Middle East: UK Military Deployments

– in the House of Commons at 12:44 pm on 5 December 2023.

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Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 12:44, 5 December 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on UK military deployments to the middle east.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Since Hamas’s horrendous attack on Israel on 7 October, we have increased our military presence in the region. This is to support contingency planning, monitor the evolving situation, and be ready to react and respond. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, I deployed a Royal Navy task group to the eastern Mediterranean, including RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Argus, three Merlin helicopters and a company of Royal Marines as a contingency measure. HMS Diamond is sailing through the Red sea to provide maritime security. HMS Lancaster is already in the middle east.

This morning, I provided a written ministerial statement notifying the House that unarmed military surveillance flights will begin in support of hostage rescue. The UK Government have been working with partners across the region to secure the release of hostages, including British nationals who have been kidnapped. I will move heaven and earth to bring our hostages home. The UK Ministry of Defence will conduct surveillance flights over the eastern Mediterranean, including operating in airspace over Israel and Gaza. The surveillance aircraft will be unmanned. They do not have a combat role and will be tasked solely to locate hostages. Only information relating to hostage rescue will be passed to the relevant authorities responsible for those rescues.

The MOD is working on land, air and maritime routes to deliver urgently needed humanitarian aid. Four RAF flights carrying over 74 tonnes of aid have landed in Egypt. I am considering whether RFA Argus and RFA Lyme Bay can support medical and humanitarian aid provision, given that their original purpose was potentially to take non-combatants out of the area. The MOD routinely deploys significant numbers of military personnel in the wider middle east for operations such as counter-Daesh, training, maritime security and other reasons. There is currently a force laid down across the region of nearly 2,500 military personnel.

Later this week, the Chief of the Defence Staff and I are visiting sovereign base areas, the Republic of Cyprus, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. I will, of course, report back to the House after that visit. Our objectives include to demonstrate and reaffirm the UK’s continued support for Israel, while continuing to press for adherence to international humanitarian law; to emphasise the importance the UK places on humanitarian aid reaching Gaza; to facilitate a deeper understanding of Israel’s planned next steps in Gaza now that the current pause has ended, and activity along the northern border; and to reaffirm the United Kingdom’s continued belief in a two-state solution and support for a viable and sovereign Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Across the House, we welcomed last week’s pause in fighting and we are all deeply concerned about its restarting. It was a glimmer of light in the recent dark days to see hostages reunite with families, aid reach desperate Palestinians and diplomacy extend the initial pause. There can only be the long-term settlement the Secretary of State talks about if Hamas cannot carry out a terror attack again like that on 7 October, but the military operations in north Gaza cannot be repeated in the same way in the south. Far too many innocent civilians have been killed. As the US Defence Secretary said:

“you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

Israel must take all steps to protect civilians, meet the duties of international law and secure flows of aid into Gaza.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box for his first statement, particularly as this week marks 100 days in the job. The UK has an important role to play to strengthen regional stability in the middle east. That is why the Leader of the Opposition has met and spoken with leaders in the region, including from Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Qatar. That is why the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, has visited the region twice in recent weeks, and that is why we welcomed the initial deployment of UK forces on 13 October. They will do the job with total professionalism, and we thank them for that.

