Long rifts near the front of the Ronne Ice Shelf, Antarctica, are observed to begin as fractures along the lateral boundaries of outlet streams feeding the shelf. These flaws eventually become the planes along which tabular icebergs calve. The fractures propagate laterally as they advect through the shelf, with orientations that can be explained by the glaciological stress field. Fracture length remains constrained over much of the advective path, and locations of crack tip arrest are observed to coincide with structural boundaries, such as suture zones between ice from adjacent outlet glaciers. Geomechanical principles and numerical models demonstrate that in the absence of these suture zones crack tips are unlikely to arrest in these locations. We conclude that lateral inhomogeneity in the ice plays an important role in fracture mechanics through most of the ice shelf. Only near the shelf front are these local structural effects overcome such that the large rifts required for tabular iceberg production develop.