No single action is a red line on UK arms exports to Israel, deputy PM says

FILE PHOTO: British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden speaks during an interview with Reuters, in Seoul

By Pesha Magid

RIYADH (Reuters) - Britain will continue to approve arm exports to Israel, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden told Reuters on Tuesday, saying a full-scale Israeli operation in Rafah would not by itself result in a suspension of UK weapons supplies.

"The assessment that we undertake for arms export controls is one of the most rigorous in the world ... No single action represents a red line," Dowden said on the sidelines of a UK-Saudi trade conference in Riyadh.

"As the foreign secretary set out a few days ago, we are confident with continuing with those arms exports,” he said.

Earlier this month the United States withheld a shipment of thousands of heavy bombs, out of concern at Israel's slow-rolling assault in Rafah, where Washington opposes a major Israeli invasion without civilian safeguards.

But UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on Sunday that banning British arms exports to Israel would strengthen Hamas.

“The action by Israel in respect to Rafah is not something that is going to, in of itself, trigger a change in the position from the UK government vis-à-vis arms exports," said Dowden. He was speaking in response to a question about whether the UK would cease issuing licences to UK weapons makers if Israel launched its operation in Rafah.

Israeli tanks pushed into Rafah on Tuesday, forcing civilians to scramble to find safety. More than a million Gazans took sanctuary in Rafah after Israel ordered evacuations from northern Gaza in October, and are now struggling to find the means to flee again.

"In respect to Rafah, what we continue to do is engage with the Israelis about our concerns about getting aid in and about the proper conduct of any offensive to make sure that we minimize civilian casualties," Dowden.

Israel's international allies and aid groups have repeatedly warned against a ground incursion into Rafah, which borders Egypt and where Israel says four Hamas battalions are holed up. Israel has vowed to press on into Rafah even without its allies' support, in order to root out remaining Hamas fighters.

The Palestinian death toll in the war has now surpassed 35,000, with 57 killed in the past 24 hours, according to Gaza health officials, whose figures do not differentiate between civilians and fighters.

(Reporting by Pesha Magid, Editing by William Maclean)