David Cameron is facing fresh pressure over Gaza in the wake of Baroness Warsi’s resignation, with his Liberal Democrat coalition partners demanding the suspension of arms export licences to Israel.
Nick Clegg said he agreed with the departing Foreign Office minister that there were “serious questions” about the licences.
“It’s obvious to me that however much Israel has every right to defend itself from those rocket attacks from Hamas, nonetheless the Israeli military operation has overstepped the mark in Gaza,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.
“This outrageous spectacle of these three UN schools being hit by Israeli military action. That’s why I believe that the export licences should now be suspended.”
Fellow Lib Dem Vince Cable, whose Business Department is responsible for administering the licences, said: “We have been making this case inside Government but have not yet been able to get agreement for this position. I hope and expect that to change shortly.”
Downing Street said a review of arms export licences was already under way, but stressed that such decisions should not be taken “lightly”.
Lady Warsi’s dramatic resignation – which apparently took the leadership by surprise – won praise from Lib Dems and Labour, but split opinion among Tory backbenchers.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, the peer branded the UK’s policy on Gaza “mealy-mouthed” and “morally indefensible”.
She said she discussed quitting in private with at least one other minister, and described having a telephone conversation with a Conservative backbencher who was in tears at the devastation being shown on television.
The peer suggested she might have been able to stay in Government if she had been a minister at another department such as transport, but could not continue defending the policy as the Foreign Office spokeswoman in the House of Lords.
“For me it’s morally indefensible where after four weeks of a conflict, more than a quarter of the Gazan population displaced, nearly 2,000 people killed, 400 innocent children killed – we still cannot find the words to say we condemn this and that we feel that this action has been disproportionate,” Lady Warsi said.
“These issues are far too serious for us to be mealy-mouthed and for us to be dragging our heels.
“I think there is a sincerely held view in Government that the best way to resolve this matter is to try and be as accommodating as possible to the Israeli government, to try and through that seek influence with them, and through that to try and move them to a more positive decision. “I’m not sure that policy is working.”
Lady Warsi took particular aim at Chancellor George Osborne, who earlier complained that her departure had been “unnecessary”, accusing him of failing to challenge Tel Aviv about its actions.
“George is a very good friend of the Israeli government and therefore he more than anybody else should have been saying quite frankly to the Israeli government that what you are doing is not in your interests – this is probably the biggest single act of self-harm that the Israeli government have done over the last few years,” she said.
“What he should have been saying to the Israeli government is that it is unnecessary for you to kill innocent civilians, it is unnecessary for you to displace a quarter of the population, it is unnecessary for you to flatten schools, hospitals and power supplies and water supplies to achieve your ends.
In a letter expressing regret at Lady Warsi’s departure, Mr Cameron – who is currently on holiday in Portugal – wrote: “I understand your strength of feeling on the current crisis in the Middle East – the situation in Gaza is intolerable.
“Our policy has always been consistently clear: we support a negotiated two state solution as the only way to resolve this conflict once and for all and to allow Israelis and Palestinians to live safely in peace.
“Of course, we believe that Israel has the right to defend itself. But we have consistently made clear our grave concerns about the heavy toll of civilian casualties and have called on Israel to exercise restraint, and to find ways to bring this fighting to an end.”
A Number 10 spokesman said: “A cross-Government review of export licences to Israel is under way following the sustained barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel which prompted Israel to launch Operation Protective Edge. Since then no new licences have been issued for use by the Israeli military.
“Suspending export licences is not a decision we take lightly and it is right that we examine the facts fully. This is the approach being taken by the vast majority of countries.
“We welcome the current ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and continue to call for a political solution to be found.”
A statement released by the Israeli embassy in London said: “Israel regrets the resignation of Baroness Warsi from a UK government that understands the challenges of a changing Middle East.
“The current conflict has highlighted the fact, recognised by the majority of the Arab world and the international community at large, that Hamas today is the key obstacle to a positive future for Gaza.
“Only by defeating the terror perpetrated by such radical groups, be it in Gaza, Syria or Iraq, can there be a real chance for peace security and progress.”
Meanwhile, the Commons International Development Committee urged the Government to do more to persuade Israel to lift unjustified restrictions on the movements of Palestinians.
The cross-party group said some controls were not “proportionate” and in some cases ran counter to international law.
It urged the Government to to what it could to persuade the Israelis to improve the supply of water and electricity which are frequently cut off.
Former Foreign Office minister Sir Hugh Robertson said he did not think the Government’s policy on Gaza had changed much in the last fortnight.
The Tory MP for Faversham and Mid Kent told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “I just don’t think… shouting at them from London is going to make a difference.
“What we need to do is do the hard yards of diplomacy.”
Asked about Lady Warsi’s claims of a domestic backlash in terms of radicalisation, he replied: “She has a point. Of course she is absolutely right.
“She worked enormously hard on the question of our Syria policy and the radicalisation of young British Muslims.
“She’s absolutely right (that) our foreign policy does have implications for us domestically.”
But he added: “You have to recognise that Israel is a state that feels very, very strongly about its own security.
“It is getting rocketed on a regular basis… you can argue about the way they have responded but you have to recognise there is an argument there that needs to be addressed.
“I don’t think this situation is anything like as simple as some people here think it is.”