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Defence Secretary Refuses To Say Whether Gaza Evacuation Order Breaks International Law

7 min read

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, has refused to say whether Israel is breaking international law by giving Palestinian civilians 24 hours to leave Northern Gaza.

Israel is widely expected to launch a ground offensive on the Gaza Strip after terrorist organisation Hamas killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in a series of surprise attacks last weekend. It is estimated that 1,200 Israelis have died and 2,700 are injured. At least 1,400 Palestinians have been killed in retaliatory attacks by Israel, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. 

On Friday morning Israeli military leaders ordered Gaza’s 1.1million population to move to the south of the territory to avoid being caught in planned attacks on Hamas. The United Nations has indicated that Israel will allow people 24 hours to undertake the evacuation. But the order has faced serious criticism on humanitarian grounds, with many arguing that the movement of so many people within Gaza's already devastated infrastructure would be "impossible". 

“The United Nations considers it impossible for such a movement to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences,” a UN spokesperson said. 

Speaking to broadcasters on Friday morning, Shapps said Israel had every right to "defend itself".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that Hamas was strategically positioning itself among civilians and therefore "it is right to give that population notice so that they can move".

Shapps said he supported the advanced notice Israel had given to the population of North Gaza but refused to confirm whether UK government supported the 24 hour order, or whether the tight time period complied with international law. 

"The UK Government supports Israel in providing advanced notice. Hamas are hiding within a civilian population, where by the way, they're also holding a capture of those people who they kidnapped at the weekend," he said.

The defence secretary believed it was “very likely” British nationals are stuck in the Gaza Strip but could not confirm how many. 

The UK Government has condemned the attacks from Hamas on Israel which begun last week. Alongside the US, France, Italy and Germany, the UK has pledged to "support Israel in its efforts to defend itself and its people against such atrocities".

Conditions in Gaza have deteriorated significantly since the crisis began after Israel escalated a blockade on the region to include food, medicines and fuel. 

Alicia Kearns, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told LBC last night that Israel had a moral duty under international law that people can “access medical aid and support”.

“We get the humanitarian aid in but no one else can switch back on water apart from the Israelis and they do have a duty to, I believe under international humanitarian law, because they control the airspace of Gaza," she said. 

"They control the coastal access, and they have blockaded it and so in effect, I believe that they have that duty."

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed last night the UK would send support from the eastern Mediterranean to aid Israel and protect regional stability. A Royal Navy task group has also been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to help mitigate the humanitarian crisis.

Sunak has "unequivocally" condemned the attacks by Hamas on Israel. Yesterday he had a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, where they discussed Israel's next steps in Gaza, and promised further military assistance in the coming days. 

The Prime Minister's spokesperson said it was "important to take all measures to protect ordinary Palestinians and facilitate humanitarian aid".

On Friday morning Sunak also spoke to Egypt’s President Sisi, and said he wanted to see the opening of the Rafah crossing, which is located on the border between Gaza and Egypt. This would allow British nationals and other citizens to leave Gaza. 

Last night Labour leader Keir Starmer met with Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis to display his “unequivocal support” with Israel and the Jewish community. The Jewish religious leader thanked Starmer on X, formerly known as Twitter, for standing with the community and Israel.

Backbench Conservative MPs have urged the Government to show its unwavering support for Israel.

Stephen Crabb, Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, told PoliticsHome he believed the Government’s initial response to the conflict had been “strong” and “clear sighted”.

“I've been very pleased, and very reassured, by the government's response to the atrocities in Israel, carried out by Hamas,” he said

“Not just the leadership, right from the very top from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, but the way that senior Cabinet members have been working together to ensure an appropriate response across different fronts.

“Across the whole of Government, we've seen a strong and very clear sighted, clear voiced response. And that's been hugely reassuring to us in Conservative Friends of Israel. But I think, more broadly, across the Jewish community as a whole,” he added.

Crabb, who is a former cabinet minister, said he wanted the support shown from Western leaders to Israel to be maintained.

“In an attempt to show even handedness, too often there is a chorus from the international community, a calling for restraint on the part of Israel, asking Israel not to do the difficult, unpleasant things that it needs to do in a security setting," he said

"I've sat in so many meetings in Parliament, when we have had visiting speakers and analysts explain to us what Hamas were doing: stockpiling [and] building underground tunnels.

“And the international community, basically, in my view, turned a blind eye to it, and tolerated that. We can't tolerate it any longer," Crabb added.

US President Joe Biden said America’s support for Israel was “rock solid”. Western leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanual Macron and Dutch leader Mark Rutte have also condemned the terrorist attack on Israel.

Former cabinet minister Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, and Vice Chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, said Hamas’s brutality was “sickening” and claimed the attacks marked the worst crime against Jewish people since the Holocaust. 

“That Jewish people, old and young, men and women, were once again murdered in their homes, or bundled into vehicles and taken away at gunpoint, is an appalling replay of the stories that Holocaust survivors recount so bravely,” she said.

“It’s truly vile that such scenes have been replicated in the modern era. I utterly condemn these terrorist murders and cruel kidnappings.

“I strongly back the right of Israel to defend itself and its citizens. Israel has my unequivocal support. I welcome the UK Government’s clear and strong support for Israel in its time of trouble,” she added.

Villiers said the UK Government must continue to stand firm in its support for Israel and that she had made this point to Foreign Secretary James Cleverly when he briefed MPs earlier this week.

Dr Liam Fox, MP for North Somerset, and Chair of the UK Abraham Accords Group, told PoliticsHome he strongly condemned the terrorist attacks in Israel. He also believed the attack was a demonstration of broader tensions in the region. 

“At one level it is a vile and barbaric attack on innocent people, but also it has to be seen in the context of Iran's strategic aim of wrecking any normalisation between Arab States and Israel,” he said.

Fox urged the Government to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iranian state's armed force, to be classified as a terrorist organisation.

Despite the brutal attacks, he hoped the war would not push back peace and improve relations in the Middle East.

Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee told PoliticsHome he believed the UK can only try and engage in diplomatic efforts. He said he was interested in probing more into whether there had been an intelligence failure in the Middle East which did not anticipate a terror attack. 

“I suspect Iran, Hamas, et al, have become increasingly concerned at the Abraham Accords and Saudi close to establishing relations with Israel and the action since last weekend is a last ditch effort to turn the clock back,” he said.

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