My Lords, we have extraordinarily tight timing for the dinner-hour debate. I remind noble Lords that when the figure "2" appears on the clock, that is the end of their time for a two-minute speech. I am told that the European Parliament has entire debates where everyone makes two-minute interventions, but I am sure the House of Lords can do better than that.
My Lords, it gives me no pleasure this evening to be raising the issue of Israel's blockade of Gaza and its consequences for the 1.7 million Palestinians who live there, 50 per cent of whom are children. Three years ago, the Israeli military was conducting Operation Cast Lead that took the lives of over 1,000 Palestinians, razed whole neighbourhoods to the ground in East Gaza and destroyed many Palestinian factories. I have seen at first hand the devastation caused by that operation and heard locals' accounts of the military behaviour towards unarmed civilians on my two visits to Gaza. Since Cast Lead, Israel has occupied Gaza's territorial waters, leaving only three nautical miles for Palestinian fishermen, although the Oslo agreement provided for 18 nautical miles. Fishermen who approach the boundary are liable to be shot, detained or sprayed. Israel has also created a military buffer zone on Gaza's northern and eastern borders which it is estimated has confiscated 30 per cent of Gaza's arable farming land. People are regularly shot at and sometimes killed in this buffer zone. Israel has addressed its security concerns by confiscating Gaza territory rather than use its own land in order to create the buffer zone.
Israel has seriously restricted the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza. According to UN figures, during the first two years of the blockade, 112 containers on average entered Gaza from Israel daily, compared with 583 before the siege. Even after Israel said it had eased the siege in May 2010, the daily number rose to only about 150. Apart from the Rafah crossing from Egypt, where the Egyptian military has effectively imposed its own controls, as I have experienced twice, Israel controls all other border crossings. I am informed that Kerem Shalom is now the only functioning crossing point and that the Israelis have started to demolish Kami, which previously had the largest capacity. This may encourage more materials and goods coming through the illicit and primitive tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which I have also seen in operation. These tunnels regularly collapse and kill people. It is estimated that about 250 adults and something over 50 children have been killed or seriously injured in the tunnels.
Israel has imposed a tightening blockade on Gaza that has effectively created the largest open-air prison in the world and represents a collective punishment of Gaza's civilians. My understanding is that this is in direct violation of Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention, but perhaps the Minister can confirm that and say whether he disagrees with any of the facts I have given so far. I would also welcome any light he can throw on the current situation on Israel-Gaza crossings and on whether there have been any improvements in the flows through Rafah since I went through there last July.
What has all this meant economically and socially? A flourishing fishing industry has been brought to its knees, and farming has been unnecessarily restricted. After destroying some 1,300 Palestinian factories, Israel now prevents the import of machinery and raw materials to enable the Palestinians to rebuild their manufacturing capability, particularly in textiles and furniture in which they specialised. Businessmen have spoken to me about the difficulties of establishing the banking services that would support an export trade. An industrial sector that used to account for 40 per cent of national income in Gaza now employs about 15,000 people.
Gaza's infrastructure is falling apart. Rebuilding the homes, schools and other public buildings destroyed by the Israeli military is seriously curtailed by Israeli restrictions on the importation of cement, steel and other building materials. Governments and private donors see their aid efforts frustrated by these restrictions. Gaza's water, sewage and healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse. Only some 5 per cent of the water coming out of Gaza's taps is fit to drink. Sea water is filling the gaps in the Gaza aquifer and could soon wreck it. Waste water projects are being delayed, so huge amounts of sewage have to be pumped into the Mediterranean Sea. Lack of fuel means that eight to 12-hour blackouts are common. Nitrate levels in water are rising dangerously and are said to be causing an increase in cancers. Gastroenteritis is now a way of life for Gaza's children, 70 per cent of whom are said to be anaemic.
A visit to Gaza's 650-bed main hospital is deeply depressing. It reveals crumbling and unfinished buildings, poor equipment and doctors who have run out of surgical sutures, gloves and disposables. Surgery, including heart operations, is interrupted by power cuts and the lack of fuel for emergency generators. Doctors have told me that about 500 patients have died unnecessarily in recent years from lack of medication, including many children. On my visit last July, I saw people to whom this would happen, including children with sickle cell anaemia. On that visit, the Gazan Minister of Health estimated that the hospital regularly lacks 150 to 200 basic drugs, including things as simple as paracetamol. The latest figures I have been given are that Gaza's hospitals are at "zero stock levels" for 178 of 480 essential drugs, with another 69 at low stocks. Not all these problems in Gaza's healthcare system can be laid at the door of differences between Ramallah and Gaza, regrettable though they are.
