Reconstructing Gaza

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 8th November 2010.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 8:22 pm, 8th November 2010

Yes, indeed, and the number of letters that I deal with from colleagues expressing the concerns of their constituents certainly confirms what my hon. Friend says.

I applaud the aim of the hon. Member for Cambridge, following his recent visit and that of his colleagues, to ensure that eight new UNRWA schools are built in Gaza. Like him, I welcome the recent announcement that that will be done. The situation in Gaza continues to cause the Government concern, and it was high on the Foreign Secretary's agenda during his recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories. I hope to explain in my remarks what action the Government are taking to reconstruct and stabilise Gaza, and why that matters to the middle east peace process.

To begin with, I should like to set out the scale of the reconstruction challenge in Gaza and explain briefly how we got where we are. Although we agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no longer a humanitarian crisis as such in Gaza, the situation there remains extremely fragile and could deteriorate very quickly. Despite Israel's welcome announcement on 20 June of measures to help ease access restrictions, we remain worried about what the UN has termed the "de-development" of Gaza, with the economy, institutions and skill base steadily eroding.

Although I am not tempted to go back to 1286, it is impossible to consider the current issues in Gaza without recognising the historical context and noting the tragedy of the people of Gaza, caught up in the generations-old dispute concerning Israel and Palestine. After years of occupation, and much international criticism, Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pursuing its policy of swapping land for peace and evicting a number of settlers and settlements. The UK, along with international partners, welcomed the withdrawal as a positive step towards meeting Israel's road map commitments. We also pushed hard for Israel to co-ordinate with the Palestinian Authority on the aftermath of withdrawal.

However, far from being freed, Gaza's population found itself the battleground for a gradually intensifying dispute between Fatah and Hamas for the control of the land. Hamas's repressive control of Gaza gradually tightened. Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in 2006, kept completely incommunicado for many years and denied Red Cross access, and he is still detained. Hamas violently ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip in 2007, leading Israel to declare Gaza a "hostile entity". A regular barrage of rockets directed towards southern Israel began. Israeli Government statistics claim that in 2005 Hamas and other Palestinian groups launched about 850 rockets and mortars at Israel from Gaza. By 2008 that figure had climbed past 2,000.

Although I heard and understood the hon. Gentleman's point about responding differently to those who win elections with policies that we may not like, equally, those who wish to play a serious part in deciding the future of a people need to know that an acceptance and encouragement of violence, and a refusal to accept the existence of the state of Israel, will result only in closed doors, and rightly so.

A downward spiral of restricted access, the cutting of fuel supplies and retaliatory violence prompted aid agencies to describe the situation in Gaza in early 2008 as the worst since the 1967 Yom Kippur war. As hon. Members know full well, a shaky ceasefire was not renewed towards the end of 2008. Militants in Gaza fired barrages of rockets at Israel, and Israel responded by launching Operation Cast Lead. The conduct of both sides in that war is the subject of a number of inquiries and is not for this debate. However, the consequences for the people of Gaza have been severe.

To prevent the rebuilding of supplies of arms, Israel ensured a tight blockade of Gaza. The UK Government understand and support Israel's right to protect itself. However, to come to one of the hon. Gentleman's key points, we were, and are, less persuaded that the economic blockade that was simultaneously imposed would be of any benefit to Israel, and we share the hon. Gentleman's assessment. The fact that the economy of Gaza has been so reduced that 80% of Gaza's population is in receipt of food aid, and that unemployment is calculated at 40% for adults and 60% for youth, has not produced serious political gain for Israel or ruin for Hamas, but simply added to the misery of the people. We do indeed call on Israel to rethink that part of its policy, which would not undercut its concern on security, and might indeed, for reasons that have been outlined, assist its security. We make that case regularly to Israel, and we will continue to do so.

Following Operation Cast Lead and resolution 1860, the international community lobbied Israel hard on the need to allow access for humanitarian and reconstruction relief to Gaza. However, it was not until after the flotilla incident earlier this year that international pressure made a difference, and Israel announced on 20 June measures to ease controls on goods entering Gaza. We welcomed that announcement and the Israelis' subsequent implementation on 5 July of a move from a list of permitted items to a list of banned and dual-use items. The latter step resulted in an increase in the variety and volume of goods entering Gaza.

Further steps have been taken by Israel, including procedures to allow the entry of dual-use items, such as building materials, into Gaza, and I will come to that key point a little later. The Government of Israel are also taking steps to improve access for Palestinian business people into and out of Gaza. We welcome those steps and acknowledge that the volume and range of goods entering Gaza has increased in recent months.

I spoke this morning to John Ging, and I very much echo the hon. Gentleman's appreciation of his work. I had the pleasure of meeting John during the summer to help me understand the area for which I now have responsibility. He tells me that the consumer goods picture is much improved. Indeed, he estimates that there is only 20% of the tunnel traffic that there was. Once again, we share the hon. Gentleman's perception. Tunnel traffic simply became a source of revenue to Hamas and to criminals and appears to have done little damage to Hamas politically.

However, John Ging also said that the situation in terms of construction material remains dire. He cannot find what he needs to tackle the under-resourcing of school building. We share his welcome, and that of the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues, for the eight school projects, but they will not satisfy the demand of 40,000 children. Once again, I echo the hon. Gentleman's point. If UNRWA, with the support of the international community, is not seen to, and cannot, provide the development that is needed, yet Hamas and its allies can provide it because of access to materials through routes other than the official crossing, who will get the blame and who will get the support?

It is possible that it is not any political ill will that is affecting the delivery of construction material specifically orientated towards UNRWA, and UNRWA must, rightly, be held responsible should any material go missing and assist Hamas. However, John Ging informs me that there is a significant capacity issue, which hon. Members have mentioned. I understand there are sheer logistical difficulties in getting more material through the existing crossing. To that extent, therefore, reopening other crossings may assist, and we certainly intend to take that up, although we appreciate that it requires serious consideration and cost to Israel. The gain, however, may make it well worth while.

It is not just schools. The sewerage system needs serious work to stop untreated sewage entering the Mediterranean. Some 90% of mains water is undrinkable. As I indicated, 80% of the population is dependent on food aid. It is also vital, therefore, to take steps to revive Gaza's economy, including allowing exports and the movement of people. That is key to ensuring Israel's long-term security interests. The empowerment of Gaza's legitimate, non-Hamas controlled business community will act as a counterweight to radicalisation.