Nine Nato countries have pledged international action in a concerted effort to halt illegal arms smuggling into Gaza.
Britain is one of the nine and Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell said on Wednesday: “We are not prepared to put up with arms smuggling and we are prepared to take action to stop and disrupt such activity.”
That will mean more stopping and boarding ships suspected of carrying illegal consignments. Mr Rammell cited the example of the Monchegorsk, a Russian-owned ship flying under a Cypriot flag which was stopped by an American warship while approaching Suez in the Red Sea in January.
The vessel was ordered to Limassol, Cyprus, where it was found to be carrying ammunition, including rockets, which were believed to be destined for Hamas and, as such, broke a UN Security Council resolution.
Israel has welcomed the initiative. In London, Israeli Embassy spokesman Lior Ben Dor said: “We attach great importance to the international community’s attempt to prevent Iran and Syria from arming Hamas and Hizbollah.
“Iran and Syria, in flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1860 and 1747, have been arming, training and funding these two terrorist organisations, both of which are committed to and responsible for the murder of Jews in Israel and around the world. Israel will continue to co-operate on all levels with its partners, including Britain, on this issue.”
Mr Rammell reiterated Britain’s position that the action will be linked to efforts to improve humanitarian aid going into Gaza.
“We said from the start of this crisis that we need to do two things, each reinforcing the other: open access to humanitarian aid and stop the smuggling of weapons across the border.”
Egypt, he said, had a crucial role to play, “as do others in the region”, with a separate track of talks involving Israel and others.
Asked if anything could be done to get Iran and Syria, the main arms suppliers, to stop arms shipments, Mr Rammell responded: “This is just one facet of a much wider diplomatic initiative.
“We have long said that we attach great importance to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and we have been working hard with regional partners on peace initiatives, which would include a complete freeze on settlements, and to bring in, operationally, the Arab peace initiative.
“We would have a much better chance if we can do all that.”
The Arab peace plan, originally put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002, offered recognition of Israel by all 22 Arab nations in return for a Palestinian state and a return to the pre-1967 borders.
Last Friday, the Foreign Office hosted a second meeting of the Nato group. The first took place in Copenhagen last month.
The nine — Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the US and Britain — agreed a programme of action to try to deal with the arms smuggling problem.
It includes the action on shipping, sharing information and intelligence, increased diplomatic co-operation and increased contact with countries in the region.
Israeli Embassy press attaché Lior Ben Dor added: “We hope to see the people of Gaza prosper and flourish.
“It is crucial to reach a situation in which there is a mechanism that guarantees the rulers of Gaza will not abuse the goodwill of the international community by smuggling weapons, explosives and terror through the border crossings, as they have done until now.
“It will, however, be interesting to see how such a mechanism would be established without Hamas recognising Israel, renouncing terrorism and accepting previous agreements with Israel. Once this is established, it will be good for the Palestinians in Gaza, good for Israel and good for the whole region.”