In 2000, only about 10 per cent of the population was dependent on humanitarian aid. Now it is about 75 per cent. Over half the households face food insecurity defined as inadequate physical, social or economic access to food. Since the blockade, the number of Palestinians living in abject poverty has tripled to 300,000, and I know from having seen some of those households, that it really is abject poverty. The unemployment estimates vary from about 25 per cent to 35 per cent for the whole population and rise to somewhere between 40 per cent and 60 per cent for young people, but the aid dependency figures that I have just given suggest that the higher estimates may be nearer the mark. UNRWA has done and continues to do a fantastic job, but it is now struggling to secure the resources needed from donor countries.
I have set out these data to give a picture of what Gazans face day in, day out. Half the population are children who have done nothing to justify this treatment by Israel, whatever their genuine security concerns. As the Israeli columnist Gideon Levy said,
"this time we went too far".
I carry no torch for Hamas but it did win a fair and democratic election in 2006. It also looks as though Fatah and Hamas may have reached agreement in recent discussions in Qatar on a unity Government. Does the Minister not think that the time has come for the international community to take a more robust stance with Israel over its conduct in Gaza? Its behaviour is self-defeating. Young Gazans are growing up with no hope. Why should they not turn to the extremist elements in Hamas for their role models, to match Israel's own extremism? What further action are the Government prepared to take with international partners to get the Israelis to change course and how much worse do things have to get in Gaza before the international community acts decisively?
"the spirit of freedom ... across the Arab world".
Gaza is part of that world, so what tangible and effective support can it expect from the UK and its EU partners while the United States seems self-preoccupied and unwilling to focus on Palestine?
My Lords, I was attached as an international observer to the Israeli Turkel commission, which considered the "Mavi Marmara" flotilla incident. The House of Lords Library note on this debate omits reference to the Turkel commission, but it mentions the Palmer panel, which considered the Israeli and Turkish investigations for the UN. Palmer said:
"Israel faces a real threat to its security from militant groups in Gaza. The naval blockade was ... a legitimate security measure ... and its implementation complied with the requirements of international law".
Palmer says the flotilla "acted recklessly" and that there are,
"serious questions about the conduct, true nature and objectives of the flotilla organisers".
Israel was entitled to stop the flotilla, but Palmer is right to criticise the plan. However, he is on weaker ground in criticising the use of force by the IDF. In an annexe, we examined each use of force by IDF personnel and found them prima facie justified, except for a handful of cases where there was insufficient material. Unfortunately the annexe was classified. It should be published.
The blockade was an extension of the land crossings policy to prevent military supplies entering Gaza, and wages indirect economic warfare, limiting Hamas's ability to attack Israel. This affects the civil population but is legitimate unless it causes a humanitarian crisis. We spent 40 pages examining this. I will give noble Lords a few quotes:
"The Gaza Strip Economic Committee (a representation of the Palestinian Authority) ... receives requests from private market forces and importers in Gaza ... Ordering the goods and determining priorities between the parties requesting the entry of goods is done by representatives of the Palestinian Authority".
Lists of goods are then delivered to the Israeli authorities.
"Between the various requests, the order of priorities for entry is as follows: (1) medical supplies and medicine; (2) requests by international organisations ... (3) agricultural materials; (4) the balance of supply capacity for the private market ... No evidence was presented before the committee to the effect that Israel prevents the passage of medical supplies apart from those ... prohibited for security reasons ... when the relevant Israeli authorities are notified of a shortage of any medical supplies, there is an organised system for replenishing those supplies ... there is no quota limiting the amounts of foods that are allowed to enter the Gaza Strip".
Strictly speaking, there is no humanitarian crisis.
My Lords, I do not think I need to argue at length that the Israeli blockade of Gaza is unlawful because it violates Israel's general obligations as an occupying power; that it is unethical because it is causing immense hardship to a large number of people, including ordinary civilians, and amounts to collective punishment; and that it is counterproductive because it only builds up hatred and animosity and damages the long-term interest of Israel. Therefore, Israel needs to be thinking more in terms of generosity and better understanding of the aspirations of the people of Gaza. There are large numbers of people in Israel who are already thinking along those lines.
We think in terms of putting pressure on Governments. My own experience of India's policy in Kashmir, to which I was strongly opposed, convinces me that no Government can put pressure on another Government. There are limits to what any Government can do. Therefore, I have more or less completely given up on our own Government, the quartet or the international community putting pressure on Israel. Even if they did-I do not think they will, but even if they did-I do not think they have much chance of success. They would simply force the Israeli Government to become more intransigent and more uncompromising.
