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Foreign Secretary writes to FAC on the planned Israeli offensive in Rafah and UK arms exports to Israel

21 February 2024

On Tuesday 20 February, the Foreign Affairs Committee published two letters from the Foreign Secretary David Cameron to Chair Alicia Kearns MP.

One letter responds to the Committee’s letter over the planned military offensive in Rafah. The other responds to correspondence from the Committee on the UK’s strategic export controls policy on Israel.

Military offensive in Rafah

The Foreign Secretary states his “deep concern about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah” adding that “we do not underestimate the devastating humanitarian impacts that a full ground offensive, if enacted, would have in these circumstances”.

The letter calls for Israel to “stop and think seriously about the repercussions of a military offensive”. The Foreign Secretary says that “too many civilians have been killed in this conflict already” and he “stressed this personally to Prime Minister Netanyahu on my recent visit”.

The Foreign Secretary says 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”. However, in the case of a potential military offensive in Rafah “it is difficult to see how this could be achieved”. The Foreign Secretary has “reiterated with Prime Minister Netanyahu the need for Israel to open more crossing points; for Nitzana and Kerem Shalom to be open for longer; and for Israel to support the UN to distribute aid effectively”.

The letter calls for “progress towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire, without a return to fighting”, saying that “we are closely engaged in lobbying Israel – as well as those with influence on Hamas”.

Strategic export controls and Israel

The Foreign Secretary’s letter covers UK arms export controls regarding Israel. It states that “in the last three months, no licence applications have had to be escalated to the dispute resolution mechanism or complex cases mechanism in which the Cabinet Office mediates”. It does not answer the Committee’s question on how many export licence applications have been referred to ministers.

A Change in Circumstances (CiC) assessment was self-initiated by the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) following the Hamas terrorist attacks on 7th October 2023 and the Israeli response.

The Foreign Secretary said that “following a thorough and detailed process of review, I decided on 12th December that there was not a clear risk that items would be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law”. The Foreign Secretary’s “recommendation to the Trade Secretary was not to suspend or revoke extant licences”.

The letter says that “all licences, including those granted to Israel, are kept under careful and continuous review” but does not explain the processes for doing so.

Chair comment

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns MP, said:

“The Foreign Secretary’s response to our letter on strategic export controls raises several questions. Given the high level of concern over the conflict between Hamas and Israel, I am surprised that no licence applications have been escalated to the inter-departmental disputes procedures in the last 3 months. It is telling that the FCDO does not answer our question on how many times export licence applications for Israel have been referred to ministers in the last 12 months. If none have been referred, the Government should say so.

“The FCDO plays a key role in export licence decisions with FCDO officials permanently located within the ECJU providing advice to the Trade Secretary, including leading on the International Humanitarian Law implications of licensing decisions. The FCDO and the DBT need to set out more fully how existing licences are being kept under ‘careful review’ and how they will ensure that UK export controls adapt quickly to a rapidly changing situation.

“The FCDO says it is still assessing the interim findings of the ICJ. How long will this take? This work should be progressed urgently, it cannot wait until the full judgment which may be years away.

“We understand that diplomacy, by its nature, is an instrument of soft power and sometimes quiet influence. Maintaining our relationships with both allies and adversaries requires long-term consistency and patience. However, the situation in Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe and the need for a lasting ceasefire is pressing. Humanitarian access to Gaza, in particular to Rafah, where more than half of the population of Gaza is concentrated, is vital in order to prevent intolerable loss of life.

“It remains unclear what Israel’s exact plans are to ensure the safety of civilians in Gaza, including the possibility of safe zones, and whether the UK perceives Israel’s planned military offensive to be in line with the ICJ’s order.

“The UK needs to steer both sides towards a resolution and work towards putting an end to the conflict between Hamas and Israel. The urgent release of hostages and a ceasefire must be the UK’s priorities, alongside the creation of a Palestine Contact Group and plans for track two negotiations.”

Further information

Image credit: FCDO Flickr