Since then, however—according to an answer given to me by the Secretary of State—the total number of UK personnel has risen to at least 4,500, and the escalation risks have risen as well. How will the Secretary of State ensure that UK surveillance flights support hostage rescue and not Israeli operations? How many British hostages remain in Gaza? How will the UK Navy ships that the Secretary of State has deployed protect commercial shipping routes? What action is the Secretary of State taking to boost protection for UK personnel, especially those at joint allied bases? What is he doing to open up the maritime routes for humanitarian aid that he has told us about today? Finally, how many more RAF aid flights will take off this month to get much-needed aid into Gaza as the winter cold sets in?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I should just say that unarmed but not necessarily unmanned aircraft—initially, the Shadow R1 —are taking on the task of looking for the hostages.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the information flow; I can reassure the House that only the United Kingdom will have the ability to provide that information, and that is how we will ensure that it is used for the appropriate purposes. He asked about the number of hostages; the United Kingdom has not confirmed exact numbers, partly because it is still unclear whether some may have died in the original 7 October event or in subsequent events, and whether some may be being held. We do not want to cause additional stress, but we know that there are still British hostages being held.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about protecting the ships. They are, of course, extremely capable ships—the last ship to be deployed, HMS Diamond, is capable of looking after herself, one might say—and we are benefiting from a great deal of co-operation with allies in the region to assist with that force protection. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about British forces in the wider region who may be in, for example, Syria or Iraq. Again, we take their force protection very seriously. As the right hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot go into operational specifics, but we keep it under constant review.

Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about humanitarian aid. This country has provided £60 million-worth of additional aid made available for Palestinians, and four flights have taken off so far. Members on both sides of the House will realise that the problem is not just providing the aid but getting it into Gaza. The Rafah crossing presents a considerable barrier to that, for all sorts of security reasons. I am actively looking at different routes, and the right hon. Gentleman will understand that that is one of the reasons I am going to the region this week.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee

I welcome the Secretary of State’s answers, including his confirmation that, as has been reported, the Shadow R1 is being deployed. I note that the intention is to use a range of surveillance aircraft. Will the Secretary of State tell us what other assets he is intending to use? Given the significant tasking, the threats to shipping and the ongoing commitments to, for example, Operation Shader, will he comment on what is being deprioritised to allow this mission to take place? Finally, in view of the recent threats to the Rivet Joint aircraft—I know that there are defensive aid suites on board—will he confirm that due consideration is being given to the protection of crews, given all the likely threats in the area and the presence of Iran?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend will know that we have a number of capabilities for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Rivet Joint, which he mentioned, has been involved in carrying out missions elsewhere, and—as I think he hinted—has attracted unprofessional behaviour from other air forces. We have the P-8 available as well, along with the Shadow R1 and others. Exactly which aircraft and machinery perform these roles will depend on operational circumstances, but I can confirm that we have not had to pull resources away from other urgent work to provide this cover.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

It is important to repeat the denunciation of the death cult known as Hamas. Given the war of attrition that is now taking place in south Gaza, let me reiterate from the SNP Benches the call for an immediate ceasefire, because I am afraid that a pause will not suffice. The view from here, at least, is that without a ceasefire we will see yet another graveyard from which fundamentalism will rise.

Let me ask a specific question. The Secretary of State mentioned reconnaissance missions looking, rightfully, for UK citizens being held by Hamas. Does he agree that any information coming out of those reconnaissance missions that sees illegal activity under international law should be handed over to the International Criminal Court for its ongoing investigation into the operations in Gaza?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the abominable, disgraceful, disgusting behaviour of Hamas. He calls for a permanent ceasefire; I suggest that that would be a heck of a lot easier if Hamas released the hostages they are holding right now.

As I stressed earlier, we will be in charge of the reconnaissance information, which will focus exclusively on hostage recovery and will be passed only to the appropriate authorities.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Those on both Front Benches seem to agree that Hamas must not remain in control in Gaza. Is any thought being given to how, once they have been removed, they can be prevented from coming back? There will need to be policing, and a moderate major Arab neighbour of Israel has said that a two-state solution can happen only if it is enforced. Will we have a hand in that enforcement? If not, how can it possibly happen?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is an expert on these matters, and he is right: there has to be an international outcome to this, and a solution. I am afraid that in recent decades there has not been sufficient global focus on a two-state solution because it seemed to be an unsolvable problem, and it has slipped into the background. My right hon. Friend is also right to say that there must be a global coalition which will need to include Arab states. A huge amount of work is being undertaken for what some people call “the day after”.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