Ultimately, the pressure has to come from within the country itself and from those of us outside who wish Israel well and whose record of standing up for it from time to time is beyond reproach. Therefore, it is the friends of Israel abroad, outside, who ought to be persuading the Government of Israel that this is not the way to go, trying to make representations, and through newspaper articles and in other ways making it clear to the public opinion here and in Israel that this is not the way to go.
Once again taking the Indian treatment of Kashmir as a guide, ultimately the pressure came from Indians settled abroad. In the same way, in the case of Israel, ultimately it is not only those of us who are well disposed to Israel but the great Jewish community, with its enormously impressive record of fighting against all forms of injustice, which will have to make its voice more loudly heard than seems to have been the case so far.
My Lords, first, will the Minister confirm in his reply that it is now the view of Her Majesty's Government that there is not a humanitarian crisis in Gaza? That was the view stated in the other place last summer, confirming the view expressed at a high level within the Red Cross in Gaza just a few weeks before the Statement in the House of Commons. Of course, there is a case for continuing humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza, which the Government support and indeed I strongly support.
This is the second time today we have discussed Israeli-Palestinian relations in this House, and we will have an opportunity to discuss them again tomorrow afternoon. As chairman of the Anglo-Israel Association, in principle I can only welcome this interest in the region. None the less, as is so often said in this House, there is an issue in the Middle East about proportionality and, quite rightly, I have heard many Members of your Lordships' House raise issues about the proportionate nature of Israel's response. However, to be proportional is also a requirement on this House. Since 2009 there have been 200 Questions asked about Israel, predominantly critical; not one in which the lead Question even mentions Hamas or displays any curiosity about Hamas, still less about the role of Iran in the region.
Those of us who support strongly a two-state solution think it is essential to engage with mainstream Israeli attitudes and opinions, not to be too focused on this or that particular personality at a high level in the Israeli state. The difficulty here is that the House is in danger of becoming essentially an echo chamber on this matter, and not doing what we need to do, which is to face up to where mainstream Israeli opinion is and to look at the dilemmas that Israel faces in the struggle to bring about a settlement in the Middle East.
My Lords, while I certainly do not assert that I see no blockades, I certainly see some facts. In 2011, Israel issued 3,893 medical permits for Gazan children to go to be treated in the West Bank or Israel itself, according to parental choice. On aid and trade, 2012 opened with more than 85,000 tonnes of civilian goods being delivered to Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing between 1 and
Civilian goods do flow but they flow in parallel with a real blockade against arms, munitions and some dual-use materials that can be misused, exactly the kind of blockade we would be employing to protect the United Kingdom if we suffered persistent attack from some near neighbours-I guess.
Gaza is experiencing poverty and needs much help. However, those needs are best addressed by the international community working with Israel to better meet those ends while at the same time explicitly and publicly appreciating what seem to me at least to be Israel's somewhat understandable security needs in the region. I hope that Her Majesty's Government agree with this and I equally hope that my noble friend will make that clear at least in his response to this debate.
My Lords, I welcome the improvement in access to Gaza to provide humanitarian aid. However, the facts are clear: the people of Gaza are suffering greatly because of the blockade and have to fall back on humanitarian aid, rather than providing for themselves and their families through normal economic activity. In other words, a vicious circle is at work here. The people of Gaza are unable to obtain building materials to repair and maintain their homes, or to reconstruct the seriously damaged infrastructure. They are unable either to import or export enough goods to sustain anything like a normal economic life. As a result, unemployment is greatly increased. Around half of young people are out of work.
My noble friend Lord Warner mentioned fishing. Some 85 per cent of fishing waters, which is an important source of food in Gaza, are inaccessible as a result of the blockade. Such fishing as there is takes place in polluted waters as a result of a deteriorating waste infrastructure. In turn, that has a serious effect on health, including the health of children. Existing treatment plants are inadequate so large amounts of sewage are discharged into the sea. Nearly one-third of houses are not connected to the sewage network and have to rely on totally inadequate cesspits.
This environment can lead only to an embittered people and, in particular, to large numbers of embittered young men who are denied some of the most basic requirements for human needs. It cannot be conducive to the long-term security of the Israeli people, which I and many others in this House of course want to see, to force these appalling conditions on the Palestinians of Gaza. I ask the Minister in his reply to say what Her Majesty's Government are doing-of course, working with Israel and the international community-to seek a change in this policy so that vital improvements to the infrastructure, which continues to deteriorate, can be secured.
