Rafah, which has already been scene of frequent air strikes and some limited ground incursions related to hostage rescue efforts. But the reality remains that the most London is likely to do is merely restrict 'some' arms to Israel.

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