May I ask a slightly wider question? What are the Government doing specifically to prevent escalation and promote regional stability?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I think that if on 7 October we had projected forward eight weeks and known what we know now, we would have been very concerned about this leading to a widescale regional escalation. It is a credit to the United Kingdom and the professionalism of our services that, after the United States, we have deployed the most military assistance to the area. I have been told by a fair number of the Arab states that they appreciate the deterrent that that has placed on Iran and its many proxies in the area. Certainly the fact that eight weeks later we have not seen that expand is a credit to the British laydown.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab Conservative, Esher and Walton

In recent weeks we have seen Houthi rebel attacks on shipping in the Red sea, and back in June there were reports of harassment of shipping in the strait of Hormuz by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian attempts to consolidate control of contested islands. What action is the UK taking with our allies to protect freedom of navigation?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is right. We have seen the Houthi, out of Yemen, try to take advantage of the situation and, for the first time in a very long period, we have seen Somali pirates becoming involved. That is why I have sent HMS Diamond to the Gulf, and it is why HMS Lancaster is there as well. Let me reassure my right hon. Friend: I am working very closely with our international partners on how we can dissuade people from engaging in activity of this kind in what are international shipping waters. That includes the conversations that I had in the United States last week with my opposite number, the American Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

How can the Secretary of State reassure me that the defence resources and attention now been focused on the middle east will not in any way reduce what we are able to commit to in support of our friends in Ukraine?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will know of my personal interest in and dedication to Ukraine. I can absolutely reassure him that this is not defocusing that work in any way, shape or form. We are ensuring that we continue to provide daily support to our Ukrainian friends, and I have a very close relationship with the Ukrainian Defence Secretary Umerov, Deputy Prime Minister Kubrakov, President Zelensky and many others within their system.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

It is important that Israel abides by the law of armed conflict, but in that context I welcome the deployment of these assets, not least to try to locate the British hostages. The Secretary of State will know that, ultimately, Hamas and Hezbollah are funded and trained by Iran, so what discussions has he had with our new Foreign Secretary about when, oh when, we will finally declare that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be banned?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The IRGC and its position are kept under constant review. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is constantly looking at the region. He has been out there already and will be weighing up the advantages of things such as being able to have a post in-country against what it would mean to carry out such a ban. I also know that my right hon. Friend Mr Francois will know how to take that up with the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

Further to the question from my hon. Friend Martin Docherty-Hughes, with the International Criminal Court stepping up its work in Gaza and the Government again confirming their surveillance flights over Gaza, will the Government hand over any and all evidence of war crimes to the ICC, whether they are committed by Hamas following the 7 October atrocities or in the ongoing massacre of Gazan civilians, particularly children, by the Israel Defence Forces?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The easiest way to bring this to an end, as I hinted earlier, would be for Hamas, a terrorist organisation, to release the hostages that they have, to stop firing rockets into Israel in a completely indiscriminate way, which I think the whole House should condemn, and to allow this thing to be brought to a close. As I have said repeatedly, it is important that Israel should adhere to international humanitarian law. I will be making that point publicly and have made that point all along to my Israeli counterpart, Minister Gallant. I wonder why, however, the concern is not about the hostages who are being held and how this situation could be brought to a conclusion much faster if they were released.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I am pleased to hear that contingency planning is taking place. Would the Secretary of State consider tasking the aircraft carrier to the region as well? Behind Hamas sits Iran, behind Iran sits Russia, and behind Russia sits China. We are seeing new alliances forming, and the world’s ability to deal with these challenges is being severely tested, as are our own armed forces, who are now increasingly overstretched. What conversations is he having now with the Chancellor about increasing the defence spend in the Budget in the spring?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I will go for the last of my right hon. Friend’s many good questions. This Government are committed to 2.5%, as conditions allow. I know that he will be making his own representations to the Chancellor. I have previously talked about my own belief that we need to reach not just that 2.5% but 3% and higher.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

It was reassuring last week, in answer to my question, to hear the Minister for Armed Forces, James Heappey telling us that UK surveillance flights would not involve the use of intelligence for target acquisition. I also welcome the Secretary of State talking today about how information that would be helpful to hostage recovery will be passed to the so-called appropriate authorities. We have now heard two questions about the International Criminal Court. Will the UK pass any evidence that it gathers of any breaches of international humanitarian law by combatants in Gaza to the ICC?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

As the hon. Gentleman says, that question has been asked, and I have answered it a couple of times. The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—ISR—flights are to look for British hostages and indeed other hostages. That is the information that will be gathered from those flights. Of course, if we saw anything else, we would most certainly alert our partners, but the purpose is to find our hostages and bring them home.