My Lords, I never know quite where to start with the plight of the remarkable people of Gaza, except to say that my visit there in 2010 made a profound impact on me. I declare an interest as president of Medical Aid for Palestinians and other interests as set out in the register. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for this debate.
I well remember visiting an UNWRA food distribution centre. Queuing for their quarterly ration of basic goods were proud men, women and children. Among those to whom we spoke were graduates, skilled people and many who had run small businesses. They were not queuing because there had been a famine, a flood or an earthquake. There had been no natural disaster. They queued because they belonged to around 800,000 people in a population of some 1.7 million, of which more than half were children, who depend on the international community for food aid.
The collective punishment of the blockade means that people cannot lead the sort of economic lives, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said, that most of us take for granted. Eight out of 10 men, women and children now rely on some form of international assistance.
The powerlessness of the Palestinians in Gaza to work, manufacture, import, export and travel freely is a shocking waste of human ability. We should be spending our hard-earned tax money on human development and not on subsistence for people who are clever, well skilled and entrepreneurial, and who have so much to offer to the world. Add to that the long-term issue of critically low medicines and medical supplies, the worsening situations around power cuts and voltage fluctuations, which disrupt life-saving equipment, and you can only marvel at the amazing resilience of the Palestinians.
I do not know one person who does not wish to see a secure Israel but the effective siege and occupation of the Palestinian people is no way to achieve it. A young woman from Gaza who I recently had the pleasure of meeting said to me, "All we want is to be able to play our part as global citizens". I hope that that day is not too far away but in the mean time I hope that we will do all that we can to ensure the decent and fair treatment of Gaza's people.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Warner for providing this opportunity, even though we have only 120 seconds. The right honourable David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, wrote recently that,
"Gaza has become the land that time-and the wider international community-forgot".
I do not want to mention the UNRWA figures of high unemployment and poverty. My noble friend has already mentioned the 300,000 people who live on less than $1 a day. While Israel put forward proposals to ease the blockade, it was estimated that only two trucks per day were allowed to leave Gaza between November 2010 and May 2011, which was nowhere near Israel's commitment of nearly 400 trucks per day. It was worse still between May and November 2011 when no trucks left the Gaza Strip to export any goods from the territory.
The crux of the matter is that, while we can hope for the prosperity and peace of the Palestinian people, this will remain an impossible target if the blockade continues to imprison the Gazan population. The UK Government pledged £26.8 million after Operation Cast Lead; yet three years later there has been little improvement in the lives of the Gazan people who struggle to find employment, rebuild their houses and export their goods. Simple day-to-day tasks, such as the quality of schooling, remain impossible and the population is still reliant on the UN for so many of its needs. However, these problems can be alleviated if the illegal blockade is removed and people could develop naturally into prosperous partners in the Middle East. Without its removal the blockade will continue to ensure that all life is suffocated out of the territory and its inhabitants.
My Lords, this Question for Short Debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is like many questions and referenda. It is significant not only for what he asks but for what he does not ask and for the way in which the question is phrased-rather like the First Minister of Scotland's suggested referendum question. The question seeks to put any blame on the state of Israel. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will also address the real sufferings of the peoples of Gaza because of the policies and belligerence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israel's actions are a reaction to a real threat to Israel's security by groups in Gaza which deny Israel's right to exist and threaten the lives of Israeli citizens-Jew and non-Jew alike-on a daily basis. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza six years ago, withdrawing and removing from Gaza every single Israeli settler, terrorists have fired more than 7,000 rockets and mortars into Israel. Almost 1 million Israeli citizens are under threat from Quassam rockets, Grad rockets and mortars, which terrorise cities, schools and hospitals.
Do not get me wrong: there is suffering and deprivation in Gaza. But it is wrong to blame only Israel. The problem is not only of Israel's making, as suggested by the Question of the debate. The people of Gaza suffer-and they do suffer-because of the belligerence and extremism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These organisations are not only anti-Israel, up until now they have also been anti-Fatah and anti the Palestinian Authority. When Hamas took control, they murdered and injured supporters of Fatah. So we look with interest at the agreement this week of a unity government, which could not even find a prime minister as well as a president. It is against this background that a large part of the problems exist.
