Downing Street has confirmed reports that international development secretary Priti Patel suggested British aid could support humanitarian operations run by the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights area.
Patel has apologised for meeting a string of Israeli politicians – including the prime minister – while on a family holiday.
The cabinet minister broke Whitehall convention by attending 12 separate meetings and engagements without telling the Foreign Office in advance and with no government officials present.
The prime minister's spokesman confirmed on Tuesday that Patel "did discuss" potentially using British aid money to "provide medical support to Syrian refugees who are wounded" arriving into the Golan Heights.
"There is no change of policy in this area," he said. "The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army."
Later international development minister Alistair Burt confirmed that Patel had asked her department to look at whether UK aid could be handed to the Israeli army for medical assistance.
"The department’s view is that aid to the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] in the Golan Heights is not appropriate, we don’t do that, and that was the advice given to the secretary of state," he told MPs.
On Monday, Patel published a list of who she had met during her August holiday. It includes Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu; Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel's Yesh Atid party; and Yuval Rotem from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
The Department for International Development (DFID) confirmed that she had been accompanied by Lord Polak, who is honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, a lobbying group with access to wealthy party donors.
BBC News first reported last week that she had held undisclosed meetings in Israel. Following that story, she appeared to insist that foreign secretary Boris Johnson had known about her meetings in advance.
On Friday she told the Guardian: "Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip]. It is not on, it is not on at all.
“I went out there, I paid for it. And there is nothing else to this. It is quite extraordinary. It is for the Foreign Office to go away and explain themselves."
But DFID clarified these remarks on Monday, saying that while the quote "may have given the impression that the secretary of state had informed the foreign secretary about the visit in advance", in fact "this was not the case", adding: "The foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it."
Last year, Patel suspended aid payments to the Palestinian Authority, amid claims that taxpayer cash was being given to terrorists.
Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said: "Her department is responsible not for aid to Israel, a wealthy state, but to Palestinians, around 5 million who live under occupation, many in unimaginable conditions. She had no meetings either with Palestinians or organisations who work in their interests. She should be working to end their plight, not cosy up to those who continue to inflict occupation and the denial of their basic rights.
"Many questions remain unanswered, but right now her credibility is shot, as are any claims to impartiality and indeed competence and sound judgment.“
In a statement released yesterday, Patel said:
This summer I travelled to Israel, on a family holiday paid for myself. While away I had the opportunity to meet a number of people and organisations. I am publishing a list of who I met. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was aware of my visit while it was underway.
In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be mis-read, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it.
My first and only aim as the Secretary of State for International Development is to put the interests of British taxpayers and the world’s poor at the front of our development work.
Tensions have been strained between the Foreign Office and DFID after Johnson appeared to call for Patel's department to be absorbed into his own. She told BuzzFeed News last month: "DFID is an independent department."
Shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett last week wrote to PM Theresa May calling for an investigation into Patel's undisclosed meetings.
After the statement was released, a Number 10 spokesperson said: "The prime minister welcomes the secretary of state's clarification about her trip to Israel and has accepted her apology for her handling of the matter.
"The prime minister has met with the secretary of state this morning to remind her of the obligations which exist under the ministerial code."
Later the PM's spokesman revealed that May was unaware of Patel's meeting with Netanyahu until last week when reports emerged. But he insisted no investigation was necessary because Patel had apologised and "no UK interests were damaged or affected by the meetings".
Pressed on whether the PM had full confidence in Patel, he said: "Yes." He added: "The prime minister thinks she's doing a good job."
Shadow international development secretary Kate Osamor said: "Not only does it look like she [Patel] might have breached the ministerial code, she has now been caught misleading the British public. If she doesn't now resign, then Theresa May must immediately refer the issue to the Cabinet Office for a full investigation."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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