Photo of Ranil Jayawardena Ranil Jayawardena Conservative, North East Hampshire

We all ultimately want peace in the region, and we all want to see humanitarian aid getting through. I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about HMS Diamond joining HMS Lancaster, because does that not send a signal to Iran that its support for terror groups is not acceptable and must not continue, and that through this action we will prevent further bloodshed in the region?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we send that deterrent message, and it is working. I have called on all parties not to think that this is an opportunity to get involved and cause further regional escalation, and so far, I am pleased to say that our deterrent has helped to keep a lid on that.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (Investment and Small Business)

This conflict has already cost over 15,000 Palestinian civilian lives and over 1,200 Israeli lives. The US Defence Secretary has said:

“You replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat…I have repeatedly made clear to Israel’s leaders that protecting civilians in Gaza is both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative.”

We know that regional escalation is a real threat. What will the Secretary of State be doing to work with Arab states and the US to apply pressure on the warring parties to bring an end to this war so that we do not see other countries, including our own and the US, becoming engulfed in a wider regional conflict?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I was actually with Lloyd Austin, the US Defence Secretary, when he spoke those words, I believe, and we agree entirely. To make it absolutely clear, Israel needs to comply with international humanitarian law. It needs to go out of its way to warn people when it goes after the terrorists, who use those people as human shields as a matter of routine. The hon. Lady rightly asks what we are doing with our Arab partners in the region. This will be my second visit to the region and I speak to my Arab counterparts all the time. They have welcomed our deterrents, but they also want us to work with the international community on making sure that, on the following day, when this is complete, the solution is not left to chance as it was before and that we are all working together to bring about a safer, more peaceful middle east for Israel and for Gaza.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I welcome the deployment of HMS Diamond and HMS Lancaster and the potential deployment of two further ships, but what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with our NATO and EU partners about perhaps sharing the burden? What progress has he made on that? Shadow R1 is a slow-moving specialist manned aircraft, but it is unarmed in a region that has Iranian proxies with quite good capabilities, as well as Syria and Russian activity. How confident is he that the advice he has received has not put those servicemen in extreme harm’s way?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

To clarify the record on the two ships that my right hon. Friend mentions, HMS Lancaster was already there and HMS Diamond is there now, and there are two Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which I sent right at the beginning of this conflict. In answer to his broader question, for security, making sure that our personnel are kept safe is always at the heart of what we do. I appreciate his concern, and I know that he will understand that I cannot go into the detail of how we ensure that protection, but it is very much upmost in our minds wherever and whenever we deploy.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Yesterday I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Leo Docherty, whether the UK Government were in a position to contribute to the International Criminal Court’s call for evidence in its investigation of potential breaches of international humanitarian law. He said:

“Not at this stage, but we will continue to take note.”—[Official Report, 4 December 2023;
Vol. 742, c. 34.]

Surely, if the UK Government are actively collecting drone and surveillance images of the war zone, the answer to that question should have been yes?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I would have thought that the No. 1 concern would be to locate the British hostages, and that is where the surveillance work will focus. The FCDO will be best placed to answer the hon. Gentleman’s specific question.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

I am grateful to the Defence Secretary for confirming that the MOD is currently rightly focused on regional security and containment but, inasmuch as the UK has a responsibility to Israel, we also have a responsibility to the people of Gaza. Can he therefore reassure me that His Majesty’s forces will not become involved in any military action unless it is in direct support of British interests or British nationals?