My Lords, after the tragic death of eight Turkish humanitarian workers in 2010 our Prime Minister David Cameron said in Ankara that the situation in Gaza has to change and that humanitarian goods and people must flow in both directions. He further commented that Gaza must not be allowed to remain a prison camp. Yet nearly two years later, there still remains crude restrictions to the flow of humanitarian goods and people. Gaza experiences chronic shortages and innocent women and children are suffering. For example, Al-Shifa hospital lacks basic medicines and essentials such as baby milk.
Last month, the United Nations submitted its annual report on the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories. The report describes the continuing desperation, including chronic food insecurity, isolation, and failing health and education services, all directly linked to the ongoing blockade imposed by Israel. The report states that the blockade amounts to collective punishment of the population and affects every aspect of life in the Gaza strip. The blockade has not prevented attacks against Israel; its only success is in creating a stark reminder of the impotence of the international community.
It is time for the UK to take a lead in developing a clear and open strategy for the lifting of the blockade of Gaza. We cannot continue to believe ourselves to be a just and moral actor in the international arena until we play a role in helping to arrive at a settlement to the Palestinian issues. The rival factions Hamas and Fatah have now agreed to form a new unity government in West Bank and Gaza which I believe will help to achieve a peaceful settlement. Israel is a mighty military power, but it must now be magnanimous and arrive at a two-state solution whereby it has a guarantee of security and nationhood, but in return it must ensure that Arabs are fairly treated and have full independence.
My Lords, I fear that this debate has too readily become polarised and has clearly depended on what sources of information you rely on to form your views. However, there is little doubt that the Palestinians in Gaza are under considerable stress and the dilemma for Israel is how it can help relieve that burden, so far as it is in its control, and at the same time prevent the terrorist activities of Hamas. Despite that background, over the past year Israel has in fact opened up its crossings to all but a limited number of items, and now over 30,000 tonnes of civilian goods are delivered every week; and while it is true that there is a shortage of drugs and medical supplies, the causes of that shortage are rather more complex.
I understand that the Ministry of Health in the West Bank has the task of distributing medical supplies to Gaza and that there is distrust and a disconnection between the two ministries of health in Ramallah and Gaza. Internal conflicts and poor communication seem to be at least part of the problem. Dr Nabil Bargouni, the director of the emergency room at Al-Nasser Hospital in Gaza City, has confirmed as much; and Tony Lawrence, head of the WHO in Jerusalem, has said:
"Israeli authorities are not blocking the entry of drugs and disposables into Gaza. They recognise these are priority items for humanitarian needs".
Of course the results are the same and these shortages are devastating, but an Israeli blockade cannot always be made the culprit, and meanwhile sick children from Gaza flood into Israeli hospitals at over 700 a month, with very few permits being refused. When I visit Israeli hospitals I see a large number of Palestinian children with their parents in the wards; it is hard to miss them.
No one doubts that the citizens of Gaza are having a terrible time, but Israel cannot be held wholly responsible for this unhappy situation.
My Lords, I have visited Gaza twice in recent years and there can be no doubt that health is now the top priority. This turns on supplies of water, food, drugs and medical equipment. Also, it is essential that Israel should never delay, turn back or arrest the sick so that they die before reaching hospital outside Gaza. We can say with confidence that the blockade of Gaza is an illegal collective punishment contrary to the fourth Geneva Convention, and in fact it is now being challenged by Turkey in the International Court of Justice.
Her Majesty's Government have been pressing for an end to the closure since June 2010 under UN Security Council Resolution 1860. This is all the more necessary since the exchange of Corporal Shalit. When will the Government achieve what they are asking for? EU sanctions on Israel could surely speed up the process, and of course we recognise that a prosperous Gaza is in Israel's real national interest.
My Lords, I am sure that the key to the future lies in economic development because at the moment the level of such development in Gaza is very low. I am grateful to DfID for some statistics. In 2006, there were some 100,000 jobs in the private sector, but there are now 30,000. Exports of horticultural products have recommenced to Israel and the West Bank, but they are at a tenth of what they were in 2006. So the challenge is to redevelop the small business sector and export performance which Gaza has achieved in the past. If there is a longer-term future, perhaps it lies in a switch of development finance investment and aid investment by engaging multinational companies sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and acceptable in the region to set up subsidiaries in Gaza. That may be a dream, but it has been done many times before. The people of Gaza have the skills and the education to play their part and the finance is there. It only needs a switch from aid to development finance investment. The future could be positive, but it requires the cessation of both violence and the threat of violence from wherever it comes.
