Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Parliament’s Rafah rage

Deputy Foreign Secretary Andrew Mitchell (Getty)

It’s been a while since the Commons has had so much anger in it as it did during the urgent question on Gaza. The anxiety and criticism of Israel in Rafah wasn’t confined to the usual group of opposition MPs, but came from across the House. The anger wasn’t just directed at Israel, but at UK ministers, too, for warning against the incursion and then not appearing to change government policy towards Israel now that it was going ahead.

The anger wasn’t just directed at Israel

Deputy Foreign Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the chamber in his opening answer that the UK government’s ‘position has been consistent: we are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military incursion, given the number of civilians that are sheltering there and the importance of that entry point’. He added that ‘as yet, we have not seen a credible plan to protect civilians’.

It was these two lines that MPs from across the House repeatedly picked up on in their own questions. Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy complained that the government had not brought forward a statement, instead of the urgent question that he had tabled. ‘Benjamin Netanyahu is ignoring the warnings of Israel’s allies and partner, the UK included. So can the minister tell me, what will the consequences be? Because we already see the consequences for civilians.’ He added:

So can the minister say why he thinks an attack on Rafah does not present a clear risk of a serious breach of international humanitarian law and can he confirm whether he has received any assessment – not legal advice – but any assessment or policy advice from FCDO officials that the threshold has already been met?

Other MPs, including senior Conservative Kit Malthouse, were highly critical of the way ministers had repeatedly warned the Israeli government but did not seem to be offering any consequences for their warnings being ignored. Malthouse said:

Over the past few months, Members from all parts of the House have questioned the Deputy Foreign Secretary on the notion of consequences, and we have heard that again today. He is an experienced Minister, so he knows that every equivocation, every hesitation and every set of diplomatic niceties has led us to this calamitous moment for the hostages, for the Palestinian people and for the interests of both peoples in the long term. On 7 April, the Foreign Secretary said that support for Israel was not unconditional. I shall ask the question in a different way: is there any red line? Is there anything the Israeli government could do that would so appal this government that they would feel the need to act? If so, what is it?

Mitchell’s reply was that ‘my right hon. Friend asks me a rhetorical question, but the evidence will show that the government have done everything we possibly can to try to alleviate the situation, sometimes unpopularly’. A few minutes later, Malthouse’s Conservative colleague Mark Logan asked a similarly forceful question, saying ‘we should not be dancing around the issue or playing with words as though it were a game of Scrabble. He added: ‘We should call this what it is and call for an immediate ceasefire […] we are one of the most influential countries on the conflict, so will the UK call for an immediate end to the fighting?’

Labour MPs were calling for ministers to give ‘serious consideration’ to banning the sale of arms to Israel – something that had fallen from the agenda after the Iranian attack. Clive Betts complained that the response to the Rafah incursion could be ‘a slap on the wrist’, and said Netanyahu had one objective, ‘which is to raze Gaza to the ground’. Jim McMahon similarly said that ‘what we have seen is far beyond self-defence’, and added: ‘Given what he has said, it is clear that he does not believe that an offensive into Rafah would be within international law, so is he in that circumstance content with UK-supplied arms being used in that offensive? If not, what will he do about it?’ McMahon is a mild man – sometimes too mild – but today his voice shook with anger. 

Mitchell replied that the government had set out its position on arms exports. He continued to hold that line as the session wore on. That session showed that sentiment in the Commons has changed significantly as a result of the Rafah incursion. Though he did not shift on the official line on the Gaza conflict today, it did feel as though Mitchell was preparing for one soon. Judging by the mood of the House, he will find much support if he does.