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Sir Julian Lewis mentioned future arrangements. Can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that there will be no deployment of British troops on the ground in Gaza, Israel or the west bank without the approval of this House?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

There simply is not going to be a deployment, so that will not be required.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North

The Houthis, who are attacking British and American cargo ships, and Hamas are basically two sides of the same coin. They are Iranian-funded, Iranian-trained and, of course, Iranian-guided terrorist groups that are publicly committed to the destruction of Israel. Does the Defence Secretary agree that using UK military assets in support of our ally is crucial to deterring further escalation? None of us wants further escalation.

I particularly welcome the UK’s deployment of drones to help locate hostages, including British hostages. In the days after 7 October, the Defence Secretary said:

“No nation should stand alone in the face of such evil”.

Will he repeat that crucial support today and in the difficult days ahead? I thank him for his support.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I clarify again that these are not necessarily only drones. Some will be piloted or will be unarmed. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that no nation should stand alone. It is easy to forget how this all began, when the Hamas terrorist group thought it was a plan to go into Israel to butcher men, women and children, cut off heads and rape people.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

One of the keys to securing and sustaining any ceasefire, pending a wider political solution, may be a UN, or UN-authorised, peacekeeping or monitoring presence on the ground. For various reasons, historical and otherwise, such a presence may have to be led by the Arab states. Does the Secretary of State foresee any situation in which the MOD could provide back-up support to such a presence? Is any planning being done for such a scenario?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

As the hon. Gentleman can imagine—and this was included in my conversations in the States last week—there is a huge amount of international work about what happens afterwards and how it will be structured. It is rather too soon, I am afraid, to predict exactly how it will look, but I do not think he is too far off the mark to think that this needs to be a truly global response. It will need to involve Arab partners. We will do whatever we can to support that, but I see no circumstances in which British troops would be on the ground.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

Can my right hon. Friend elaborate on the efforts the Government are making to de-escalate the conflict, in the hope that this would reduce civilian casualties?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Of course, the single biggest thing that could happen to escalate this conflict would be for it to turn into a regional conflict. I am thinking, in particular, of Hezbollah on the northern border with Lebanon, as well as what could happen from Syria, from Iranian-backed terrorists in Iraq and, of course, from the Houthis. This could get worse in a variety of places, which is why sending ships and military for deterrent purposes has been so vital and has been our primary approach to preventing this conflict from turning into a bigger regional conflict.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Can the Secretary of State tell us what role the RAF base in Cyprus is currently playing in this situation? Is any military matériel being moved through that base?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady will know that the RAF bases in Cyprus are a very useful asset. They are being used, for example, to provide support to our military in the area. To answer her specific question, I can assure her that we have provided no offensive military weapons to Israel during this conflict. In fact, our military exports to Israel are quite low. Last year’s figure was something like £48 million, which is not a very significant amount of money. During the conflict, we would provide only defensive matériel, or matériel that might help with the recovery of hostages.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

I applaud the decisive actions of my right hon. Friend and the Government to defend our strategic ally, Israel, against Hamas, but the grim reality on the ground right now is that Hamas continue to fire dozens of rockets at Israeli towns and cities. The Iran-backed terror group have fired more than 10,000 rockets since 7 October and show no sign of stopping their violent attacks against Israel. Will my right hon. Friend not only commit to continuing his support for Israel in defending itself against Hamas, but reassure the House that every possible step is being taken to counter Iran’s links across the region, which are causing instability?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point that the conflict would be over immediately if hostages were released and Hamas stopped firing rockets into Israel—there would not be a cause for conflict. Indeed, that is the policy Israel followed for many years, hoping that, even though rocket attacks continued, Hamas would not take advantage of their own population by using them as human shields and building infrastructure under hospitals, schools and homes. Unfortunately, that is not the Hamas way. That is what they have done, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify Iran as being behind this whole evil business.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