My Lords, does this House recognise that Israel is the only long-standing democracy in the whole of the Middle East? In my view, it continues to play an important role in the international community. It is a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and the instability of the region has always been a major problem for Israel. Last year, Israel's Government continued to relax their restrictions on the Gaza Strip, and this has significantly improved the humanitarian situation there. Gaza's economy has begun to grow and Israel continues to allow Gaza a greater availability of food, medicines, consumer goods and construction materials. Humanitarian support is vital to the suffering citizens of Gaza, and in July last year, Israel's Government approved 13 new projects, including four new clinics and the restoration of five existing hospitals and clinics.
This House must remember that Egypt also has border controls on the Gaza Strip and only reopened its Rafah border crossing on
Humanitarian aid is vital, and I acknowledge what other noble Lords have said. Some Members of this House will no doubt place all the blame on Israel. Indeed, some have already done so and some who will be speaking after me probably will do so too. That is an easy, unfair and simplistic view to take. We should continue to support the work of the quartet and other international organisations, but let me make it clear to this House: Israel does not target citizens, unlike Hamas, which sadly does target citizens in many parts of Israel.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said that this debate was becoming polarised, and indeed it is. It is dividing between those who have been to Gaza, some of us several times, and those who have not and therefore have not seen for themselves what is going on. I would say to those noble Lords who complain about rockets "raining" down on Israel-in fact, there are very few at the moment-that if they want to stop those rockets, lift the siege of Gaza, stop the blockade and recognise the legitimately elected Government of the Palestinians, which includes Hamas.
Huge damage has been done to agricultural land in Gaza. Fifty thousand acres have been laid waste and what land is left is largely polluted and without irrigation. Even the food that it manages to produce cannot be exported in many cases to Israel or the West Bank. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, two trucks a day go out to the European Union; and $50,000 a year is being lost to the Gaza economy.
We have heard about the problems created by the fishing limits. Two fishermen were killed and 12 injured recently trying to catch food. Fish within the three-mile limit are poisoned and too small. Catching them wrecks their health and future stocks.
As a consequence of these actions by Israel and other effects of the blockade, Gaza is dependent on aid from the EU and our country. This country alone spends £86 million per year in Gaza and the Occupied Territories. It is morally right to help the people of Gaza, but it is morally wrong that we should have to do it as a result of the actions of the allegedly friendly and democratic state of Israel. We are subsidising the blockade and colluding with Israel in breaking international law. I hope that our Government are aware of this.
My Lords, there is a desperate need to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to ensure everlasting peace across the region.
On the plight of the civilian population in Gaza, I like other noble Lords welcome the easing of elements of the Israeli blockade in June 2010. It has resulted in some visible signs of recovery in Gaza, but is it enough? There remains a desperate need for the further easing of restrictions to movement and access for the sake of the Gazan economy but, more importantly, for its people.
However, achieving what is desired by the majority of citizens, be they Israeli or Palestinian, which is a permanent lasting and peaceful resolution, requires a courageous effort on both sides. I therefore call upon my noble friend the Minister to use his good offices to raise with President Abbas, in his new role as leader of the unity coalition across the West Bank and Gaza, the need to ask Hamas to lay down its weapons and acknowledge that peace can be achieved only if it recognises Israel's right to exist as a nation. At the same, I ask my noble friend to raise with the Israel Government the desperate need to raise blockades and restrictions, not just on the borders of Gaza but on the West Bank, to facilitate a fluid access of materials. The freezing of settlement-building also remains an important step forward in building bridges, both literally and in terms of political dialogue.
The easing of restrictions in Gaza has paid some dividends, as I have said. We are seeing hospitals being constructed and schools appearing, as well as a 50 per cent increase in employment, albeit from a low base. I have visited the West Bank and there is hope. It is on that that we should focus. When one sees towns emerging such as Rawabi, near Ramallah, one feels hope for a new dawn. Perhaps I may end with the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who said of the crisis:
"Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simply because that 'other' exists".
My Lords, there is nothing much more fundamental to life than water. We have heard of the disastrous state of water supplies in Gaza, with only 10 per cent of the water coming from the Gaza coastal aquifer, the only source of fresh water in Gaza, being drinkable.
The Strategic Foresight Group pointed out in May 2011 that, at the current rate of depletion, the Gaza aquifer will become unusable by 2016 and damage will be irreversible by 2020. Against this, Israel has approved the entry of materials for only four water, sanitation and hygiene projects in Gaza, with a total value of $3.75 million. A further 13 projects, worth $74.5 million, which would benefit more than 1.4 million Palestinians, are still awaiting approval.
We also know of the damage being done to health, the impact on life expectancy and the disease affecting children. We also know of the stunting of education. We know of the catastrophic effects on production and on trade, and the consequences for employment.
We hear about the constant bombardments of Israel being carried out by elements in Gaza. These cannot be condoned, but every day there is ruthless aggression against the people of Gaza-that is the reality. How is that going to promote moderates in the Government of Gaza who will work constructively for peace? How does that help the people of Gaza to be self-confident? Aggression in any form is not acceptable, but we must recognise that we cannot be held to ransom by the repeated veto by the United States of anything effective which would help bring about a solution. We need to work very hard with our European partners in circumventing the intransigence of successive US Administrations.
My Lords, people outside this House may be puzzled at the fact that, as the latest example of appalling state violence in the Arab world continues in Syria, noble Lords are yet again debating criticisms of Israel. We do this with astonishing regularity; we do it even though Israel is one of the few countries in the world, and certainly the only country in the Middle East, which protects freedom of expression, freedom of religion, the rule of law and democracy for all its citizens.
These criticisms are made, as we have heard today from many noble Lords, simply without any recognition that Israel is a country whose enemies are seeking to bomb its civilians into oblivion. Such a country is entitled to defend itself by seeking to prevent, as Israel does, the transport of weapons.
A more relevant Question, if I may respectfully say so, than that posed by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, would be to ask the Minister whether he will make representations not to the Government of Israel but to the leaders of the unfortunate Palestinian people living in Gaza. Will the Minister say to those leaders that it is time for them to abandon the futile attempts to secure the destruction of Israel? Will he say to those leaders that it is time for them to focus on improving the education, the health and the prosperity of their people? Will he tell them that it is not Israel which is the obstacle to improving the living conditions of the people of Gaza?
My Lords, there is understandable, tangible concern about the blockade. Provision of only goods defined as,
"vital for the survival of the civilian population",
was always too narrow to provide for a viable society and the needs of a normal life. It is difficult to build a democratic and sustainable society in those circumstances capable of fulfilling any kind of realistic role in a peace process.
The increased movement in recent months of goods and services in and out of Gaza is welcome, but I accept that it is not enough and there is a need for an accelerated programme for step change.
However, your Lordships should feel uncomfortable if that was all that was concluded tonight in relation to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. Israel's security cannot and will not be wished away on this basis. We know that food, fuel, construction materials, people, cash and even livestock were moved through the network of smuggling tunnels, but they were also the route taken by significant quantities of weapons, particularly many thousands of rockets. Those rockets are routinely fired into Israel. Candidly, neither this Government, the Israeli Government nor any Government could allow such assaults to continue without trying to deny the enemy access to those munitions. No population would ever tolerate having to shield their children or themselves night after night in air raid shelters.
It is of course tragic that preventing these attacks will never easily be focused on the people firing the weapons without there being an impact on the wider population, but I do not accept that taking steps represents a policy of collective punishment. I simply do not accept that that is a credible definition.
We require a balance of these decisive factors. First, a relaxation of the blockade and far greater sophistication in weapons interception is important if the quartet is to be successful. Secondly, every international pressure is needed to ensure that Hamas does not succeed in prosecuting violence against the people of Israel, whose right to a secure state Hamas denies. The peace process will only work if it reaches in both directions.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Warner, on promoting this important debate. As has been remarked on, this is the second time today that we have addressed the issue and we will address it again tomorrow. No one can accuse your Lordships of lack of focus or interest. I know that for many speakers it has been a rushed job but it is amazing what punch and wisdom can be put into two minutes. Many wise and effective points have been made-of course, not all of them agreeing with each other. I will make some points in a general context before coming on to details.
The Government agree that the restrictions on movements of goods and people, including access to agricultural and fishing areas, do tremendous damage to the economy and living standards of ordinary people in Gaza. As a result, industry in Gaza is currently a quarter of what it was before the restrictions and agriculture a half. We recognise and welcome the fact that the volume and range of goods entering Gaza has increased somewhat over the past year but much more still has to be done. In close co-ordination with our European partners and the Office of the Quartet Representative, we will continue to press the Israeli Government at ministerial and official levels to ease access restrictions. When I say we will continue to press them, we maintain an almost daily and continuous pressure and seek responses. In particular, we want an increase in imports of construction and raw materials, both for private sector and international projects; an increase in exports; a relaxation on movement of people, particularly between Gaza and the West Bank; and an extension of the fishing zone from three to 12 miles, which the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and other noble Lords mentioned.