The Secretary of State needs to be very clear with the House: 15,000 people have already died in Gaza, and 1,200 have died in Israel. Israel is clearly pushing the entire population southwards, if not out of the Gaza strip altogether. Is Britain involved in the military actions that Israel has taken, either physically or by providing information in support of those military activities? I think the House needs to be told. What is the long-term aim of British military involvement in Gaza?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The simple answer is no, and I hope that clears it up. I am surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman talk just about people being killed. They were murdered. They were slaughtered. It was not just some coincidental thing. I understand and share the concerns about the requirement on Israel, on us and on everyone else to follow international humanitarian law. When Israel drops leaflets, when it drops what it calls a “knock” or a “tap” and does not bomb until afterwards, when it calls people to ask them to move, when it issues maps showing where Hamas have their tunnels and asks people to move away from them, that is a far cry from what Hamas did on 7 October, when they went after men, women and children.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement on increased UK military deployment in the middle east. Thanks to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been privileged to meet some of the highly skilled RAF and Royal Navy personnel who serve our country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to their exemplary professionalism and sense of duty as they undertake this extremely important work in the middle east, not just on behalf of our country and people in the middle east, but on behalf of every civilised democracy in the world?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I absolutely join my hon. Friend. They are the most remarkable people, often operating in very difficult circumstances. I am very much looking forward to meeting some of them in the region this week.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

We have seen increased bombardment in southern Gaza after the pause. We are also seeing increased violence in the west bank, supported by extremist settler Ministers. What talks is the Secretary of State having with Israel to stop the increase in settler violence in the west bank?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I certainly will not be pulling my punches when I speak to my Israeli counterparts. The violence in the west bank is unacceptable and it must be controlled—stopped, in fact. None of that, in any way, shape or form, separates us from our utter condemnation of how this whole thing was started in the first place with Hamas, but the hon. Lady is right about that settler violence.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Scottish National Party, Kilmarnock and Loudoun

Medical Aid for Palestinians has warned that Israel’s indiscriminate bombing and siege is making it impossible to sustain human life in Gaza. With 1.8 million civilians displaced and a lack of clean water and sanitation, it is just a matter of time before a cholera outbreak kills many thousands more. The Secretary of State has been unequivocal that the main purpose of surveillance is to help find hostages, which is fine, but for the fifth time of asking: if clear evidence is found of breaches of humanitarian law, will the UK Government share that evidence with the International Criminal Court?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The simple answer is that we will always follow international humanitarian law and its requirements. I want to say, with reference to the aid picture on the ground, that one of the primary reasons for my visit this coming week is to work on ensuring that the international community can get more aid into Gaza, and the United Kingdom will be leading on that point.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I very much thank the Secretary of State and the Government for the stance they have taken. It is one that I and my constituents very much support, as we do finding a solution. May I also thank the Government for working tirelessly with partners abroad to bring home British nationals trapped in Gaza? Will the Secretary of State perhaps provide assurances that surveillance flights will continue to fly over the eastern Mediterranean as long as there are still risks to British nationals remaining in Gaza?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I can certainly provide an assurance that we will always do whatever we are able to do in the circumstances. During the recent pause, for example, part of the deal was that surveillance flights were not flown, but we would always ensure that we are trying to assist. In particular, given that this entire episode began with something of a surveillance failure, the UK has always been keen to help; from the very early days of this conflict we have provided additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over the eastern Mediterranean. What is new now is for that to be over Gaza, relating to the hostages specifically.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

It is absolutely right that innocent hostages should be released, and that steps should be taken to release them. It is absolutely right that those responsible for the crimes of Hamas are held to account in international law. But why is the Secretary of State so reluctant to give a clear, simple “yes” to the question whether the Government will provide any evidence of war crimes to the International Criminal Court? Is it because he has already seen such evidence? Is it because Israel has asked him to promise not to share such evidence? What is the reason?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I have already said that the United Kingdom is bound by, and would always observe, international humanitarian law.