I make this quite clear to those noble Lords who made the point: we understand Israel's legitimate security concerns over Gaza. One could not fail to understand the facts when one sees the amount of rocketry that continues. However, the current restrictions are ineffective in stopping the flow of illicit goods into Gaza. As was graphically described, these goods enter anyway through the tunnels and thereby generate income for Hamas. There are advantages for Israel in reducing the restrictions. In the Government's view, any easing would strengthen the moderates in Gaza and lower the dependency of the population on Hamas. It would provide better opportunities within Gaza for education, jobs and legitimate interactions with the outside world. It is in Israel's long-term security interests to have a stable and prosperous Gaza, which we have certainly not got at the moment with unemployment well over 28 per cent and youth unemployment at 38 per cent. The figures may well be higher than that.
Like your Lordships, the Government are obviously concerned at the broader human costs of the current situation. We are deeply concerned about the horrific reported shooting of 29 children between March 2010 and December last year near the border fence between Gaza and Israel. We have raised and continue to raise these issues with the Israeli authorities. We are concerned about reports of abuses carried out under Hamas rule in Gaza, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, intimidation of civil society and the use of the death penalty. As I have already intimated, we are also very concerned at the all too frequent exchanges of rocket fire and air strikes between Gaza and Israel. We consistently urge all sides to show restraint and work to reduce tensions.
I obviously cannot physically cover all the many points raised in the time available. I read with great interest the report of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, on his visit last July with the Council for European Palestinian Relations. It painted a very grim picture. We are concerned at the deterioration in the quality of healthcare in Gaza as a result of Israeli movement and access restrictions, and political and institutional separation between the West Bank and Gaza. The shortage of essential drugs is now critical. We have urged and will continue to urge Israel to enable uninterrupted access for medical supplies, personnel and patients from and into Gaza. The World Health Organisation confirmed the detrimental impact of movement and access restrictions on children's health. There has been an increase in stunting in children under five resulting from malnutrition. Some 65 per cent of mothers of pre-schoolers report a negative impact on their children's mental health.
What are we doing about that? This legitimate question comes up again and again. UK financial assistance has supported the Palestinian Authority to the tune of £87 million in 2009, 2010 and last year. About half of that goes into Gaza to support services there. We work with the UN Relief and Works Agency to provide primary healthcare and hospital care to Gazans. The Relief and Works Agency is delivering real improvements in children's health. That includes 100 per cent immunisation of the under-fives and progress to reduce child mortality. We also support the UN Access Co-ordination Unit to facilitate the transfer of medical equipment and personnel into Gaza. Of course, we work with the European Union and the World Food Programme. I am told that DfID helps 24 UN agencies and 132 non-government agencies. The activity from the United Kingdom to support the people of Gaza in the challenges they face in all those aspects is considerable. I am sure we can always do more. We are always searching for new ways to develop our programmes.
The House can be assured that Her Majesty's Government will continue to work extremely hard with our partners to encourage Israel to ease the restrictions further. We will also continue our important support through DfID for the people of Gaza, as I have just described, including our work to address the key access constraints, promote economic growth and provide support to the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society. Of course, all these actions are overshadowed by the bigger fact that the longer-term answer to the problems faced by the people of Gaza, and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, lies in reconciliation.
That includes reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, resulting in free and fair elections in 2012 and the formation of a new Palestinian Authority composed of independent figures who will continue the excellent work on state-building and uphold the quartet principles. We welcome recent moves in this direction. We are aware of reports that Fatah and Hamas have agreed and that President Abbas will become Prime Minister. It is a bit too early to make a detailed assessment of these changes but in our view it is important that any new Palestinian Authority should be composed of independent figures, will uphold the principle of non-violence, is committed to a negotiated, two-state solution and accepts the previous agreements of the PLO. We also look to the Palestinian Authority to continue the important progress on state-building achieved in recent years. We have made it consistently clear that we will engage with any Palestinian Government who show, through their words and actions, that they are committed to the above principles.
We also welcome the aim of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. That is what we must work for. We encourage both sides to build on their recent talks in Jordan. We will continue to do all we can to support and encourage negotiations which lead to a sovereign, viable and contiguous Palestinian state, living in peace and security alongside a safe and secure Israel and its other neighbours in the region. When those conditions develop, the people of Gaza and their present condition can really, tangibly improve. Until we have those conditions, we will be prevented from moving in the right direction. I do not have time to go into the wider issues of the Middle East peace process or the many problems that trouble your Lordships, such as the settlements issue that continues to be, in our view, an illegal operation. I hope that I have indicated our determination and hands-on approach to the problems. This is one of the sores and tragedies of the modern world that can be resolved with determination, if we really work hard to do so.